School Preparedness for Terrorism

Threats to America’s children and schools have been attributed to terrorist groups in multiple national news reports since 9/11. Terrorists have a history of attacking schools and school buses in the Middle East, and attacking our nation’s children would unquestionably meet the objectives behind most acts of terrorism.

As many schools across the country continue to struggle with issues related to school safety and crisis planning stemming from high-profile national shootings, educators must now ask themselves: Are we prepared should we be the target of terrorists?

Some Key Insights From School-Based Police

The first professional industry survey of U.S. school-based police officers on terrorism and school safety was administered to attendees at the annual conference of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) in July of 2002 in Palm Springs, Calif. Conference attendees included representatives from 48 states and 416 law enforcement agencies of varying sizes. NASRO contracted with an independent school safety consulting firm to design, administer and report on the survey findings.

A total of 658 school-based officers returned the surveys, and a final report on the project was released on Oct. 7. Key findings from the survey include the following.

    • An overwhelming majority (95 percent) of school-based police officers feel that their schools are vulnerable to a terrorist attack. While 63 percent of the officers characterized their school as“somewhat vulnerable,” 32 percent said that their schools are“very vulnerable.” A substantial percentage of officers (79 percent) do not feel that schools within their districts are adequately prepared to respond to a terrorism attack upon their schools.

    • The majority of school officers report that significant gaps exist in their schools’ security, that their school crisis plans are inadequate and that those plans are either untested or inadequately tested and exercised. For example, 96 percent of the officers reported that access to school grounds is either “very easy” or “somewhat easy,” while 83 percent of the officers also described access to school buildings as “very easy” or “somewhat easy.” The majority of officers (55 percent) further reported that their schools do not have mail handling procedures designed to reduce risks from anthrax scares, suspicious packages and related concerns.

Almost 40 percent of school-based officers indicated that their schools have not had a formal security assessment conducted in the past five years. And, while 55 percent said that their crisis plans are not adequate, 52 percent of the officers also said that their plans have not been tested and exercised. Of those officers reporting that their plans had been tested, 62 percent indicated that the amount and type of testing was not adequate.

    • School-based officers have received limited training and minimal support from outside agencies (local, state and federal) in preparing for a terrorist attack upon their schools. A majority (55 percent) of officers reported that they have not received terrorism-specific training related to their roles in schools, while 82 percent of school-based officers whose districts have in-house school security personnel said that they, too, have not had terrorism training. Meanwhile, 77 percent of the responding officers indicated that their school administrators, teachers and support staff have received no terrorism-specific training.

Additionally, SROs reported decreasing opportunities for their overall training, especially since 9/11, with many limitations attributed to a lack of funding. For example, almost one-third of the school officers reported that their opportunity to attend specialized training has decreased since 9/11. Two-thirds of the school officers said that there have been training opportunities that they have not been able to attend even though they have demonstrated a specific need. And three-quarters of the officers indicated that they have been unable to attend needed training due to a lack of funding.

Debunking Myths

The survey also explored a number of issues that have triggered debates and fostered myths in a number of school communities. For example, parents have lobbied a number of school districts, under the guise of school safety, to eliminate policies prohibiting students from carrying cell phones in schools. While a number of schools have complied with such requests, 81 percent of the officers in the survey indicated that their schools do not allow students to use cell phones in school. The majority (68 percent) indicated that student use of cell phones during a crisis would detract from school safety, while another 10 percent said that cell phones would have no impact on school safety.

The survey also confronted the issue of whether school-based police officers should be armed. The survey found that 95 percent of school officers carry a firearm in their role as school resource officers. Almost all (99 percent) do not believe that an armed officer puts students at greater risk of harm and injury. However, 90 percent of the officers believe that an unarmed officer places students at greater risk of harm and injury.

Implications for School Administrators

"The message should be loud and clear that we are vulnerable and unprepared, so as a nation we must do everything we can to fix that problem now, not after an incident occurs," stresses Sean Burke, NASRO’s president and a school law enforcement officer in Lawrence, Mass.

Our nation’s leaders have emphasized over and over again that awareness and preparedness reduces fear and helps saves lives in an emergency such as a terrorist attack. Many of our schools have learned similar lessons from the tragic school shootings of recent years. Yet, the NASRO survey suggests that significant room exists for improvement.

"The report clearly demonstrates to schools, law enforcement agencies and our government leaders that planning, preparedness and collaboration are absolutely crucial to keeping our schools and children safe," says Sheriff Bill Balkwill of Sarasota County, Fla. Sheriff Balkwill was with President Bush at a Sarasota County elementary school when the terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11.

Many improvements have been made in recent years, but the threats and challenges facing our nation leave no room for complacency. In a nation where our national education policy is to “leave no child behind” in terms of academic performance, we certainly have no margin of error for doing so in homeland security for our schools. School officials must continue to work with their public safety officials to plan, prepare and practice for all threats to the safety of our children and educators.

The full 2002 NASRO School Resource Officer survey may be downloaded from NASRO’s Website at .

Curtis Lavarello is executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, the nation’s largest professional organization representing more than 10,000 school-based police officers. He may be reached by email at .

Kenneth S. Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services , a Cleveland-based national consulting firm, and is author of the 2002 NASRO survey. He may be reached by email at .

Copyright 2002 by Curtis Lavarello and Kenneth S. Trump