Preparing Schools for Terrorism

The recent passage of federal antiterrorism and homeland security legislation has solidified a national focus on protecting America’s infrastructure elements such as transportation systems, utilities and government facilities. But a number of school safety experts and educators are also looking at ways to better protect from terrorist attacks what they call our most valuable resources - our students, teachers and schools.

The Terrorist Threat

‘The 9/11 tragedy changed the way educators address school safety. We have planned for terrible events like school shootings, but we must now plan for attacks that can take place from terrorists from outside of our cities and even our great nation,’ says Danny Tanoos, superintendent of the Vigo County School Corporation in Terre Haut, Ind., and a member of the Indiana State Board of Education.

Sean Burke, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), stresses that the terrorist threat to schools should not be taken lightly. ‘I think that terrorism poses a greater threat to our schools than Americans realize. Nothing would strike terror in the hearts of Americans more than an attack specifically designed to harm our children,’ Burke says.

Burke’s concerns were echoed by his colleagues nationwide in a July, 2002, survey of school resource officers. A total of 658 school-based officers were surveyed, and an overwhelming majority (95 percent) felt that their schools are vulnerable to a terrorist attack. A substantial percentage of officers (79 percent) felt that schools within their districts are not adequately prepared for such an attack.

No Legislation or Funding

‘Unfortunately, schools are just starting to be a blip on the terrorism radar screen when, in reality, schools and our children should be an absolute first priority when it comes to homeland security issues,’ says Curt Lavarello, executive director of NASRO’s 10,000-plus member organization.

Roddie Miller, project administrator for Safe Schools and Climate for the Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, says that guidance, direction and funding have not yet been legislated for schools.

‘Sustainability of safe school strategies is increasingly an issue as school budgets are stretched year after year,’ Miller stresses. Omaha Public Schools is currently working with city officials to maintain their school resource officer program after the city announced plans to pull officers from the school program at the end of the current school year due to a budget crunch.

Forrest Branscomb, risk manager for the School Board of Manatee County in Florida and past-president of the Florida Educational Risk Management Association (FERMA), recognizes that funding being directed to emergency responders is appropriate. ‘I just hope that schools will be considered before an event happens,’ Branscomb says.

Schools Start Preparing

A growing number of schools have moved ahead with homeland security planning despite the absence of federal and state funding.

Manatee County’s district meets regularly with local emergency management professionals to plan for terrorist attacks, according to Branscomb. His district is coordinating with law enforcement officials in developing a community watch program where drivers of school buses and maintenance vehicles are trained to identify and report suspicious behavior. Manatee County schools is also tightening visitor procedures, increasing restrictions on school cafeteria kitchen use by outside organizations, locking mechanical rooms and implementing new mail handling procedures.

Florida may lead the nation in state’s inclusion of schools in homeland security planning. Seven ‘Regional Domestic Security Task Forces’ were created to accomplish the objectives of the state’s ‘Domestic Security Strategic Plan.’ The education community is represented on each of the task forces, and soon every region will have an education subcommittee to focus on the specific needs of their schools, colleges and universities, according to Julie Collins, operations and management consultant manager in the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools.

‘As the emergency response community updates its plans, enhances its training and modifies its exercises to address the new challenges presented by terrorist threats, schools must be included in these activities and enhance their efforts with the input of local emergency responders,’ stresses Collins.

Last fall, school safety directors from each region developed recommendations for preparing schools for terrorist threats. Their recommendations included policy and legislative changes to enhance security, special considerations for rural schools not sufficiently covered by emergency responders and flexibility in the state’s public meetings law to allow school boards to meet in executive session on security issues.

Florida law requires every school district to have an emergency plan and conduct self assessments using state recommended best practices.

Rick Harris, senior director of Safety, Security and Environmental Services for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., says his department has reviewed safe school plans for sites located in or near high-profile community target areas designated by county emergency operations staff. Roles of district response team members, as well as communications capabilities, are being reviewed. Harris’ office is also working with their regional task force to develop a terrorism education component for school staff.

Chuck Hibbert, coordinator of security for Wayne Township schools in Indianapolis, encourages schools to take the lead in seeking support from outside agencies. ‘If schools are not aggressively seeking out their emergency management officials and asking to be involved, the planning may occur without their input,’ cautions Hibbert.

John Weicker, security director for Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana, says that the four major public school corporations in his county, along with the majority of private schools, have implemented a joint computer program which allows emergency responders to immediately access individual up-to-date school floor plans, detailed emergency plans, individual school photo-graphs, emergency contact data and evacuation information. Colleges and universities will also join the system.

In addition to state mandatory emergency response plans, school safety education programs and county school safety commissions, Weicker believes that requirements for lockdown drills and continued planning for new threats, must be a part of the ongoing safe schools process.

Omaha’s Roddie Miller praises her district’s school resource officers (SROs). ‘By conducting tabletop crisis exercises, crisis planning, critical incident response training and threat assessment protocols, our SROs are powerful first responders for protecting our children,’ Miller says.

Curt Lavarello of NASRO agrees. ‘We need to make certain that school administrators are made aware of the potential for terrorism and the areas where schools are vulnerable. SRO programs and school-law enforcement collaboration represent the best way to disseminate information and coordinate planning,’ he says.

U.S. Education Department’s Response

Although not mandated by the recent antiterrorism or homeland security legislation, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the impact of terrorism on schools.

‘While no schools were directly attacked on 9/11, that day and subsequent events have had a significant impact on schools throughout the country. Educators recognize that their processes, procedures, policies and programs for ensuring the safety of students and staff have to be carefully reviewed,’ says Eric Andell, the recently appointed deputy undersecretary for the department’s newly created Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Andell’s office is working with the Office of Homeland Security, as well as with federal entities such as the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, to ensure that schools are adequately addressed in homeland security planning. His office also has a role in ensuring that schools receive ‘accurate and up-to-date information’ on terrorism preparedness issues.

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the department made available $8.9 million from its School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) project to help affected schools restore their learning environments and provide mental health services.

The department held an international forum to discuss how schools could be protected from terrorism.

The department also held teleconferences on mental health responses to crises and on bio-terrorism. Model school crisis response plans are scheduled for release in the spring of 2003, after which the department plans to make funds available to schools for implementing crisis plans. A bomb threat guide is also scheduled for release this spring.

The new openness by Andell’s office to law enforcement and emergency planning has some school safety experts calling Paige and Andell a ‘breath of fresh air.’

But until formal funding is received, Superintendent Tanoos, whose Vigo County school district in Indiana has formed an alliance with many local agencies, feels that school communities must forge ahead with planning: ‘It is incumbent upon all of us, not just school personnel, to protect every child in every school. The 9/11 tragedy has taught us that we have to continue working to protect our future: Our children.’

KENNETH S. TRUMP Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services. He can be reached at or .