When Terrorism Comes to School: The Sky is Not Falling

The gunman fired relentlessly into the bodies of innocent children and adults on the bus. After the attack, nine children and three adults lay dead, 19 more grievously wounded. The victims’ suffering would be compounded by that of their loved ones, the State of Israel, and the world community as people struggled to understand how anyone could target children in an act of terrorism.

This tragic massacre occurred on May 8, 1970. It was the first of what would become a long — though rare and intermittent — series of incidents where terrorists have directly targeted schools, school buses, and children with violence. In our research for a book on schools and terrorism, my son and I found fewer than 30 incidents of school-related terrorism in 12 countries since this attack occurred 34 years ago. Several other incidents of major attacks on targets near schools have resulted in children and teachers being impacted, as well. While we still trip across references to incidents that do not appear during Internet searches, we have been fairly thorough in our research and have identified far more instances of this type than previous government and media examinations of the topic.

The recent attack in Beslan, Russia, was of a scale we have not seen before in a school attack, but an attack in May 1977 by a group of four South Moluccan terrorists armed with submachine guns and hand grenades at an elementary school in Bovensmilde, Holland, could also have turned into a mass casualty event. Fortunately it was handled exceptionally well by Dutch authorities, who were thoroughly prepared.

The terrorists took 105 students, the school’s principal, and several teachers hostage. At about the same time, another group of nine heavily armed terrorists commandeered a train just outside of town, taking 60 hostages. After two weeks of patient negotiations, the terrorists became extremely difficult to deal with. Police felt it likely that the terrorists were about to execute hostages in both locations. Royal Dutch Marines then carried out a carefully planned and smoothly executed tactical assault at both locations. The children and educators were rescued physically unharmed and the terrorists in the school captured without a shot being fired.

This case demonstrates the need for close collaboration between school and public safety officials before an incident. Though their carefully developed rescue plan was executed almost flawlessly and effectively, the job of the Marines would have been easier had some preplanning tools like a virtual tour of the school, used by many schools today, been available. Miracles like those at the Bovensmilde elementary school do not just happen, they occur because those in a position to do so do not wait for tragedy to strike in order to plan and prepare for unlikely but catastrophic incidents.

Are we facing an epidemic of terrorism in schools, as claimed by some purported“school terrorism experts,” or are we just more aware of a very serious but rare type of crisis that has been affecting schools around the globe for decades?

The four experts we interviewed — who have experience as school safety practitioners and government experience in antiterrorism or in responding to actual terrorism events — expressed concerns over some of the information bandied about in the media and at professional conferences. Like many government officials working in the fields of school safety and antiterrorism, they are very concerned about the alarmist, reckless, and baseless predictions and statements about the threat of school-related terrorism in the United States. To be clear, there is now and probably will always be the possibility of school-related terrorism in the U.S., but some of the statements and predictions that have appeared in the national media not only lack a factual foundation, they help achieve the very goals of terrorists by creating fear that is out of proportion with reality.

During our research we found that children have been killed, seriously injured, and emotionally scarred during these ruthless attacks. While many of the attacks were extremely brutal, we discovered that they are extremely rare. This is especially true when they are compared to other acts of terrorism. At the collective rate of just under one incident per year globally since 1970, the chance of any particular school, school bus, or school-related event being hit by terrorists is remote. Further, that more than one-third of these incidents have taken place in the Middle East and Eastern Europe also helps to put this topic into perspective. Depending on how you define school-related terrorism, there have been only two acts of elementary or secondary students being directly targeted by terrorists on school property in the U.S. in the past 34 years. The first, a hostage situation at an elementary school in Cokeville, Wyo., in the 1980s, involved a husband and wife who espoused militia beliefs. The second, in Maryland in October 2002, involved the shooting of a middle-school student by a sniper who was later convicted on terrorism charges.

Students, parents, and educators should be aware that virtually anyone with the money and the desire to do so can be interviewed by the media as a terrorism or school-safety expert. The media often locates these“experts” through a variety of commercial listing services. Unfortunately, in many cases there is no attempt by the service or the media to verify the credentials, experience, or legitimacy of those who pay for advertisements. Fortunately, some members of the media are more responsible. Recently, while I was being interviewed for Time magazine on this topic, the interviewer indicated that some unscrupulous opportunists were using the media to instill fear of terrorism in schools for personal gain. I have heard similar comments from other reporters covering this sensitive topic.

This is a core issue for schools, government agencies, and the general public. A basic concept of terrorism has historically been that a small group of individuals can terrorize the populace far beyond their ability to inflict harm. Those without an extensive research background, formal training, experience responding to acts of terrorism, or time spent working in an official antiterrorism agency and, further, who do not have access to current intelligence information, have no business making predictions concerning terrorist attacks on schools. In doing so, they become unwitting pawns serving those who desire to create terror.

The devastating nature of terrorism indicates that it would be irresponsible for school and public safety officials not to address concerns relating to it. The best approach is to ensure that best practices, such as those outlined in the publications Practical Information on Crisis Planning — A Guide for Schools and Communities and Jane’s All Hazards Guide for Safe School Planning, are in place. These two publications were designed to help school and public safety officials develop a reliable and comprehensive strategy to address many hazards and risks, terrorism among them.

As indicated by the graphic description of the event in the first paragraph, terrorism is a very serious, real, and difficult issue for schools. By working with area public safety officials to help communicate to the public that much of the alarmist information on the subject of schools and terrorism in the media is without solid foundation, and working with local experts to address terrorism concerns as they would other potentially catastrophic but rare events like an earthquake or radiological accident, educators can do their part to help reduce the impact of terrorism on our nation.

MICHAEL DORN is a senior consultant for Public Safety and Emergency Management for Jane’s offices in nine countries and the author of 20 books on school safety including the soon to be released Slaughter of Innocence-When Terrorism Comes to School, For more information on schools and terrorism, visit www.schoolterrorism.com.