Terrorism and Education

Terrorism has changed our lives. The attacks of 9/11 still have an impact on our economy and our way of life. I know of people who still will not fly, others who no longer travel to foreign countries and still more who avoid public events because they fear being victimized by terrorists. While most of us have not dramatically altered our lifestyle, the compound effect of terrorism on our society can be seen not only in increased security at airports and many public places, but on our economy as well. School systems, law enforcement agencies and numerous private sector entities have lain off employees in recent times. Many families feel the impact of terrorism more directly while worrying about sons, daughters, husbands, wives and other loved ones who are serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and other far-away places. Many higher education officials are concerned about the potential impact of terror events on their institutions. And as we have seen, there are those in the media who stir emotions with reckless predictions about acts of terrorism on our campuses.

How much should we worry about incidents of campus terrorism, and what should our priorities be? In researching our book Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School, pertaining to incidents of terrorism impacting K-12 schools, my son and I ran across a number of terrorism incidents involving universities or targeting their students off campus. Like incidents of K-12 terrorism, we found incidents of terrorism targeting institutions of higher learning to be relatively rare events. While terrorists have occasionally selected them, institutions of higher learning have not been among the more commonly selected targets worldwide. And like K-12 schools, terrorism events that have occurred demonstrate that no institution of higher learning can afford to dismiss the possibility.

Our recommendations for colleges and universities are similar to those for K-12 schools and places of worship. We suggest that colleges and universities do the things they should already be doing for safety. Most colleges and universities do not have adequate safety plans when compared to best practices. While serving as the School Safety Specialist for the state of Georgia, I had primary responsibility for safety plan evaluation for Georgia’s colleges and universities. Georgia does not require institutions of higher learning to have their plans evaluated and approved as they do for public K-12 schools. The board that regulates the state’s technical colleges mandated that every technical college submit its plans and obtain approval, but other colleges and universities were only encouraged to do so on a voluntary basis. As a result, most of the state technical colleges now have approved plans, but not one college or university in the state had an approved plan at the time I left office. As the state of Georgia has the nation’s largest state government school safety center offering a wide array of free services to the state’s institutions of higher learning, it is easier for them to develop proper plans than most, if not all, other parts of the country. As a proper four-phase all-hazards plan will address issues ranging from petty theft to catastrophic events such as terrorism, the development of this caliber of plan should be a priority for every institution of higher learning. As we have repeatedly seen, accidents, fires and natural disasters happen at the best of schools and the smallest of institutions, and can occur in any region of the country.

Take Care of the Basics First

The following key points will help campus officials properly address terrorism while covering more traditional and common safety issues.

    Safety plans should be based on a formal needs assessment. The needs assessment should include safety surveys of students, staff and faculty members; annual tactical site surveys of every facility; and a review of the community hazard and vulnerability assessment available from the local emergency management agency.

    The safety plan should address all four phases of emergency management. The plan should include distinct and separate plan sections addressing prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

    The safety plan should be an all-hazards plan. The plan should address all types of hazards of concern to the region, including fire, accidents, crime, natural disasters, public health crises and acts of terrorism.

    The plan should be developed locally. Experience has shown that copying another institution’s plan, buying a plan or having consultants write the plan is not effective. While such plans may look good, an expert can quickly explain how ineffective they will be in an actual crisis. An actual crisis will demonstrate the plan’s shortcomings even more rapidly and dramatically.

Making sure the basics are covered is a solid first step to addressing campus terrorism concerns. Doing so in a methodical manner will not only reduce risks associated with terrorism, it will yield real results by reducing more common everyday risks. Focus on the“what is” and you will also address the“what ifs” of campus safety.

Michael Dorn is an internationally recognized campus safety expert who has authored and co-authored numerous books on the topic. He is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.