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U.S. News
Schools' crisis plans uneven

Experts stress need to better prepare for terror attacks

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

After the massacre at Columbine High School four years ago, nearly every school in the nation developed "emergency plans," sometimes under pressure from legislatures or parents.

Robert Baur of the Pittsburgh school police dons his new gas mask that would be used in the event of a chemical attack. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

But school officials acknowledge some of those plans are half-finished, half-hearted or half-forgotten under a pile of more pressing daily problems.

It's time to dust off those reports, school safety experts say, and add a four-word phrase that, even post-Columbine, few people thought would ever be necessary:

Weapons of mass destruction.

"Without trying to be an alarmist," said Bill Modzeleski, director of the U.S. Department of Education's safe-schools office, "we now realize that many of the crisis plans developed for school shooters, while still valid, need to be expanded."

"My recommendation is that [schools] have to work on this now," said Maritza Robert, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's crisis response committee. "We don't know if something is going to happen tomorrow."

When the nation went on high alert for 20 days beginning Feb. 7, Robert and other school leaders were contacted by parents across the state who wanted to know if their schools would be the terrorists' next "soft target" -- the kind of vulnerable sites terrorists sometimes strike when they can't get to government leaders or a military base.

There was no clear answer to give.

Modzeleski sighed at the question and quoted another authority as saying, "There are probably 2 million soft targets" in the country.

Despite that uncertainty, some school officials aren't too worried about the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Penn Hills School Superintendent Samuel DePaul, for instance, said he was confident that myriad safety measures added to his district over the years, plus a police response time of three minutes or less to any school, "will make us less of a target."

Others disagree.

"If you want to tug at the heartstrings of America, put our children at risk," said Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. "This is how terrorists would inflict terror. They have schools on their radar screen."

What will happen?

If a terrorist attack occurs -- whether through biological or chemical weapons, close to home or in a large city -- what is likely to happen in the nation's schools?

First of all, it's more likely that students will be locked in their schools rather than removed.

 
 
Graphic
Preparing the classroom


Questions To Ask

How prepared is your school for a terrorist attack? By now, parents should have been contacted about what their schools are doing. If you haven't, or if you still have questions, here are some points to consider:

Is your school working closely with local fire department, police and rescue workers on a school plan, and meeting regularly with them?

What do your children know about the emergency plans? "If the children feel that they know what they're supposed to be doing, they are more comfortable," said Maritza Robert, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's crisis response committee.

Is your child on daily medication? If so, has the school contacted you to make sure it has extra supplies on hand in case children are held at school overnight or longer?

Have any parents been included on the team that developed the emergency plans? Parents and even students should be part of the process, said Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Are there regular drills to practice for all types of emergencies? "We do fire drills and it's not because we're going to have a fire," said Bill Modzeleski, director of the U.S. Department of Education's safe-schools office. "If we don't plan for [terror attacks] the results can be catastrophic."

Does your school emergency plan address food contamination as a form of terrorism? Lavarello believes that's an issue that's been overlooked in many school plans.

Where can you find your school's plan? It should be displayed where parents can review it.

Does your school have an emergency alert radio? There's no reason not to -- a local business is offering a free First Alert emergency alert weather radio to every school district in the region (and 50 to Pittsburgh schools.) Interested school officials may contact Sima Products Corp. of Oakmont at 1-(800)-345-7462, Ext. 1224.

Does your school's emergency plan deal with the fact that there are likely to be substitute teachers, parents, volunteers or others in the building during an emergency? They may be unfamiliar with exits and safety procedures.

How will you be notified if there's an emergency at your child's school? Will students be allowed to use their cell phones?

   
 

"Ninety-nine out of 100 times, you're better off not evacuating," Pittsburgh school safety Chief Robert Fadzen said.

So students may be "locked down" in the school for a period of hours and possibly overnight. That means no one is allowed to leave or enter the building, protecting them from dangers outside.

The Pittsburgh school district knows something about lockdowns. It has had four this school year because of crimes committed in neighborhoods around school buildings. For a terror threat, the district security staff will go to 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.

But if the danger is a chemical attack, schools could go to the "shelter in place" mode.

That means everyone, including students whose classrooms are in trailers, would be brought to a safe place within the school. A few districts, including Bethel Park, have identified a "safe room" in every building that could be used for students and staff escaping such an attack.

The heating or air conditioning in the "shelter in place" would be shut off, and the windows and doors would be blocked with plastic and duct tape.

Depending on the time of year and whether the school has boiler heat or forced-air heat, it could get quite cold or quite hot in the room. But "shelter in place" is only for short-term dangers.

"It's the most expedient protection," said James McLain, security coordinator for the Fairfax, Va., County Schools, just outside Washington.

A longer-term plan would simply be called "shelter." Teachers would make toilets from trash cans and privacy curtains out of coats. Nonperishable food and bottled water would be brought in from the cafeterias.

In any scenario, school officials will communicate with people outside through cell phones, regular phones or walkie-talkies. Battery-operated radios also should be available.

If students are evacuated rather than locked into school buildings, school buses will arrive to take the children home or to another shelter.

For instance, a problem at one of the Beaver County nuclear plants might result in students from nearby South Side Area School District being bused to their emergency shelter -- the middle and high schools at Trinity Area School District.

School officials plan to discourage parents from coming to school to pick up children in such a case, because of traffic tie-ups and hazards.

"We don't have the kind of room," Bethel Park school spokeswoman Vicki Fassinger said. "You have to get the buses into the school parking lot, and parents could block those entrances and keep kids from leaving in a safe and timely manner. We're trying to get every kid home as quickly as possible."

How ready?

Not everyone is convinced that such preparations will make a difference in some situations.

"If there's a cloud of something floating toward the building, I don't know if any plan can handle that," Penn Hills' DePaul said.

A sense of helplessness might be part of the reason so many schools are unprepared for attacks, safety experts say. A survey released last month by the National Association of School Resource Officers, a 10,000-member group based in Florida, revealed that more than half of its members said their school crisis plans weren't adequate.

"I would have thought 9/11 was the wakeup call," said Lavarello, the association's executive director. "On 9/12, we should have been sitting at the table making sure our plans address terrorism."

Lavarello is among those who've been critical of federal and state government assistance to school districts in helping to prepare for biochemical or other terrorist-led destruction.

For instance, the federal safe schools office doesn't plan to offer a model emergency plan to local districts until "some time in the spring," Modzeleski said.

Even though the country was recently on high alert for nearly three weeks? Why?

"That's a fair question," he said. "But this has to be well thought through. ... We want it to be right."

On the national and state level, he said, meetings have been held with local school officials, reports and guidelines have been distributed, and some emergency training has been provided. The state Department of Education has posted terrorism information on the state Web site at www.pde.state.pa.us/crisisresponse.

Regionally, the intermediate units that include Allegheny, Washington, Fayette and Greene counties have held several sessions for school officials who want to learn more about preparing for emergencies.

There's no mandate to attend. Representatives from fewer than half of Allegheny's 43 school districts attended an Allegheny Intermediate Unit session last month on communicating during emergencies.

"School officials need to avail themselves of this information," said Daniel Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department. He said millions of dollars in grants had been given to local schools to help improve school safety.

But most local school officials said this year's grant money was spent long before the recent "orange alert."

Because there are 52 million pupils spread through 15,000 school districts in the United States, preparedness from one district to another is uneven.

At St. Ursula Catholic School in Hampton, for example, pupils recently were asked to each bring an "emergency pack" from home to keep in their lockers -- a bag that might include a change of clothes, bottled water and energy bars.

But that idea came from the school itself, not the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese.

Trinity Area School District in Washington County has stockpiled enough food and water and other supplies for a two-day lockdown. Each building has a crisis response team made up of everyone from janitors to administrators.

Everyone knows what a "Code Blue" is -- they practice it once a year.

"We understand that the worst-case scenario is rather remote," said Mark Harshman, Trinity's safety and security director, "but that's what everyone's focused on."

The Fairfax County plan is being used to help create the model plan being developed by the federal government. But McLain is getting calls from districts around the country asking for tips on creating a school safety plan.

"A lot of schools have fairly comprehensive plans for dealing with chemical spills and lockdowns," McLain said. "What we have which a lot of schools don't have is a plan to deal with chemical or biological attacks."

Their emergency plan is contained in workbooks and templates that the district will share with any school system. "We've done the work for them," McLain said.

While the preparations for possible terrorist attacks may seem frightening and overwhelming, some school officials take it in stride and even find it occasionally intriguing.

"If you don't get all freaky about it, it's kind of an interesting exercise," Harshman said.


Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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