In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., many anxious educators worried whether schools and universities might become targets of similar strikes.

The ugly reality of terrorism suddenly moved to the top of the list of potential calamities that threaten the well being of students and staff. The so-called “new normal” of life after Sept. 11 compels schools and universities to re-evaluate their emergency-preparedness plans. But officials have to make sure that their concern about terrorism does not overshadow the need to have plans in place for other disasters and emergencies.

Gregory Thomas, director of the program for school preparedness and planning in the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York City, says that in evaluating potential dangers and developing emergency-preparedness plans to address those risks, schools should focus not so much on combating terrorism, but on the specific conditions and situations that exist on their campuses and in their facilities.

“Terrorism is the motive, it's not the act,” says Thomas, who was in charge of security for New York City schools from 1997 to 2003. “You have to prepare for the act. We try to impress upon schools that preparedness involves more than just one particular issue.”

Comprehensive plan

As the person in charge of security for the schools near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Thomas is uniquely aware of the threat terrorism poses to schools. He believes that focusing on the label “terrorism” may distract school officials from preparing effectively for potential dangers.

“You don't have to be saying ‘terrorism’ all the time,” he says. “There is less angst if you aren't talking about terrorism.”

In Akron, Ohio, the district will use a $497,850 grant to broaden the scope of its preparedness plan.

“We are rewriting the plan to make it more comprehensive,” says Robert Boxler, program supervisor of energy, environmental health and safety in the Akron district. “We didn't have specific information related to terrorism, bio-threats or chemical spills.”

Whether an emergency is caused by international terrorists or local vandals, student misconduct or natural disaster, schools must be prepared to respond properly. That means having plans that address the specific conditions and characteristics of a school. A high school in lower Manhattan will be subject to threats different from a school in rural Wisconsin.

“You have to tell me what you need to prepare for, based on where you are,” says Thomas.

That rural community in Wisconsin may not have any structures taller than a grain silo, but it has potential dangers that schools should address in the preparedness plans. Thomas visited such a community.

“I told them, ‘you have your own World Trade Center — those railroad tracks I crossed on the way here,’” says Thomas.

For that community, a derailment or chemical leak from a train could be just as catastrophic and traumatic to students as the World Trade Center collapse was to students in New York City.

Because each school and university has unique characteristics, Thomas warns school officials to steer clear of generic preparedness plans — “We call those canned products,” he says — that many so-called security experts have tried to peddle to school districts since the Columbine shootings and the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I've heard from a million consultants with pre-written plans,” says Boxler. “But a plan needs to be developed so that it matches what other agencies are doing. You don't want your plan to have students evacuating out the south side of the building if the hazmat team's plan wants us to go out the north side.”

Four steps

As schools and universities re-evaluate their emergency-preparedness plans to make sure risks related to terrorist acts are considered and addressed, they should keep the plan focused on four key phases:

  • Mitigation and prevention

    Reducing and eliminating risks. The goal, according to the U.S. Education Department, is to decrease the need for response as opposed to simply increasing response capacity.

  • Preparedness

    Thorough planning will make a rapid, coordinated, effective response more likely when a crisis occurs. This includes drills for fires, tornadoes, bomb threats or other events.

  • Response

    This is when a school should follow the crisis plan it has developed and trained for.

  • Recovery

    The steps taken to return to learning and restore the infrastructure as quickly as possible.

“Recovery is an area that we need to get better at,” says Thomas. “The problem is that it's hard to know when recovery ends. Some students are more resilient than others.”

Know the drill

What happens once a school has developed an emergency plan? Unless it is reviewed and tested, it might be outdated and ineffective when it is needed, or the people needed to put it into action might not be familiar enough with it to carry out the steps required.

“The expression we use is, ‘It's not the plan, it's the planning,’” says Thomas. “You have to make sure you plan and practice for risks. Unless you use the plan in training and drills, it won't work. Drilling creates a mindset for preparedness.”

The $231,592 grant the Wichita, Kan., district received to bolster its emergency-preparedness plan calls for “intense training” of school personnel, says Debbie McKenna, the district's supervisor of safe and drug-free schools. It also established “first-responding mentors” that will be assigned to each school in the district.

“That will give us a name and a face when a question comes up or an incident occurs,” says McKenna.

Working together

As the potential threats to schools and communities become more complex, it becomes more important for schools to coordinate their emergency-preparedness plans with other agencies and governmental entities.

“This grant focuses on putting all the pieces together on a countywide basis,” says McKenna.

In Akron, Boxler says the district's grant will enable school emergency plans to be compatible with plans developed by area fire and police departments, SWAT teams and other emergency responders.

“Everybody's always been open to keeping each other informed,” says Boxler. “It's a matter of getting the time and money.”

Another critical element in an effective preparedness plan is making parents aware of the plans at their children's schools. The requirements for the federal grants awarded to schools to upgrade their plans (see sidebar, p. SS5) emphasize the importance of informing parents about crisis plans.

Thomas says that when parents are not informed about a school's emergency-preparedness plans, they will not feel confident that their children are safe in the event of a crisis. Uninformed parents might be inclined to rush to a school site to check on the well being of their children, even though an emergency plan might caution that doing so could be counterproductive.

A study by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in 2004 indicated that 48 percent of parents were unaware of emergency-preparedness plans at their children's schools.

Parents are more likely to follow the community's emergency plan “if parents know ahead of time that there is a plan and their kids are safe,” says Thomas.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at mkennedy@primediabusiness.com.

Grants available

To help school districts make sure their crisis-management plans are up-to-date and effective, the U.S. Department of Education has created the Emergency Response and Crisis Management Discretionary Grant Program. The funds are meant to help local school agencies train school personnel, students and parents in emergency-response procedures, and coordinate their efforts with local government, law enforcement, public safety, health and mental-health agencies.

For example, Richland County (S.C.) School District One in Columbia received a $248,832 grant in 2004. The district says it is using the money to complete the district's emergency-preparedness manual; print manuals for all district facilities; provide digitized blueprints for 30 school facilities; and develop software to track students by way of personal digital assistants in an emergency. The district also will create a public-awareness campaign; and provide training of first responders, as well as school personnel, students and parents.

The government awarded $38 million to 134 school systems in fiscal 2003 and $28.6 million to 103 systems in fiscal 2004. The grants typically range from $50,000 to $500,000, depending on the size of the school system. Officials expect to award about another 100 grants in fiscal 2005.

District report cards

The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado jolted many school officials to re-evaluate their school crisis plans. Likewise, the Sept. 11 attacks sent educators back to their emergency plans to make sure they address potential dangers that had seemed remote a day before.

So how well have school systems responded in the three-plus years since the attacks?

The America Prepared Campaign, a non-profit group formed to help people be better prepared for terrorist attacks and other emergencies, released a report last year that examined crisis plans in 20 of the largest U.S. districts and evaluated how well they are prepared to protect students in the event of an attack or other emergency. School systems were rated “best,” “good,” “needs improvement” or “failing.”

“We found a wide range of performance,” the report says. “But generally we found that these large school systems need to do more, often much more.”

Three districts — Fairfax County, Va.; Montgomery County, Md.; and Palm Beach County, Fla. — were rated “best.” Two districts — Chicago and Detroit — were rated as “failing.”

“To be in the ‘best’ category, a school district had to have a comprehensive and sensible emergency plan that deals directly with terrorist threats, as well as have the necessary supplies on hand to respond,” the report says. “It had to have a record of regular drills of that plan and of communicating with parents effectively and regularly.”

Districts rated as “failing” performed unsatisfactorily in planning, drilling and communicating.

Other districts' ratings:

  • Good: Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Houston; Los Angeles; Memphis; Miami-Dade County; Prince George's County, Md.

  • Needs improvement: Broward County, Fla.; Clark County, Nev.; Dallas; Duval County, Fla.; New York City; Philadelphia; San Diego.

  • Unable to be categorized: Orange County, Fla.

The entire report is online at www.americaprepared.org/pdf/09-04_SchoolsAssessment.pdf.