More than 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, but the damage extended far beyond the physical casualties of that horrific day. The shock of the cold-blooded brutality and the devastation that resulted led to a grim realization that everyone was vulnerable to violence and tragedy.
Although other catastrophes and violent episodes have had a more direct connection to schools and universities—the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech; the flooding that destroyed Gulf Coast classrooms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the tornado that decimated several schools last month in Joplin, Mo.—the enormity of seeing those planes bring down the World Trade Center towers and damage the Pentagon on a Tuesday morning nearly 10 years ago crystallized for most Americans how vital security is and how costly it can be when security measures fall short.
Among the people who have absorbed those lessons and have focused greater attention in the last 10 years on bolstering security are the administrators from every school district and higher-education institution who are responsible for providing safe learning environments for tens of millions of students and staff members.
"It put the issue of safety and security on the front burner," says Fred Ellis, director of the office of safety and security in Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools.
The Sept. 11 attacks shook many out of their complacency and ratcheted up the public’s awareness of the need for school security, but it did not bring about drastic changes in the security steps that students and workers see on school and university campuses.
"It was not a specific catalyst," says Ellis, "but it has been part of a continuation of evolving emphasis on school security."
Improvements in school security and emergency preparedness have been gradual over the last decade and become a normal part of school operations.
"The things that are noticeable to students have occurred over time," says Ellis. "Now, we have lockdown drills, but students already were used to fire drills. We have video intercoms for entering schools, and students going from portables to the main school building have to be buzzed in, but those have become a regular part of the schools that students have become accustomed to."
One simple improvement on Fairfax County’s campuses may not stand out to an occasional visitor, but could become critical if a crisis occurs. At all of its nearly 200 schools, the district has posted signs that identify each exit door with a number in a systematic way.
"For an emergency responder, if you’re not familiar with a campus, you might not know where to go if you’re told to respond to the gym or the cafeteria," says Ellis. "But when you say, ‘Come to Door No. 5,’ you know where you should go."
The signage also has made student transportation and parent pickup of their children run more smoothly, Ellis adds.