Homeland Security:The Role of Schools in a Post 9/11 Environment
The combination of the 9/11 tragedies and the imminent threat of war in the Middle East generates a new wave of concerns among school officials, students and parents. The specter of these threats comes on the heels of a series of serious school shootings that occurred in the late 1990s. During the past decade, more than 300 school-associated violent deaths occurred on or near school campuses in America.
School safety is a major issue in communities across the country, particularly now in those areas that are near strategically rich terrorist targets. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the question facing schools and communities alike is: How far must schools go to create a safe and welcoming environment without turning our nation's schools into armed camps?
Since 9/11, many schools have developed much closer partnerships with local law enforcement officials and with mental health professionals. This is particularly true as these school safety partners work with school officials to evaluate the risk of rumors and threats that may emerge on the school campus and as they deal with the aftermath of violence, terrorism and national tragedies such as Columbia Space Shuttle's fatal disaster. Unfortunately, as a nation, we have become all too well experienced in dealing with grief in recent months.
A massive incident such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 reminds school officials that our systems and facilities are vulnerable and that it is extremely important to have plans and procedures (and contingency plans and procedures) in place in the event of a major attack on domestic soil. For the most part, schools were not designed to be defended. They were designed as open places of learning and respect where teachers can teach and students can learn.
The importance of contingency planning cannot be overstated. In New York City, for instance, nine schools are within the immediate proximity of the fallen Twin Towers. On 9/11, many elementary schoolchildren were lining up outside their classrooms, prepared to enter when the first plane struck the North Tower, and students at Stuyvesant High School had a clear view of the Tower disasters. Evacuation plans played a key role when the tragedy struck. School officials in the area quickly learned that having more than one plan for evacuation is critical in the event of a crisis. For several of these schools, the planned evacuation location was one of the other schools in the vicinity of what became known as "ground zero."
Many of the strategies that would be used in a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tornado, have significant application for managing the effects of a terrorist attack involving explosions or chemical, biological, or radiological warfare. While dealing with a human-caused terrorist attack is more unsettling for many than dealing with a natural disaster, the key for both is to be prepared.
Is your school prepared?
In the event of a major terrorist attack any given area, school officials and staffs could be called upon to assume more responsibility than they ever imagined. Depending on the severity of the attack, communications systems could be disabled. Accurate information or direction from authorities could be delayed. Emergency response services could be critically over-burdened and not readily available. Working without assistance, schools could be called upon to provide shelter, food, medical attention and guidance to students for extended periods of time beyond typical school hours. The physical and emotional endurance of staff members would be sorely tested as they assume parenting roles providing physical, emotional and spiritual support to their charges.
While dwelling on the unlikely and unspeakable may unnecessarily frighten and alarm the school community, the question still lingers: What kinds of preparations should schools make? This article is designed to offer some guidance and preparation in that regard. Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate and predict the kinds of disasters that might come along, it is reasonable to plan for a variety of actions that can help school officials and teachers prepare, manage, and respond to a major crisis at school.
Some of the lessons learned from prior incidents of school violence can provide insight to preventing or managing such incidents from happening in the future. For example, some reasonable limitations and restrictions should be placed on what the community expects of its school officials. It is one thing to ask school administrators to address violence and disruption on a school campus. It is quite another for them to be held responsible for the actions of a mentally deranged person in the community or for foreign terrorist threats and attacks that are brought upon this nation. It is also important to recognize that there will never be any guarantees that a school will be completely safe from crime, violence or disaster. Schools are still among the safest places for our young people to be. Students are 99 times more likely to be victimized in the community - on the streets, at the mall, at movie theaters, in fast food restaurants and other public places - rather than at school.
A school safety focus
While there is no guarantee that a school will ever be completely safe, school safety should always be a top agenda item. Creating safe schools is a continuing process that focuses on the development and implementation of strategies to support the safety and security of children at school and in the community. When school leaders make a conscious decision that safe and welcoming schools are a high priority, that commitment provides the basis for the development of plans and strategies to achieve this goal.
District-wide safe schools plan, one component of which is a crisis response plan, should be established, complemented by safety plans for each school site. These over-arching plans and programs should be developed collaboratively with parents, students, educators, law enforcers, the courts, probation and social service personnel, and religious, corporate and other community leaders, representing the racial and ethnic balance of the community. Strategies should be established that focus not merely on security and supervision options, but also on educational options, including community and corporate partnerships. Plans should be reviewed, updated and broadly disseminated annually to students, parents and staff.
The general measures that follow are divided into two classifications: (1) establishing and maintaining a safe school and (2) implementing recommendations for maintaining the safety of a school under the threat of war and terrorism. These measures can be tailored for local schools and communities to help develop a safe schools plan and to prepare school officials and community leaders to respond to a crisis of significant magnitude.
Planning for Safe Schools and Crisis Response
School communities that are dedicated to creating and maintaining safe schools may have already taken the following measures. At minimum, schools that are beginning the process of planning for safe schools and crisis response can review and implement the following actions.
1. In the school's mission statement, identify the context for which the school wishes the academic learning to take place, using phrases like "to learn in a safe and secure environment free of violence, drugs and fear." Such phrases enhance the school's legal position to create and enforce policies that promote a safe, caring, and disciplined school climate. A statement of this nature can have a powerful effect upon the validity and credibility of the school's efforts to create and preserve a safe environment.
2. Identify a specific procedure for evaluating and responding to threats. Every campus should have a series of threat assessment protocols so that school officials can effectively work with mental health and law enforcement professionals in handling circumstances that could result in potential violence or harm. Also, make certain students are on your team. For the most part, students are the best information resources for inside threats. Recent studies by the Secret Service revealed that in the vast majority of student shooting, other students on the campus were aware of the even before it occurred. Having a tipline or safe reporting mechanism in place for students is critical.
3. Identify the potential disasters that could occur based on the school's setting and climate. Such disasters may include:
4. Control campus access. Minimize the number of campus entrance and exit points used daily. Access points to school grounds should be limited and supervised on a regular basis by individuals who are familiar with the student body. Campus traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, should flow through areas that can be easily and naturally supervised. Delivery entrances used by vendors also should be checked regularly. Parking lots often have multiple entrances and exits, which contribute to the vandalism and defacement of vehicles and school property. Vehicular and pedestrian access should be carefully controlled. Perimeter fencing should be considered. Bus lots should be secured and monitored. Infrequently used rooms and closets should be locked. Access to utilities, roofs, cleaning closets should be secured.
5. Identify specifically assigned roles and responsibilities. Specific policies and procedures that detail staff members' responsibilities for security should be developed. These responsibilities may include monitoring hallways and restrooms, patrolling parking lots, and providing supervision at before-school and after-school activities. Specific roles and responsibilities should also be assigned for times of crisis, including the appointment of a crisis team.
6. Identify whom to call in a crisis. Maintain an updated list of who to call in case of various kinds of crisis. Develop a close working partnership with these emergency responders. When a crisis occurs, school officials do not have the time or luxury to find out who handles chemical or biological disasters or who handles bomb threats. Know the extent of services offered by these agencies. Find out what to do when an emergency responder is not immediately available. Develop a close working partnership with law enforcement officials. Get to know your school police before there is a crisis. Develop a memorandum of understanding as to the role of a police officer on campus. Determine in advance who will lead, who will follow and how searches, interrogations and other issues will be handled. Create a close working partnership with mental health professionals who can assist school officials in evaluating and assessing potentially dangerous students who may threaten or intimidate others. The counselor or psychologist can also be an important partner in the aftermath of a crisis.
7. Provide training for all members of the school community regarding cultural awareness and sensitivity. It is important to consider the impact of cultural influences on a school community's ability to create and maintain safe, secure, and peaceful schools. Cultural influences will directly affect the information, strategies, and resources that will be used in safe school planning. The sensitivity to cultural influences also apply to creating a plan to manage and respond to a crisis.
8. Establish an Emergency Operation Communication System. In addition to campus intercoms and two-way radios, it is important for school officials to be able to communicate with law enforcement and outside telephone providers. This includes the use of cell phones.
9. Implement a uniform school crime reporting and record-keeping system. When school administrators know what crimes are being committed on their campus, when they are committed and where and who is involved, it speaks volumes about the types of strategies and supervision that should be implemented. In addition, it is important to conduct some level of crime analysis to determine, what if any, linkages exists among various aspects of criminal activity on the campus.
Preparing for National Emergencies
Schools should begin a process of learning and staying informed about potential national security threats, preparing for emergencies, and how to react during an attack. In addition to the following recommendations, visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website at www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/ for more information. (Also, the U.S. Department of Education is expected Spring 2003 to outline steps schools should take in the event of a biochemical attack.)
10. Identify potential and reliable sources of information to be accessed once a crisis situation develops. Prepare a plan that identifies the first and subsequent contacts you will make to access credible information and appropriate direction for action.
11. Perform an assessment of your school's risk during a national crisis. This includes:
12. Be observant of the things transpiring on campus. During periods of high alert, an additional level of vigilance must be in place. Everyone who comes onto the campus must have a legitimate purpose. It is important to have a uniform screening policy for all visitors, including vendors and delivery/service personnel. All visitors should be required to sign in at the school office, state their specific business and wear or visibly display a visitor's badge. All school employees should be advised to greet visitors or any unidentified person and direct them to the main office to ensure that these persons have legitimate business at the school. Teachers and staff should be trained to courteously challenge all visitors. "May I help you?" is a kind, non-threatening way to begin.
Confirm the identity of service personnel and anyone seeking access to operational systems such as heating/air conditioning units, gas or electric utilities, telephone systems, security systems, maintenance areas, and other related locations. Maintain accurate records of service and delivery personnel, including a log of dates and times of service delivery, types of services, full names of service personnel, company represented, and vehicle information.
Develop procedures for identifying and keeping track of volunteer workers on campus. Enforce sign-in/sign-out procedures for volunteers.
During periods of high alert, be on the watch for suspicious people, packages and activities on or near your campus. Notify authorities of these observations. Things to watch for include someone photographing or videotaping on or near your campus, unidentified or unfamiliar vehicles parked on or near campus for extended periods of time, unclaimed packages or backpacks left unattended, or unfamiliar people seeking information that is out of the ordinary.
13. In view of Homeland Security recommendations, it is especially important to pay added attention to the possibility of the following kinds of disasters. Review and revise your crisis plans accordingly.
14. Assemble your crisis teams to re-acquaint members with each other and with crisis plans and procedures. Enlist new team members as needed.
15. Provide training to all school staff members regarding crisis preparation. Detail each person's responsibilities during a crisis. Train them to be observant and watchful of suspicious or out of the ordinary activity; how to identify and what to do with suspicious packages; how to turn off utilities and heating or air systems and who would be responsible for doing so; and basic first aid.
16. Conduct an inventory of campus provisions, including food, water, alternative power sources, materials for sealing doors and windows, and medical and first aid supplies that would be available during an emergency. Consider assembling emergency kits and food and water supplies for every classroom. In some cases, this may be as simple as expanding already existing student disaster preparedness kits. Enlist parent and community groups to help pull together the supplies for these kits.
Maintain an updated record of any hazardous chemicals and cleaning agents that may be stored on campus. Be sure that such materials are securely stored according to local and federal regulations.
17. Review and if needed revise existing plans for evacuation, alternative shelter, temporary lock-down, and shelter-in-place. Be prepared to put any combination of these into effect. It is possible that a situation would call for simultaneous lockdown of one section of the building while evacuating other parts of the school.
18. Keep parents informed of your crisis plans, procedures and protective policies, particularly with regard to reuniting parents and children after a crisis event.
19. As appropriate to your community and degree of risk, conduct emergency drills for evacuation, lock-down or shelter-in-place procedures so that staff and students are familiar with the appropriate response in an actual emergency.
Creating safe schools is a joint responsibility involving students, parents, teachers, school officials, local law enforcement, judges, emergency personnel, social service and a variety of other youth-serving professionals. The bottom line is if we are going to require young people to attend school then it is our responsibility to provide them with a safe, secure and welcoming environment. In this time of heightened potential for terror, including the use of chemical, biological and radiological weapons in our community, it is more important than ever for our schools to be prepared to respond in appropriate ways.
About the National School Safety Center
The National School Safety Center was established by Presidential mandate in 1984 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to address the growing problem of violence in U.S. schools. NSSC's mandate is to focus national attention on cooperative solutions to problems that disrupt the educational process. Special emphasis is placed on efforts to rid schools of crime, violence and drugs, and on programs to improve student discipline, attendance, achievement, and school climate. NSSC provides training, technical assistance, legal and legislative aid, and publications and films. The Center works throughout the United States and internationally to assist local and government officials in developing school crime prevention strategies.
Copyright, 2005, National School Safety Center, www.schoolsafety.us
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