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.
Safety and school security already were priorities for education institutions before Sept. 11; administrators had seen enough instances of violence at schools across the nation to know that they needed to have plans in place to respond to emergencies.
Before the attacks, schools and universities may have had such plans, but many of them were inadequate to deal with the range of emergencies that an education institution could face. And many of the school personnel who were responsible for carrying out a crisis plan were not sufficiently trained to do so.
"It might have had a nice cover, but when you opened it up, it was hollow—there was nothing there," says David Burns, emergency preparedness manager at UCLA.
The Sept. 11 attacks were another reminder that violence could occur anywhere, but the degree of the devastation and the pain the attacks caused unnerved the nation in ways that other catastrophes had not. The belief that terrorism occurred only in faraway lands was shattered, and the need to re-examine security efforts to incorporate this new reality became critical.
The most notable change to emerge from the aftermath of Sept. 11 was the creation of a cabinet-level agency to oversee security—the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That has led to greater federal resources for preparing and responding to emergencies. Through the Homeland Security department, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was developed to provide a structured approach for governmental and non-governmental entities to respond to crises.
Federal funds—through the U.S. Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grant program—have been allocated to numerous school systems to help improve emergency plans. Schools that have received such grants must comply with NIMS guidelines. Even for schools that do not have to comply with NIMS, the Department of Education says school officials can benefit by becoming familiar with NIMS and its six major components:
•Command and management. This includes the incident command system, multi-agency coordination systems and public information systems.
•Preparedness. This includes planning, training, exercises, personnel qualifications, equipment acquisition, mutual aid and publications management.
•Resource management. This includes the steps required to describe, request, mobilize, track and recover resources used during an incident response.
•Communications and information management. This includes radios, pagers and protocols used to ensure that key personnel get the information they need.
•Supporting technologies. This includes voice and data communications systems.
•Ongoing management and maintenance. This provides oversight and review of NIMS to improve and refine the system.
One drawback of having to comply with NIMS is that because it is designed to be used by a wide range of organizations, it may not translate easily to people who work in education. The Fairfax County (Va.) school system’s Crisis Management Workbook notes that the terminology and procedures in NIMS are different from those used by school administrators.
"Some of the language and organization structures are completely foreign to the education community," says Ellis.
He would like the guidelines to have more flexibility so that the response plans can be comprehended more easily by people who don’t work every day in law enforcement or emergency planning.
"People on a school campus may get involved in this kind of situation maybe once in their lives," says Ellis.
Get the word out
One of the lessons school security officials have learned from crises over the last decade is that communication is critical. Burns says that education institutions must make sure they have control of what information is disseminated in an emergency, but they must provide information quickly and clearly to the public.
"With social media, instead of hours, information spreads in seconds or even simultaneous to an event," says Burns. "As soon as you have information, you should communicate the facts. The sooner you do it, the better off you’ll be. If you don’t take control of it, it will control you."
As methods of communication have expanded, people have more ways to get information, and when they don’t get it in a timely manner, they will seek it out themselves.
"The public’s expectation is that they will be contacted and told what is going on," says Burns. "People want knowledge, and they want it now. You have to know what to do, what to say, and how to say it. You have to respond quickly."
The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires colleges and universities to have procedures in place to "immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus."
At UCLA, the Bruin Alert system disseminates messages about campus emergencies via numerous avenues: text messages; outdoor sirens and voice warning systems on campus; mass e-mails; radio broadcasts; cable television announcements; the state of California’s Emergency Digital Information Service; and Twitter. Officials emphasize that the alert system is for "imminent, life-threatening emergencies," not routine advisories or minor incidents.
Sidebar: Safe Rides
School safety applies not only to the facilities and grounds where students gather to learn, but also to the vehicles that transport them between their homes and their classrooms.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration has produced a guide to help school systems keep students safe if a security problem occurs.
Drivers and other employees involved with school transportation should be vigilant about suspicious activities, such as people being in areas where they don’t belong, or looking lost and wandering on school grounds or near a bus; people who appear to be conducting surveillance by taking photos or videos; people who show unusual interest in students or employees; or people who abandon an item and leave the area.
“When on duty, be on the lookout for unknown people who are pacing, nervous or jumpy; any vehicle stationary for long periods of time; unusual delivery vehicles; and suspicious or unattended packages, devices, baggage and suitcases,” the guide states.
Objects that should be considered suspicious: items that appear to be abandoned or potentially dangerous, such as a canister, tank, metal box or bottle; objects with an attached message; items that appear to be leaking or emitting a vapor or odor; objects that are connected to wires, timers, tanks or bottles; and items that are causing people to cough or become ill.
If a security problem develops that requires evacuation of a school bus, the guide recommends shutting down the vehicle in a safe location and getting passengers at least 300 feet upwind and upgrade of the bus; cell phones should not be used within 50 feet of the bus or a suspicious device, if one is present.
“Maintain clear communications with your passengers, continuously updating them about the situation, being mindful of their ages,” the guide says. “Provide your passengers with any assistance, where appropriate.”
The guide is online at www.tsa.gov/assets/pdf/schoolbus_4_23_09.pdf
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].