On Alert

Feb. 1, 2004
To cope with the world as it exists in 2004, education administrators must be prepared to respond to security crises and threats of terrorism.

One of the first things young students learn is to identify primary colors. As a result of Sept. 11, 2001, educators and administrators that manage the nation's schools and universities have had to learn new and more ominous definitions for some of those colors.

The Homeland Security Advisory System, established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to keep the public aware of the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks, uses the colors red, orange, yellow, blue and green to characterize the likelihood of a terrorist attack.

The increased threat of terrorist attacks has forced schools and universities to devote additional effort to providing security on their campuses and ensuring the safety of their students and staff. Administrators responsible for security need to be aware of the Homeland Security Advisory System — what each level signifies and how schools should react. At the same time, they have to be vigilant about other threats to security, such as natural disasters, incidents instigated by outsiders intruding onto campus, and student-initiated violence.

Available resources

Since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has put together several resources to help administrators and security personnel at the nation's schools and universities ensure that their institutions remain vigilant about the safety of students, staff and facilities, and are prepared for terrorist threats, violence and other catastrophes.

Those include information about assessing bomb threats, developing crisis plans, protecting campuses against weapons of mass destruction, and developing safe campus environments.

The most important action every school and university needs to take is to create and maintain a thorough crisis-management plan that anticipates emergencies and responds to crises.

“If you don't have a school crisis plan in partnership with public-safety agencies, including law enforcement and fire, health, mental health and local emergency preparedness agencies, develop one,” the U.S. Education Department recommends.

Each plan needs to be individualized for specific schools to take into account the differences that exist in every facility and in every community.

“Experts recommend against cutting and pasting plans from other schools and districts,” says the U.S. Department of Education's Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities. “…Crisis plans need to be customized to communities, districts and schools to meet the unique needs of local residents and students. Crisis plans also need to address state and local school safety laws.”

Five levels

The government uses the Homeland Security Advisory System to communicate to the public its assessment of the likelihood of terrorist activity in the nation. Officials recommend that schools incorporate elements of the advisory system into their crisis plans.

The lowest alert level is green, which signifies a low risk of terrorist attacks. The next level, guarded, is represented by the color blue and indicates a general risk of terrorist attacks. The yellow, or elevated, level signifies a significant risk of terrorist attacks. The next level, orange, indicates a high risk of terrorist attacks. The highest level, red, indicates a severe risk of terrorist attacks.

The Department of Education has compiled suggested actions for schools as they respond to the various levels on the advisory system.

“While the risk of a terrorist attack on a school is much lower than the risk of being impacted by many local hazards, it is very important to be prepared,” says the Education Department's crisis-planning guide. “The response will need to involve securing student and staff safety and supporting long-term recovery, just as with any other incident.”

At the green level, schools should assess and update their crisis plans and procedures, communicate any updates in the crisis plan to emergency responders, review the responsibilities of crisis team members, provide staff members with training in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and check identification of all school visitors.

At the blue level, in addition to the previous actions, administrators should inventory, test and repair communications equipment, inventory and restock emergency supplies, and conduct crisis training and drills.

At the yellow level, administrators should inspect facilities and grounds for suspicious activities, work with public safety officials to assess increased risks, and review with the school staff crisis-response plans and capabilities for alternative communications.

When the threat level rises to orange, administrators should assign staff members to monitor entrances at all times; assess security measures in the facility; update parents and the news media on preparedness efforts; address students' fears about possible attacks; and put crisis-response teams on standby alert.

At the red level, administrators should listen to federal government instructions from radio or television broadcasts; activate the school's crisis plan; restrict school access to essential building personnel; cancel outside activities and field trips, and provide mental health services to students and staff who are anxious about the situation.

The American Red Cross has put together a similar guide to help schools respond to specific warning levels (see sidebar at left).

Managing crises in four stages

Whether the potential crises confronting a school are considered potential terrorist acts that involve biological, chemical or radiological weapons, or more “traditional” crises — fires, accidents, shootings — a school's crisis-management plan should provide clear directions for how a school community should respond to potential trouble.

The Department of Education's crisis-planning guide identifies four phases of crisis management:

  • Mitigation and prevention

    “Schools cannot always control fights, bomb threats and school shootings,” the guide says. “However, they can take actions to reduce the likelihood of such events. Schools may institute policies, implement violence-prevention programs and take other steps to improve the culture and climate of campuses.”

  • Preparedness

    “Good planning will facilitate a rapid, coordinated, effective response when a crisis occurs,” the guide states.

  • Response

    “During a crisis, leaders should project a calm, confident and serious attitude to assure people of the seriousness of the situation and the wisdom of the directions being given,” the guide recommends.

  • Recovery

    “The goal…is to return to learning and restore the infrastructure of the school as quickly as possible,” the guide says. “Focus on students and the physical plant, and take as much time as needed for recovery.”

Among the steps that should be included in a crisis plan:

  • Conduct an assessment of each school building and identify factors that create a greater risk, such as proximity to rail tracks that transport hazardous materials or factories that produce highly toxic materials. Develop plans for diminishing the risks, such as evacuation plans.

  • Work with nearby businesses to coordinate their crisis plans with those of the school.

  • Alter traffic patterns so that, where possible, cars, buses and other vehicles are kept away from school buildings.

  • Make sure the school has multiple evacuation routes in case some routes become blocked during a crisis.

  • Have a plan for discharging students. Make sure that every student has a secondary contact person and that the information is readily accessible.

  • Have a plan for relaying information to parents and for dispelling rumors. Cultivate relationships with the news media and select a public-information officer who will communicate with reporters during a crisis.

  • Develop a command structure for responding to crises. The roles and responsibilities of school personnel, law enforcement, fire officials and other emergency responders may vary depending on the type of crisis.

“Crisis management is a continuous process in which all phases of the plan are being reviewed and revised,” the guide states. “Good plans are never finished. They can always be updated based on experience, research and changing vulnerabilities.”

Getting the word out

When an incident occurs at a school, one of the critical responsibilities for administrators is to notify parents and guardians quickly about what is happening and what parents should do in response.

Wakefield School, a private day school outside The Plains, Va., is one of a handful of schools that are testing a system called “Instant Alert.” It will expedite notification of parents in the event of a power failure, weather-related closing or something worse.

Parents sign up online for the system and choose how they want to be notified in case of an emergency — cell phone, e-mail, pager, fax, personal digital assistant, or other communications device. When an incident occurs, the system uses the database of parent or guardian contacts and broadcasts an instant message.

School officials say they hope the system “will help eliminate phone tie-ups, miscommunication, unnecessary trips, and other problems that can occur during an unplanned event.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: Evaluating campus security

To help college and university campuses address their security needs, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office for Domestic Preparedness has compiled a list of recommendations for higher-education institutions to consider as they look at bolstering security in and around their facilities:

  • To make sure that schools are notified on a timely basis about potential threats, administrators should establish a working relationship with the head of the closest FBI field office, the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force, and state and local officials.

  • Campus public-safety officials should consider assigning officers as liaisons with international student groups on their campuses. In addition to eliciting potentially lifesaving information, the officers may be able to build trust and allay fears among international students.

  • Establish a management team that will be responsible for directing and carrying out the campus emergency operations plan.

  • Have the school's management team, command staff and jurisdictional partners review the school's emergency operations plan, terrorism incident annex and mutual aid agreements. Ascertain the need for immediate staff training. The review should include a discussion of potential assets the campus can provide for itself and the community in the event of an incident occurring outside the campus. Consider assigning a campus public-safety liaison to the local Emergency Operations Center.

  • Review leave policies and standard operating procedures for reassignment of plainclothes officers to uniform to enhance visibility and coverage of vulnerable areas.

  • Update the school's risk-assessment inventory.

  • Increase physical checks of critical facilities during periods of increased alert.

  • Establish a single point of access for each critical facility, and institute 100-percent identification checks.

  • Limit public access to critical facilities, and consider escort procedures for authorized persons.

  • Increase administrative inspections of persons and their possessions entering critical facilities.

  • Increase administrative inspections of vehicles and their contents.

  • Assess adequacy of video monitoring.

  • Assess adequacy of physical barriers outside sensitive buildings and proximity of parking.

  • Ensure adequacy of the campus emergency alert and communication system for students, faculty, staff and visitors.

  • Review the school's parent communication and reunification plan, and then educate all stakeholders.

SIDEBAR: Color-coded security

The American Red Cross has prepared a list of suggestions for what steps schools should take in response to the various levels of the Homeland Security Advisory System. (As security levels increase, administrators should incorporate the recommendations from lower levels into their action plan.)

  • Green (low): Develop written emergency plans to address all hazards, including plans for maintaining the safety of students, staff and faculty. Have a communication plan to notify parents during an emergency. Make sure that some staff members have been trained in first aid, CPR and the use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs).

  • Blue (guarded): Be alert to suspicious activity and report it to authorities. Conduct safety training and emergency drills for all grades, following the school's written emergency plan. Check to make sure the school's emergency communication plan is updated and any needed equipment is on hand.

  • Yellow (elevated): Ensure that all emergency supplies are stocked and ready.

  • Orange (high): Prepare to handle inquiries from parents and the news media.

  • Red (severe): Listen to radio and television for current information and instructions. Be prepared to close school if appropriate authorities recommend that action. Check identification for anyone other than students, staff and faculty who enter a school. Retain visitors' identification documents (such as a drivers license) in the school office. Assign an escort to anyone in the school who is not a student or member of the staff or faculty. Have mental health counselors available for students, staff and faculty.

The Red Cross also has curricular materials and other information available for schools looking to be better prepared in the event of terrorism and other crises. The “Masters of Disaster” curriculum for grades K-8 (www.redcross.org/disaster/masters/intro.html) focuses on emergency preparedness for natural disasters.

“Facing Fear: Helping Young People Deal with Terrorism and Tragic Events” (www.redcross.org/disaster/masters/facingfear) was put together as a supplement to the “Masters of Disaster” curriculum to help students cope with potential terrorism and other tragic events.

“Terrorism: Preparing for the Unexpected” (www.redcross.org/static/file_cont21_lang0_15.pdf) offers recommendations for what to do when an incident occurs.

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