Redefining Normal

Dec. 1, 2001
As progress is made overseas in the war on terrorism, a chilling view of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist network's intentions is surfacing.

As progress is made overseas in the war on terrorism, a chilling view of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist network's intentions is surfacing. And some of the findings are especially disturbing, adding a new element of concern, in particular, for the nation's education administrators.

In a recent raid of one terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, manuals written by bin Laden operatives were found in a laboratory drawer. One of the manuals identifies “buildings, bridges, embassies, schools (and) amusement parks” as targets for attack in the West.

Security has always been a paramount concern for schools and universities. But now there is a new urgency for institutions to step up their level of preparedness against threats that, prior to September 11, seemed unimaginable. Terrorist attacks, biological warfare, bus hijackings — these and other once-incomprehensible possibilities now are valid threats to schools — forcing the nation's education institutions to redefine their perception of “normal” operations.

Release of the information in the recovered manuals is a wakeup call to school administrators, providing proof that their institutions are not immune to the possibility of terrorist attacks.

One begins to wonder, then: “How can the nation's education institutions maintain some semblance of normalcy when it seems every terrorist sees a school building and its occupants as a potential target?

Administrators have responded admirably to security threats in the wake of highly publicized school shootings. Most recently, officials in New Bedford, Mass., thwarted plans for a Columbine-like attack on a high school. But the magnitude of the potential threats outlined in the recovered manuals will challenge even the most prepared school or university — taking security to a new level.

How will the nation's education institutions respond to post-September 11 events and recent revelations, and still maintain a level of normalcy for students and staff? And how will this new level of security be incorporated to not only ensure the safest possible environment, but also an environment that will not detract from learning?

That is the challenge. But as administrators re-evaluate and reassess their security and crisis-management plans in light of recent events, one thing is for sure: The decisions made and the procedures put into place most likely will have far-reaching implications in both the design of schools and their operation — redefining our perception of normal.


“Schoolhouse Beat,” American School & University's weekly e-newsletter, recently asked school and university administrators if, in light of terrorist threats, mail handling has been altered. Response indicates that many institutions are paying closer attention to their mail.

Among the responses:

An administrator from a school district in Alaska:

“At our central mailroom for the district office, we've provided guidelines, reviewed mail-handling techniques with the mailroom employees, and are working with our insurance carrier as to any precautions they would suggest for the safety of the employee and loss-control issues.”

An administrator from a Florida school:

“With over 40 buildings on a 70-acre campus, (the school) has opted for a central mail-sorting facility in shipping and receiving, which is in a warehouse with few employees. This isolates any potential incoming mail from the general student/staff populace and will aid in decontamination if ever needed.”

An administrator with a New York college:

“We provide receiving staff gloves and offer them masks if they wish. Training was provided to observe suspicious packages and use of PPE (personal protective equipment). A general notice alerting all on campus to package handling was also distributed.”

About the Author

Joe Agron | Editor-in-Chief and Associate Publisher

Joe Agron is the editor-in-chief/associate publisher of American School & University magazine. Joe has overseen AS&U's editorial direction for more than 25 years, and has helped influence and shape national school infrastructure issues. He has been sought out for comments by publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, ABC News and CNN, and assisted with the introduction of the Education Infrastructure Act of 1994.

Joe also authors a number of industry-exclusive reports. His "Facilities Impact on Learning" series of special reports won national acclaim and helped bring the poor condition of the nation's schools to the attention of many in the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Education and the White House.

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