The Beslan Reaction

This summer, American forces in Iraq arrested an Iraqi with known terrorist ties. In his possession, investigators found a computer disk containing a document downloaded from the US Department of Education’s website. Designed to improve school safety, the 50-page document, Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities, offered information on how to strengthen school emergency response and crisis management plans.
FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokespeople say they have no “specific credible information” that terrorists plan to attack American schoolchildren. However, an FBI official confirmed that the bureau is “handling a number of investigative items” relating to schools. And in October, DHS issued a bulletin to law enforcement and education officials regarding the subject, calling it a “lessons learned bulletin” following the Beslan, Russia, tragedy.
“It provides information about the Beslan event in order to give security professionals a better operational picture of the tactics and plots used in the past,” said Kathleen Mynster, DHS deputy press secretary. “We wanted to share information with law enforcement regarding protective measures schools should do when working on school safety plans, and to increase law enforcement awareness and vigilance.”
In the wake of the horrific carnage in Beslan—where Chechen terrorists who took over an elementary school murdered 331 hostages, including more than 150 children—American school officials are looking at their own vulnerabilities, and trying to do something about them.
American school safety officials across the country say schools are not only soft but perhaps even likely targets. “Someone would be ignorant of the potential if they didn’t think it could happen in his or her district,” said Alan Kerstein, police chief of the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD). “Schools clearly can be a target, especially a psychological target. Nothing could be more catastrophic than holding 50 to 100 kids hostage.”
Florida’s Palm Beach County School District (PBCSD) Chief of Police Jim Kelly concurred. “Beslan reinforced that we are right and schools are a potential valid and likely target. If you want to affect this country and paralyze the economy, hit a few elementary schools across the country where people think they’re safe, and one parent will be staying home to home-school the kids. If they hit our schools, it affects a lot of people. It’s been hard getting that across on the federal level.”
Most school administrators think it could never happen to them, in Kelly’s opinion. “A lot of districts only start reacting when something happens here or if they have an attack,” he said. “We had board members with foresight years ago to create the police department, so we don’t get distracted with other business because schools are our business. I would say most school administrators think it’s never going to hit them.”
Stan Teitel, principal of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, which was located two blocks from the World Trade Center, once felt that way. Teitel’s school trembled when the first plane hit, and he watched from his office window in horror as the first tower burned. Even after the nightmare of Sept. 11, 2001, he didn’t believe terrorists would purposely target kids.
“What happened at the middle school in Russia has made me rethink our security,” he said. “I have to be honest, I was living in a dream world because I thought they would never attack schools because children are totally innocent. I thought we were relatively safe, but after what happened in Russia, I know that’s not the case anymore, and we are as much a target as anybody.”
Teitel said school administrators need to be more proactive about securing their buildings. New security precautions implemented at Stuyvesant this school year include the issuance of new student ID cards with background colors that change every year and are shown to security officers when students enter the building; checking all visitors’ bags regardless of credentials; the installation of video cameras on every entry door with 24-hour back-up video; and the issuance of security cards with the visitor’s picture on it.
“All visitors’ passes will have their pictures on it, so now I have your picture in the computer and I can pass out your picture to staff and security if I need to find you in my building,” he explained.
Because cell phones were useless in the area around Ground Zero on 9/11, Teitel also purchased walkie-talkies for all non-teaching personnel. “On 9/11, I could not communicate with my staff without going on the public address system. I would recommend to any school in the country to get walkie-talkies, because you will have a way of communicating if the cell phones go down. That’s something every school can do right away as a safety precaution. There’s no reason not to do it.” Teitel noted that Stuyvesant’s security enhancements were not funded from his budget because parents took the initiative and convinced local businesses to donate about $100,000 worth of equipment.
The desire to improve security is more important than money, in Kelly’s opinion. “Money is not the issue. We did not get grant money. We could do more if we had funding, but you don’t wait. I don’t go for that,” he said, adding that DHS should be doing more to help schools improve security. “Since the Russian incident, DHS is now looking at schools, and that’s good because before they did not think schools were an issue, and now at least theyare looking at including schools in funding.”
The funding issue
School safety officials, and some educators, say funding to improve emergency preparedness is inadequate and should be increased. “Schools should be an integral part of the homeland security strategy and have at minimum sustained funding and incremental increases, like the hallways of Capitol Hill,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety & Security Services, Cleveland, Ohio, and author of two books on school safety. He noted that DoEd grant money for school emergency and crisis- management plans decreased by about $10 million this year compared to fiscal year 2003.
Politics play a part, in Trump’s estimation. He said that, despite the Beslan incident, it is still politically incorrect to discuss the potential threat to schools. “There exists a significant amount of downplaying and denying within the D.C. beltway, and it makes no sense at a time when we are spending more and more to protect our bridges and monuments and the halls of Capitol Hill, that our funding for school safety and emergency preparedness is decreasing.”
In Trump’s opinion, elected officials do not want to appear to be alarmists, so they practice the “ostrich syndrome” and are complacent instead. “Our elected officials are very hesitant to candidly address the Russian incident and the fact that it could happen here because they’re afraid of creating fear with parents and educators. But the problem with that mindset is that fear is best managed through educating the community and preparation.”
Lack of leadership is also an issue, he said. “If they acknowledge this head on like they should, they are going to be put in a position where they have to fund something and do something about it, at a time when we have financial cuts, and there aren’t a lot of people who have the foresight and constitution to stand up and do that. If you acknowledge the problem and you’re in a political position, you have to do something about it.”
Besides budget cuts and complacency, Trump said a third obstacle to improving school safety is pressure on schools to perform academically. “There is an enormous amount of pressure on school administrators to meet mandatory test score requirements, and because of that school safety and a number of other hot issues are falling to the back burner.”
The low level of security, coupled with poor emergency planning, makes many U.S. schools soft targets, said Trump. “School emergency planning is in its infancy,” he said. “Only after Columbine did schools start trying to play catch-up after years of neglecting emergency preparedness. We made some progress following Columbine, but that progress has largely stalled five years later, and in some cases is slipping backward. We still have a long way to go. It’s an ongoing process, and it has to be viewed and managed as that.”
Federal action
Last year DoEd’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Washington, D.C., distributed $38 million in discretionary grant money to 134 (of 550 that applied) school districts to improve emergency preparedness. This year, 109 of the 300 applicants will receive about $28 million, according to Bill Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary.
“We’re heavily invested, and it says to schools that we have to be prepared for a variety of things,” he said. “They have to have a plan and work with law enforcement, not because something is going to happen, but so they are prepared in case something does happen.”
In May 2002, DoEd released an interactive CD titled “Bomb Threat Assessment Guide” to provide guidelines to schools on emergency preparedness for a variety of events, including a terrorist attack. And in 2003, the department launched a website (www.ed. gov/emergency plan) outlining a model school crisis plan, which addresses four key areas, including prevention-mitigation, planning-preparation, response and recovery. DoEd and DHS want schools to approach emergency preparedness and crisis planning from a “broad-based crisis plan,” said Modzeleski. “It’s about partnerships with first responders, law enforcement, health departments, etc.”
Columbine was a wake-up call to educators across the country, Modzeleski added. “We had a shift in 1999, when two boys came into school and killed 13 people. The reality is that after that happened, I don’t think there is a school district that did not do something to improve safety. There was not a single person who did not realize at that time the necessity of improving safety in our schools. They stepped up to the plate.”
Modzeleski concedes some schools are doing a better job than others on emergency preparedness and crisis management planning. “There probably are a number of districts that don’t get it, but a majority are somewhere in the middle. We are moving that old group forward, and with the grants we are making and the information we are providing, we are going to be continuing to move them forward to make sure all 15,000 school districts have adequate plans.”
Rosemarie Young, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, thinks most of the nation’s schools already have adequate emergency plans. “A lot of work has been done in making sure their plans are in place, and reviewing them,” she said. “9/11 made it more of a priority, and a lot of good work came out of that with making schools more safe.”
Young said she would like to see more guidance from the federal level. “I think there should be a system to evaluate what is in place and what is the standard and how are we going to get there,” she said. “I think it would be beneficial to do that kind of work in most schools. I know principals would be agreeable to show what they are doing, and to get ideas or suggestions of where they need to be.”
Because of inadequate funding and the emphasis on achieving national academic standards, educators are stymied by what they can do to improve safety, Young said. “I think there is heightened awareness, but we get lulled in because there are so many things that take away people’s attention. A lot of focus has to go into the instructional program, and there is only so much time, energy and resources that you can devote to certain issues. You can’t do it all at the same level when you’re losing money. That’s a real concern and a serious issue. We have to have the funds to support what is critical for schools.”
Few U.S. schools are where they should be in terms of preparedness, according to Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, Westlake Village, Calif. Stephens, who has conducted more than 1,000 school safety site assessments, said many emergency plans need a substantial amount of improvement. “The percentage is really small that are prepared,” he said. “We have to get people used to the concept of shelter-in-place and dealing with armed terrorists on campus.”
Like the Columbine incident in 1991, Stephens said, Beslan is an alarm sounding to educators: “The incident in Beslan has reminded us that it could happen anywhere. Every school administrator with whom I’ve spoken after a crisis has consistently said they thought it would never happen there. Every time there’s a terrorist event, the next one is a bit more dramatic and lethal, and that’s what we have seen in Russia. A new watermark has been set that underscores the need for schools to plan, prepare and do as much as possible to prevent a crisis like Beslan.” HST
Susan Godfree-Thom is a veteran journalist based in South Carolina. She is the winner of several Associated Press awards, including one for investigative journalism, and also served in the office of the governor of Kentucky.
Case Studies
Los Angeles County School District, CA
Despite the fact that the Los Angeles County School District (LACSD) lost about $500 million in funding this year, it still increasedthe budget for the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD) by about $3.5 million. “Our board of education is extremely supportive of the school police department,” said Chief of Police Alan Kerstein. “They dedicate funds so we can hire personnel despite significant budget cuts in July of almost half a billion dollars. That was a commitment and courageous move by our board. Security is number one, and they back it up.”
The LASPD has 335 officers dedicated to a job “that would challenge a police department of 1,000,” in Kerstein’s estimation. The police are responsible for about 700 square miles ofschool area. Currently, they have one officer assigned to every high school, and they’re adding an additional officer who will work at the school for four years and rotate out with students. “They stay with the kids through high school and become very effective sources of information,” he said, “and after four years they go back to a patrol assignment.”
Last year, the district initiated a program called “Village Policing,” with the patrol officer as the village chief, and kids, school staff and security acting as a city council, which works together to find solutions to issues facing their schools. “We come up with creative solutions for resolution of problems, and the kids are at the forefront,” said Kerstein. “They have input, and often are better than the experts. That gives kids a sense of ownership. It also creates a personal relationship with uniformed officers, so they can build trust with students.”
Kerstein’s staff foiled a potential tragedy last year, when students alerted police officers about a fellow student’s threats of violence. “They came to campus officers and told us about a kid who had a gun and was planning to come to school and do harm, and we went to his home and took his weapon. We are really capable of responding and neutralizing a situation.”
The Columbine tragedy in 1999 spurred LASPD officers to cross-train for “rapid response,” and they’re training faculty and staff on handling a shooting incident on campus. “We are confident in our ability to respond, evacuate the school and isolate a suspect or neutralize him. We train with a lot of different situations, including chemical agents, explosive devices on a person or in a package and with an active shooter, which is our rapid response training.”
Having a highly trained staff is reinforced by schools that are equipped with enhanced security features. LASPD campuses have locked perimeter gates to restrict access, and visitors are subject to random bag searches. Many schools have closed-circuit TVs, and the newer schools are being designed with crime prevention in mind. “There are a lot of things we can do, including how the school is configured around its perimeter, ingress and egress, the kinds of bushes you choose, emergency phones, etc.,” explained Kerstein. “If you don’t do it when you build it, you have to go back and spend extra money to re-do things.”
Monroe County School District, GA
Teresa Reynolds Solley, a sales representative with ADT Security Services, based in Boca Raton, Fla., has coordinated several school safety seminars, including a “Focus on Terrorism” in Georgia and Alabama. She said at the very least schools should have cameras and video surveillance at every entry door, and preferably outdoors scanning the perimeter.
“The biggest thing they need is cameras and video surveillance,” she said. “That has been one of the biggest deterrents by having someone keep an eye on the school through cameras. Malls have them all over, and that may be what ends up happening in schools, to have someone watching the grounds at all times.” She said surprisingly few schools invested heavily in security equipment after 9/11. “After 9/11, the only true effect was that a lot of government and big corporations beefed up security.”
Reynolds Solly helped one Georgia district, Monroe County Schools, to improve the safety ofits fleet of 60 buses by equipping each with digital cameras and a video recorder with an 80GB hard drive. One camera was mounted in front, one in the middle and a third above and to the left of the driver’s seat to monitor activities and provide a view of the main door. The system interfaces with a computer that records data, including speed and braking.
Another security feature on the buses is the “Child Reminder System,” which ensures that no children or belongings are left on the vehicle at the end of the day. The driver has 30 seconds to deactivate the system, which is located in the back of the bus, or the horn will sound. And each bus is equipped with an automatic vehicle locator using global positioning system technology, so the buses can be tracked. The cost was about $5,000 per bus.
“Everything is geared to the safety of the students,” said Jeff Turner, Ed.D., transportation director for Monroe County Schools. “We are trying to be proactive, not reactive.”
Palm Beach County School District, FL
Palm Beach County School District (PBCSD) isn’t waiting for handouts from the federal government to improve security in its schools. Officials are spending about $1 million for a 38,000-square-foot training center in Boca Raton, where educators and safety personnel from across the country will be able to get hands-on experience with teaching methods, security practices and the latest technology.
“The focus is school safety,” said PBCSD Chief of Police Jim Kelly. “It will include curriculum, teaching methods and security methods that provide a safe and nurturing environment.”
The lab school will allow PBCSD to test different measures in a real environment before establishing them district-wide. “We needed a place to try things out, and when you’re doing different measures, you want to know whether it’s working or not in a real environment, so we can find out if something’s working or not and go on to something else.”
The training center will be adjacent to, and work in conjunction with, the district’s new Don Estedge High-Tech Middle School. About 1,200 sixth, seventh and eighth graders are the first students to attend the school, which opened in August. The school features wireless computers and no lockers or identification cards. Instead, students check in and board the bus by having their hands scanned by a biometric reader.
Full-motion video cameras monitor every classroom at the high-tech school. “The cameras record teachers doing their lesson plans for the training center,” said Kelly. “Principals, teachers, security officers, technicians, etc., can watch live. We will do a lot of violence prevention or methods training, and classroom management for teachers, because that’s one of the big problems for young teachers coming out of universities. That’s very important. You know teachers who have control, because they do not send anyone to the dean, and that’s a skill that can be learned.”
Although PBCSD’s focus initially is on its schools, the district has a three- to five-year plan with the Florida Department of Education to incorporate other districts. Last year, in conjunction with the state Attorney General’s office, they trained school-security officials in terrorism preparedness and response. Kelly said at the very minimum schools should have updated critical incidents plans and be partnering with local agencies to respond to their plans.
“You need to implement measures you can take to insulate the campus as best you can, starting with a perimeter fence,” he said. “The main thing is visibility of security measures. If you take measures to make your schools a hard target, you’re less likely to be a target of terrorists and they will pick somebody else’s site as opposed to yours. We are going to do everything visibly and preparation-wise, and if something does happen, the next step is what you can do to mitigate the effects. Response and preparation are key to things getting out of hand.”
Educators and school safety personnel need to take an “all hazards approach” to best protect their facilities, Kelly said. “You have to be prepared to deal with whatever comes at you, whether hurricanes, terrorist attacks, whatever, and have things thought out, because it’s too late when it hits you and then you have to practice it.”
Wayne Township, IN
In addition to rewriting their emergency crisis guidelines, the Metropolitan School District in Wayne Township, Ind., implemented an “Emergency Notification System” with most of the $192,000 DoEd grant money it received. “It was a program wehad talked about in the school district and did not have the money to make happen,” said Chuck Hibbert, coordinator of Safety and Service Transportation.
Under the new system, in an emergency, the district can send out 10,000 messages (English or Spanish) within 30 minutes. It also conducted “active shooter training” through the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). “I think we are as prepared as a school can reasonably be for a terror attack,” said Hibbert. “We have created awareness, we have a plan in place and we’ve worked with our community partners, and yet we are public schools and are open and our ability to limit access is limited.”
Hibbert said the grant application process is prohibitive to smaller districts that may not have the staff and resources to wade through the paperwork. “The money is critical for schools to improve safety, and I hope more money will be forthcoming because schools are losing school resource officers because of the cuts. If school funding is cut or remains at the same levels, it will be hard to address some of the growing concerns. Specifically, we need more funding in the area of emergency preparedness nationwide, because schools are potential targets.”
Most US schools are unquestionably easy targets for a terrorist attack, in Hibbert’s opinion. “Schools are soft targets, and I’m surprised at anyone who would not recognize that,” he said. “Why would we think these kinds of things happen only in Israel, Turkey and Russia, and that they would use them only in those countries and not against us?”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, NC
Even if they’re not direct targets, districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina, with campuses near nuclear power plants and agricultural production companies, could suffer “collateral damage” if terrorists attack one of those targets, noted Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, Westlake Village, Calif.
CMS has a comprehensive crisis plan and works closely with its partners, including Duke Power, and fire, police and health departments to address safety issues and increase awareness of potential threats, said spokesperson Jerri Haigler. When it was reported earlier this year that terrorists were targeting the Charlotte area, Haigler said CMS officials were communicating with their partners and in a heightened state of readiness. “If they have a tip, it’s shared,” she said. “They call us immediately, and we add extra security if needed. Visibly, you would not be able to see it, but behind the scenes we have a strong plan, with personnel who are trained and people who know what to do in case of an emergency. Our schools have a handle on the situation.”
Besides their crisis plans, which are reviewed, practiced and updated regularly, Haigler said their schools are equipped with video cameras inside and out, and officials randomly scan students with a wand metal detector. “Kids are given the opportunity to declare what they have first, so that has increased awareness that we are very serious,” she said.
Other schools have sought advice from CMS because of  its high scores in school safety preparedness. “I think we are prepared,” said Haigler. “Some things we need to keep close to the vest for security reasons. We continue to look at our plan and work with police, our partners and at what other schools are doing, so it’s an ongoing process.”

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