Search form

Preparing For The Worst: Why Schools Need Terrorism Plans

From time to time, Education World updates and reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. We hope you find this recently updated article to be of value.

With the onset of war and heightened terrorist alerts, school principals need to create and test terrorism preparedness plans of their own, according to some school security consultants. Well-thought-out plans, involving school staff and community agencies, can do more to quell anxiety than simply stocking up on duct tape. Included: Recommendations for developing and implementing a terrorism preparedness plan.

Until a few months ago, the idea of schools as potential terrorist targets seemed too unlikely and too terrifying for principals to even discuss.

However, with war in Iraq, and the U.S. on a heightened state of alert, security is on a lot of peoples' mind -- including educators. The federal government has warned that public places could be targets. And preparing a school building, staff members, and students for a potential attack -- something few principals have ever had to face -- is necessary at all schools, according to some school security consultants.

"The vast majority of schools have not taken into account in their crisis planning all of the issues related to terrorism," said Kenneth A. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services of Cleveland, Ohio, a consulting firm. "Some issues, such as handling bombs and bomb threats, creating emergency communications plans, and preparing for gunfire on campus should already have been in the plans. New issues -- such as mail handling procedures in the event of an anthrax scare or a suspicious package, preparedness for chemical and biological attacks or food contamination, stocking adequate levels of food for extended needs, and a host of others -- simply have not been considered."


Schools were not initially included in the nation's homeland security plans, according to Trump. "The federal government has appropriately passed anti-terrorism and homeland security legislation to protect airlines, bridges, and other national critical infrastructure components, yet our K-12 schools were not included anywhere in those laws," Trump told Education World. "We have a federal education policy of No Child Left Behind, but all schools have been left behind by Congress in terms of homeland security preparedness."

Schools Get Aid for Disaster Planning

The U.S. government has approved $30 million this year to help schools create disaster plans; it also is providing school leaders with emergency-preparedness guidance through Emergency Planning, a new Web page from the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has said that intelligence reports have not indicated schools are targets, but added, "we need to make sure schools are prepared in the unlikely but possible event something could happen."

Members of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) also wrote letters to several U.S. congressmen, asking them to pass an Education Homeland Security Act, according to NASRO executive director Curt Lavarello. Under the NASRO proposal, the federal government would provide financing for anti-terrorism training for school resource officers, school security assessments, and emergency planning. NASRO also is seeking assistance coordinating school security efforts with local police and other agencies.

Florida, for example, is the first state in the U.S. to take a comprehensive approach to terrorism preparedness, by establishing seven Regional Domestic Security Task Forces. School personnel participate on planning committees and school districts are included in community terrorism response plans.

"To me, it is such a clear-cut necessity and common-sense approach," Lavarello told Education World. "Part of it is acknowledging that schools are part of the community, and part of it is the larger school security issue. If we are going to spend money on protecting airports, bridges, and tunnels, we certainly should spend money on protecting schools, and make that same level of commitment."

Bill Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) of the U.S. Department of Education, disputes Trump and Lavarello's assertions that schools have been left out of national terrorism planning.

Lavarello, according to Modzeleski, has a vested interest in urging that more money be spent on school resource officers.

"The No Child Left Behind Act indicates schools need to develop crisis plans beyond what they traditionally have done," Modzeleski told Education World. "They need to look at some of the new incidents that could take place. We have been doing work on this [school crisis plans] since September 11. The Department of Education has taken a leadership role in this."

Schools have been told that if they don't have a crisis plan, they need to get one; if they have one, they need to update it, added Modzeleski. "Many of these plans have not been reviewed since they were adopted, which was after some of the school shootings," he said. "Schools also need to review their plans with local emergency responders."


Preparing for an attack is on students' minds as well. While shopping with his teenage daughter, Lavarello said she noticed a large number of people in line with duct tape, which the federal Department of Homeland Security has recommended people buy to seal cracks around doors and windows in their homes. "She said, 'A lot of people are taking this seriously,'" Lavarello said, "and I said, 'Yes.' Then she asked me, 'What if something happens while I'm at school?'"

Concern that parents, students, and teachers would overreact to the topic of terrorism preparedness could be one reason for principals' reluctance to address it. "However, fear is best managed through education, communication, and preparation," said Trump. "By not addressing these issues and operating with 'ostrich syndrome,' schools are actually creating more fear and panic among parents and school officials. The key rests in context, balance, and reasonable efforts. And of course, discussions with students must be age and developmentally appropriate."


Another reason is that some administrators may think that crisis plans adopted after school shootings several years ago are all they need. After those shooting incidents, many schools responded by creating general disaster kits that included maps, keys, student lists, flashlights, phone books, and duct tape, and establishing a simple evacuation plan or lockdown plan.

"...Fear is best managed through education, communication, and preparation. By not addressing these issues and operating with 'ostrich syndrome,' schools are actually creating more fear and panic among parents and school officials."

-- Kenneth A. Trump

But one crisis management plan does not fit all catastrophes, according to Lavarello. "Responding to a school crisis -- like a shooting or a fight -- is much different than responding to a terrorist attack."

When the federal government went into heightened state of alert in February, Trump said he had more calls than ever before from school officials who wanted to know what they should do and what they should tell an increasing number of parents who were calling them to learn about schools' plans. "The absence of training, safety personnel, and funding resources has left many school officials with a 'deer in the headlights' look when they're asked these legitimate questions."

School resource officers also have expressed concern about the level of schools' preparedness. In a survey of 658 school police officers conducted in July 2002, 95 percent of respondents said their schools are vulnerable to terrorism; 79 percent said their schools are not prepared for an attack. One in three officers said they actually received less training in responding to terrorism since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"Police officers must be ever-vigilant in their preparedness as first responders to terrorist acts," said Sergeant Sean Burke, president of the NASRO and a supervisor with the Lawrence (Massachusetts) Police Department. "Given the proper resources and support, our school-based officers are one of the nation's greatest assets for preventing terrorist attacks on our schools," he said in a prepared statement.

Kenneth Trump and Curt Lavarello offer additional tips for administrators who are responsible for developing emergency plans for their schools or districts. See the endbar at the bottom of this article.


Parents who have dealt with a crisis affecting schools also have advice for school officials. In the case of "In Their Own Words," a report prepared by the Healthy Schools Network Inc., parents whose children attend schools near Ground Zero in New York City based their recommendations on their experiences after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Among the recommendations suggested by those parents' firsthand experiences are the following:

  • Schools should develop a viable, carefully considered emergency plan. The plan should be known to parents, teachers, and school personnel. It should be available on the first day of school.
  • The emergency plan should include detailed evacuation procedures with several alternative destinations, a procedure for contacting parents regarding the location of their children, and a procedure that will identify who may pick-up the child if a parent is not immediately available.
  • Schools should have emergency contact information for each child; that information must be accessible in a crisis.
  • Schools should provide counseling in the aftermath of an emergency -- for children and the larger school community. Parents need to remain mindful of the extra support and nurturing their children will require.
  • Parents and other adults faced with an emergency must stay calm, focused, and mindful that their actions and comments will largely determine their children's responses. Children will look to the adults for direction and emotional guidance.

"It's so hard to prepare for an event like this, but parents should make sure that the school has emergency contact information on the first day of school," one parent wrote. "All schools should have an outside meeting place established in case of evacuation; for example, another school within walking distance."


Some school districts also are preparing themselves financially for an attack by buying terrorism insurance or re-insurance, which is insurance for insurance companies. The federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) of 2002 requires insurance companies to provide insurance coverage for terrorism and mandates the federal government to reimburse up to $100 billion in claims.

School districts that qualify under TRIA can purchase terrorism insurance for between 2.5 and 7.5 percent of their current insurance premiums, said James Sandner, president of Broker's Risk Placement Services, Inc., a re-insurance firm.

Numerous school administrators in the past several weeks have expressed concern about the possible need for terrorism insurance, Sandner said. While each district has to weigh the costs and benefits, he advises those districts that qualify under TRIA to purchase the terrorism insurance.

"It's a no-brainer," Sandner told Education World. "If they are being offered insurance now, they should take it. They need to protect the teachers and students and then think about other security issues."

Currently, districts that are self-insured or in self-insured pools cannot buy terrorism coverage through TRIA, although the act permits that to occur. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury must formally declare that terrorism insurance is extended to districts that are self-insured and belong to self-insured pools for that to happen, Sandner said.

School districts considering buying terrorism insurance should review a variety of security assessment factors, added Trump. "These should include, but are not limited to, the district's individual security evaluations by safety professionals, district size, overall community location, threat assessments in their broader community, and the type and cost of insurance they currently carry for other issues," he said. "Terrorism insurance may not be prudent for many districts, but it may be a reasonable investment for others."

Insurance is only one part of what should be a comprehensive plan, Trump added. "While we made significant improvements in school security and emergency planning after the Columbine [high school] shootings, there still are glaring gaps in both security measures and crisis planning, and the threat of terrorism adds a whole new dimension to what needs to be done."


Following are more resources about preparing for a terrorist attack:

Ridge Launches Terror Preparedness Campaign offers this information from the federal Department of Homeland Security about how citizens should prepare for a possible terrorist attack.

American Red Cross Disaster Services: Educator's Information
Included here is a link to Masters of Disaster, a Red Cross K-8 curriculum for teaching students about natural and other disasters.

Homeland Security Advisory System Recommendations for Schools
This explains the five levels of security advisories used by the Deparment of Homeland Security.


Updated 11/05/2012