Schools & Terrorism: School Terrorism Preparedness

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, the responding public safety officials and our nation as a whole in the aftermath of the tragic terrorist attacks on Americans on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorism threats that have struck our nation and the world in the many years that followed.  As our nation and the world continue to struggle with the threat of terrorism, we are asked about the appropriate context and practical recommendations for preparing one of our softest potential targets: Our schools.

It important to remember that no single strategy, or even a collection of multiple strategies, fits all school and school-community situations. District and building specific guidelines for managing emergency situations must be individually developed, trained, tested and exercised.

The Terrorist Threat to Schools:  Ostrich-Syndrome, Naysayers, and Reality

Although a terrorist attack upon a school in the United States may be improbable, the first step toward preparedness is admitting that it is at least possible that terrorists could strike a school or schools in our country.  Even the U.S. Department of Education, a federal agency characterized for years by their denying and downplaying of the potential for a terror attack upon American schools, issued an advisory to schools in October of 2004 with recommendations for heightening security and emergency preparedness in light of the Beslan, Russia, school terror attack months earlier. (Click here to see U.S. Department of Education heightened security advisory in .pdf file format.)

Some consultants and trainers who are inexperienced in the school safety profession may be overly alarming on the issue of terrorism and schools.  Some public officials, consultants, and trainers take a “company line, middle-of-the-road, and politically-correct” position of downplaying and completely dismissing the possibility of a terror attack on American schools because doing so is consistent with the wishes of the bureaucracies with which they are associated.  And yet other self-proclaimed “experts” in anti-terrorism, emergency planning, and/or school safety appear to ride the politically-correct fence of talking out of both sides of their mouths:  They talk about terrorism and schools when it serves their benefit (such as when they are paid to speak on the topic and/or to sell their questionably-beneficial products), while downplaying it at other times in an effort to please the official naysayers who provide them with funding elsewhere.

At National School Safety and Security Services, we believe that the key to successfully preparing school communities without creating panic is for school and public safety officials to be candid about the possibility that schools can be impacted by terrorism.  Success in managing the issue also requires that officials communicate terrorism issues in a balanced and rational context, and that they educate their school communities on the roles that everyone plays in keeping schools and communities safe.  Denial (aka: Ostrich-Syndrome) and inconsistent messages exacerbate, not reduce, fear and panic.

Frequently used weak arguments from the “naysayers” who misguidedly attempt to downplay the possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. schools, along with our counterpoints to their self-serving denial, include:

Naysayers:  “Terrorist attacks upon schools in the U.S. and abroad are statistically rare events.  It has been an extremely rare event when terrorists attack a school.”

Reality:  The Columbine High School attack in 1999 was an extremely rare event which no one ever thought would or could happen.  It was an attack in an American school at a level for which no prior precedent had been established.  The impact of Columbine changed the landscape of the school safety profession forever, causing many schools to play “catch-up” with decades of neglect in security and emergency planning, while setting a new threshold for best practices in school safety.

The 9/11 terror attacks on America were extremely rare events which no one ever thought would or could happen.  These were attacks on the U.S. at a level for which no prior precedent had been established.  The impact of 9/11 changed the landscape of American homeland security forever, setting an unprecedented focus on heightened security and emergency preparedness measures comparable to no other time in American history.

To state or imply that we should ignore or downplay the possibility that terrorists would strike American schools defies logic and is contrary to the lessons learned on 9/11, at Columbine, in Beslan (Russia), in mass school shootings since Columbine, and elsewhere.  It is this mindset of denial and Ostrich-Syndrome (head-in-the-sand) that makes us most vulnerable.  It is also a mindset contrary to the overall goals of our U.S. Homeland Security policy which encourages “thinking outside of the box” and being proactive to prevent a future terrorism attack, rather than looking for ways to rationalize that, “It can’t happen here,” until such an attack occurs again.

Naysayers:   “Talking about the possibility of terrorist attacks upon schools only furthers the terrorists’ goals of creating fear.”

Reality:  Talking about terrorists possibly using airplanes to attack American buildings did not instill the fear which occurred on and after 9/11.  In fact, our failure to talk about the possibility of such an event before it occurred has been identified by many professionals as creating a climate which made us more vulnerable.

School and public safety officials nationwide now proactively pursue prevention programs, security measures, and emergency preparedness measures to prevent mass shootings in their schools.  The failure to talk about the possibility of such an incident occurring and the failure to take steps to prevent such an occurrence would be considered as “negligence” in the eyes of most educators, public safety officials, parents, media, and courts.  Talking about the possibility in a balanced and rational way does not create fear, but instead it reduces fear, improves preparedness, and has resulted in many death plots being foiled thanks to a heightened awareness.

The naysayer mindset that talking about the possibility of terror attacks upon our schools furthers terrorist goals of creating fears is contrary to our overall national approach to homeland security.  Our President, Congress, military, homeland security, and other federal officials talk regularly and openly about the potential for terrorists to strike our airlines, military facilities, government offices, and other American interests right here in the United States, and in turn our need to be appropriately prepared.  If we followed the logic of the naysayers who claim we should not talk about terrorism and schools, we would also not be talking about the possibility of terror attacks on our airlines and other government facilities.  In fact, using their logic, there would be no need for a Homeland Security Department…and it is this mindset which makes us the most vulnerable.

Fear is best managed by education, communication, and preparation —- not denial.  Educate school community members to define the issues and appropriate context.  Communicate with school community members to discuss risk reduction, heightened security, and emergency preparedness strategies.  Be prepared for both natural disasters and manmade acts of crime and violence by taking an “all-hazards” approach to school emergency planning.

Naysayers:  “Money spent on preparing schools for terrorism is wasted money that could be better spent elsewhere.  Just prepare our first responders in the community and they will take care of the schools if something happens.”

Reality:  Teachers, administrators, school support staff, School Resource Officers, school security personnel, and other professionals on the front lines of our nation’s school are the first responders to any emergency which occurs in their schools.  While we value our community public safety partners and we encourage our schools to work hand-in-hand with them in emergency planning, the reality is that those working inside a school will be the ones immediately responding to and managing an emergency incident while police, fire, EMS, and other community first responders are enroute.  School officials will also be the individuals working with community first responders once they arrive and throughout the emergency incident. In fact, if an event occurs on the scale of the 9/11 terror attacks, school officials may be forced to manage a school-based emergency with minimal support from community first responders if these responders are tied up managing other aspects of the emergency elsewhere in the community and/or if they cannot get to the school.  School officials will also be the individuals left to carry the school a long way through the recovery phase after an emergency.

No public budgets are unlimited and no “blank checks” exist for school security and emergency preparedness efforts, the trend over decades of schools to rely upon grants for school security and emergency preparedness is concerning.  School safety cannot be treated as a grant-funded luxury. Funding for school security and emergency planning should not only be spared from cuts, but should also be incrementally increased as we continue to increase our national defense and anti-terrorism preparedness in other public sectors.

A terror attack upon American schools would create fear and panic, disrupt the economy if the “business” side of school operations were shut down on a large scale, and instill a lack of confidence in our school and community leadership.  Such terror tactics have already been employed elsewhere including attacks upon schools and school buses in the Middle East, and in the 2004 Beslan, Russia, school terror attack, for example.  While it may not be a probability that terrorists will strike our schools, we must acknowledge that it is a possibility and take reasonable steps to prevent and prepare for such an incident. Given the growth and expansion of terrorist attacks by ISIS and other extremists, we would be foolish not to consider the possibility of similar attacks in the U.S., with potential targets including schools.

Heightened school security procedures during terrorist threats

A number of potential terrorist threats have been discussed ranging from the potential use of suicide bombers, mass shootings, and car/truck bombs to biological attacks.  In addition to the recommendations above, schools should give serious consideration to additional heightened security procedures during times of terrorist threats including:

  • Prepared schools will train teachers and support staff, evaluate and refine security plans, and test/exercise school crisis plans.
  • Encourage school personnel to maintain a “heightened awareness” for suspicious activity and to report same.  This may include suspicious vehicles on and around campus, suspicious persons in and around school buildings including those taking photographs or videotaping, suspicious packages around the building perimeter and/or in the school, and suspicious information seeking efforts by phone or by unknown “visitors.”
  • Provide special attention to perimeter security and access control issues.  Have clearly defined perimeters for schools through the use of fences, gates, environmental design, signage, and other professional security measures.  Use designated parking areas especially for visitors and register staff and student vehicles.  Provide supervision and monitoring of parking lots and outside areas as appropriate.  Train custodial, maintenance, and grounds personnel on identifying and handling suspicious packages and items found on campus. Establish routine inspections of the building and grounds by trained facility personnel.  Secure roof hatches and eliminate structural items that facilitate easy access to school roofs. Make sure that classroom windows are secured at the end of the school day.  Utilize security technology and devices for monitoring and controlling exterior facilities as defined by professional security assessments.
  • Review staffing and supervision plans.  Stress the importance of adult supervision before, during, and after school, both inside school buildings and on campus, and in common areas such as hallways, stairwells, restrooms, cafeterias, bus areas, and other high-traffic areas.  Encourage staff to maintain a heightened awareness during recess, physical education classes, drop-off and dismissal, and other outside activities. Examine staffing levels and procedures for security personnel, school resource officers and other police personnel, and associated protection personnel.
  •  Maintain a proactive effort of visitor access and control.  Reduce the number of doors accessible from the outside to one designated entrance.  Stress the importance of staff greeting and challenging strangers, and reporting suspicious individuals.  Review security procedures for after-school and evening activities and building use. Utilize security technology and devices for monitoring and controlling interior facility access as defined by professional security assessments.
  •  Verify the identity of service personnel and vendors visiting the school, including those seeking access to utilities, alarm systems, communications systems, maintenance areas, and related locations. Do not permit access and report suspicious individuals representing themselves as service or delivery personnel who cannot be verified. Maintain detailed and accurate records of service and delivery personnel including a log (signed in by school personnel) of the full names, organization name, vehicle information (as appropriate), and other identification information.
  • Evaluate security measures at school transportation facilities. Assess emergency plans involving buses and other transportation issues.
  • Secure access to utilities, boiler rooms, and other maintenance/facilities operations locations.  Examine and enhance physical security measures related to outside access to HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, utility controls (electrical, gas, water, phone), and related facility operations mechanisms. Secure chemical and cleaning product storage areas, and maintain appropriate records of such items according to local, state, and federal guidelines.
  • Evaluate food and beverage service stock, storage, and protection procedures. Determine if schools have adequate water, food, and related supplies in the event that students and staff would have to be detained at the school for an extended period of time beyond normal school hours. Examine measures for securing access to food and beverage products and food service areas during normal food service periods and after hours.
  • Assess school health and medical preparedness.  Evaluate school nurse staffing levels.  Make sure that schools maintain an adequate number and level of emergency kits and medical supplies.  Maintain a stock of at least three days worth of medications for students required to have medications at school.  Consider offering first aid/ first responder training to faculty members who are interested in volunteering for such training so as to increase the number of trained individuals available to assist in the event of medical emergencies.
  • Conduct a status check of emergency communications mechanisms.  Be sure that two-way radio units and cell phones are functioning, and have back-up batteries charged.  Make sure that the public address system is fully functioning.  Test the fire alarm system.  Review procedures for emergency communications with parents, notify parents in advance how school officials will communicate with them in an emergency (media, district web site, etc.), discuss importance of parents not flocking to the school if directed during an active crisis, review family reunification procedures and communicate other relevant information to ease parent concerns.
  • Review procedures for mobilizing mental health services for students and staff in the event of a crisis.  Plan in advance how adults will communicate with children in a time of crisis.  Discuss approaches for age and developmentally appropriate communications with students about violence and threatening issues.  Be familiar with community mental health resources for families and have plans for securing supplemental mental health services from outside of the school/district in a major crisis.
  • Evaluate and enforce employee screening procedures. Review guidelines for subcontractors and identify all individuals working on school property.
  • Implement “information security” programs.  Evaluate the storage, access, and security of sensitive information. Create guidelines and conduct periodic assessments of school and district web sites to avoid posting of security-sensitive information. 
  • Identify higher-risk facilities, organizations, and potential terrorist targets in the community surrounding schools.  Such entities might include military facilities, government offices and facilities, nuclear power plants, airports and airport flight paths, railroads, chemical companies, etc.  Develop appropriate security countermeasures and crisis preparedness planning guidelines accordingly.
  • Continue local field trips unless specific threat assessments suggest otherwise, using safety plans that include adequate supervision, communications capabilities, etc.  Evaluate national travel decisions based upon ongoing threat assessments and common sense.  International travel during war-time and terrorist acts is discouraged.
  • Develop, review, refine, and test crisis preparedness guidelines.  Be sure to have guidelines for both natural disasters and acts of violence.  Particular procedures for handling bombs, bomb threats, hostage situations, kidnappings, chemical and biological terrorism, and related information should be reviewed. Review with staff their specific roles and responsibilities consistent with your crisis guidelines.  Identify back-up crisis team leaders in case normally assigned leaders are not at the building or are unable to lead.
  • Provide K-12 school-specific security, crime prevention, and crisis preparedness training to staff.

Biological and chemical threats (including anthrax, mail handling)

In addition to basic security and crisis preparedness guidelines noted above, school officials must also take into account past national threat trends regarding biological and chemical terrorism.  School officials should encourage their school staff and communities to remain calm and not panic during these times.  School leaders may wish to consider the following as a part of their risk-reduction and crisis preparedness planning:

  • Establish procedures for detecting and reporting unusual absence patterns, in particular sudden mass absences due to reported illnesses.  Schools may be in one of the best positions to recognize early signs of such a terrorist attack via major increases in student illness rates. School and community officials should consider having a protocol for school officials to notify public health and/or other appropriate public safety personnel as soon as they detect an unusual occurrence.
  • Do not allow students to open school mail. Limit the opening of mail to one individual staff member. Have this person open school mail in a room separate from open, main office areas.  Staff who wish to open mail with protective (latex-type) gloves should be allowed to do so if they desire. Educate school staff, especially the person who opens school mail, so that he/she is familiar with issues related to suspicious packages.
  • Work with custodial and maintenance personnel to establish procedures for quickly shutting down heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems if necessary.
  • Review procedures for handling suspicious items such as envelopes with power substances that may be found in hallways, stairwells, restrooms and other areas of the school.  Anticipate that, unfortunately, some hoax incidents may occur.  However, all threats should be treated seriously.  Firm, fair, and consistent consequences, both administratively and criminally, should be sought including for hoax scares and students should be informed of the seriousness of such offenses.
  • Review lockdown and evacuation procedures.  Note that you may have to have a simultaneous lockdown of one section of the building while evacuating other parts of the school, so both lockdowns and evacuations may need to occur at the same time.  
  • Create “Shelter in Place” plans to supplement lockdown and evacuation plans. Identify safe area in building to relocate students, preferably with no windows.  Confer with local fire, HAZMAT, emergency management, and police officials for specific advice.
  • Create plans for bringing in students outside and where to locate them if contaminated (away from others), including discussing if/how you would have contaminated individuals shower and put on second set of stored clothes.  Remember to have a procedure to shut down HVAC system as soon as possible, and discuss backup heating for winter and related other concerns. Custodial and maintenance staff should be a part of the school’s crisis planning and response team.
  • Confer with HAZMAT (hazardous materials) officials, fire, emergency medical, law enforcement, emergency management, and other local, county, and/or state officials to establish specific response and prevention protocols, and to educate your school faculty, staff, crisis teams, and community on biological and chemical terrorism issues.

General recommendations related to terrorism and school safety

Specific needs will obviously vary based upon the location, local issues, and impact of unique factors influencing each school and school community.  Some issues that school and community leaders may wish to consider during these difficult times include:

  •  Many school and elected officials are afraid to talk about, and prepare for, terrorist attacks upon schools out of concern that it will create fear among parents and the broader school community.  The exact opposite, however, is true.  Fear is created by a lack of information and conflicting messages. Fear is best managed through education, communication and preparation.  By not addressing these issues, we are actually creating more fear and panic among parents and school officials.  The key rests in context, balance and reasonable efforts. Discussions with students must be age and developmentally appropriate.
  • Identify school and community mental health support services available to students and their families, and communicate the availability of these services to members of the school community.
  • Communicate openly and honestly with students. Attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy in school operations as best possible, while still providing adequate and appropriate opportunities for students to share their feelings, concerns, thoughts, etc.  When communicating with students, mental health professionals typically suggest that adults:  1) Keep discussions age and developmentally-appropriate, 2) Let students know when they are having normal reactions to abnormal situations, 3) Include facts and be honest, 4) Reaffirm existing adult support of students, and 5) Reassure students of measures taken to keep them safe.
  • Review your school crisis guidelines and implement pertinent responses relevant to the conditions facing your school, as appropriate.  Be sure that school crisis guidelines include lockdown and evacuation procedures, alternative evacuation sites, family reunification procedures, and related considerations for use in any natural or manmade crisis situation.
  • Maintain a balanced, common-sense approach to school safety and security.  School and safety officials should maintain a heightened awareness for potential spin-off incidents.  In light of the nature of the national incidents, particular awareness and preparation for possible spin-off incidents involving bomb threats, suspicious devices, and hate crimes may be worthy of consideration.  It would also be prudent for school officials to develop, refine, and/or review with staff their policies and procedures related to school threat assessment and threat management.
  • School officials may wish to review security issues related to access control, perimeter visibility and security, and other crime prevention measures.  The importance of adult supervision before, during, and after school, both inside school buildings and on campus, should also be reviewed and reinforced.  Involve all school staff, including support personnel such as secretaries, custodians, and bus drivers, in your school safety review.
  • Communicate hotline numbers and other methods that students, parents, staff, and members of the school community can use to report safety and related concerns.
  • Use school district call-in lines, web sites, and other information sources that can be accessed by the school community to provide ongoing information to the school community.

9/11 Anniversary Considerations

Many school officials, parents and others in school-communities are concerned around the anniversary time of any national tragedy.  In consideration of the first 9/11 anniversary date, we offered the following recommendations for school officials to consider.  In subsequent anniversary years, the attention to the anniversary date will likely not be as great.  However, we will leave these recommendations posted for reference.

  • Hold a meeting with all teachers, support staff and administrators to discuss guidelines and resources for classroom instruction, mental health services, heightened security procedures and to review school crisis guidelines prior to September 11th.  Discussions could include issues related to age-appropriate communication, limitation of television viewing that may include excessive revisiting of graphic sites from the terrorist attacks, classroom curricula and discussion parameters, service learning, and other related topics.
  • Establish a heightened sense of security in and around the school while not going to extremes unless specific threats warrant extreme measures. Work with local public safety agencies to coordinate special attention needs and to review emergency plans. Examples of heightened school security procedures are listed above.
  • Encourage a heightened awareness among administrators, faculty members and support staff as to the importance of adult visibility throughout the campus.  School officials should be prepared for threats, hoax incidents, and other “spin-off” security concerns that could result from pranksters and others who may capitalize on the sensitivity of the day.  A serious and timely response should be given to all incidents, real and hoax, with appropriate consequences for all inappropriate behavior. 
  • Make the availability of counseling and psychological services known to students, staff and parents.  Be sure that adequate mental health services are available, if needed.  Acknowledge and monitor reactions of faculty and staff, too, in terms of being sensitive to their anniversary reactions.
  • Be sensitive to security concerns if considering school field trips on September 11th.
  • Make available and advertise mechanisms for students, parents and others in the school community to report any safety concerns.
  • Communicate with parents and members of the school community prior to September 11th to let them know that their school is aware of the sensitivity of the anniversary and that measures are being taken to acknowledge special needs associated with the anniversary.  Media liaison officials should be designated for the school and these individuals should be prepared to address media inquiries, without going into specific details that would compromise school safety, regarding how school officials are handling the anniversary. Consider limiting direct access to students by media seeking to interview them about  9/11 so as not to overwhelm students.

National surveys of School Resource Officers
The second largest professional industry survey of school-based officers was conducted in July of 2002 by National School Safety and Security Services. This was the first known survey of school-based police officers on terrorism and school safety related issues.

The survey found 95% of responding school-based police officers indicating that their schools were vulnerable to terrorist attacks and 79% stating that their schools were not adequately prepared for such attacks.  School officers also reported significant gaps in school security and emergency preparedness measures at their schools, and limited training and support received themselves for preventing and preparing terrorist attacks upon schools. See our page on the 2002  National Survey of School Resource Officers which includes survey highlights.

The third annual survey in the June/July of 2003 also addressed terrorism preparedness issues. Over 90% of the survey respondents believed that schools were “soft targets” for potential terrorist attacks. Over 76% of the officers felt that their schools are not adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack upon their schools.And over 51% of the respondents’ schools did not have specific, formal guidelines to follow when there is a change in the national homeland security color code/federal terrorism warning system.  See our pages on the 2003 National Survey of School Resource Officers which includes survey highlights.

Findings similar to those above were also represented in the 2004 National Survey of School Resource Officers.

Today, more than two decades later, an uptick in terrorist attacks internationally and the identification of homegrown terrorists here in the U.S., schools still remain to be softer targets. Paying attention to international and national trends, and taking a balanced but candid look at the possibility of terrorist attacks on our nation’s schools, is as warranted now as it was after the 9/11 attacks.

Additional information sources

No Safe Havens: Are schools vulnerable to terrorism?  American School Board Journal article by Kenneth S. Trump and Curtis Lavarello. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Schools:  Prudent Preparation for a Catastrophic Terrorism Incident
(National Strategy Forum; March, 2004 / Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

U.S. Department of Education:  Deputy Undersecretary of Education’s letter on “lessons learned” from the Beslan, Russia, school terror incident (Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Questions related to this page may be directed to Ken Trump