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Archive for Monday, October 7, 2002

National survey finds schools unprepared for acts of terrorism

October 7, 2002

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— If terrorists ever strike Allen High School in suburban Dallas, school police officer Carl Osburn says authorities will be ready.

The school has a crisis plan, digital cameras in the parking lots and staff trained to respond to gunmen, anthrax and other threats.

"We've covered the bases on pretty much anything," Osburn said.

Police at many other schools are not so confident.

A survey being released today by the National Association of School Resource Officers finds that 95 percent of respondents described their schools as vulnerable to terror.

Most cited security gaps, with too little training and support or inadequate crisis plans that, in many cases, simply have not been tested.

Officers also said the money crunch facing many schools means they have received even less training in preparedness since last year's terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"The most critical lesson learned from 9-11 is that training and preparedness saves lives," said Curt Lavarello, the group's executive director. "Our federal and state governments must partner more closely with local school districts and their school police officers in order to have truly comprehensive homeland security planning."

Federal officials said Education Secretary Rod Paige is doing more than ever to help schools prevent and respond to violence of all kinds, including terrorism.

"Certainly the secretary has made it a point, ever since 9-11, to reiterate how concerned he is about school safety," said Eric Andell, a senior adviser to Paige. That includes a "threat assessment guide" prepared with the Secret Service and distributed to schools last spring.

Andell said the department had been giving schools "technical information and good, solid advice."

Bill Modzeleski, director of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, said school shootings in recent years have led schools to adopt policies, such as limiting access to buildings, that would be effective in deterring an attack.

While more can always be done, Modzeleski said, "I think that school districts are moving forward."

The written survey of 658 officers, conducted at the school officers' annual convention in July, found that:

l 83 percent said getting into their schools was very easy or somewhat easy.

l 55 percent said their schools' crisis plans were inadequate.

l 52 percent said the plans have never been tested.

l 55 percent said their schools have no mail-handling procedures for dealing with mail suspected of containing anthrax or other deadly substances or with other suspicious packages.

l 74 percent said their schools do not educate parents or communicate effectively on school safety, security or crisis planning.

Jim Kelly, chief of school police in Palm Beach County, Fla., said school officials and police in his area cooperate on safety issues, which he called vital.

"We take it as a matter of fact: You're partners and you work together," he said. "That's not the case all over the country. You've got a lot of turf battles."

He agreed with Modzeleski: knowing how to react to a school shooting, he said, essentially prepares schools for terrorism.

"A shooting in a school is a local terrorist act," he said.

Osburn, whose 2,700-student school is 20 miles north of Dallas, said the nine officers are trained to deal with "single shooters, multiple shooters, hostage situations or whatever it is. We have to do the training for everything."

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