Sunday, December 14, 2008

Schools must be prepared to handle terrorist attack

We need to apply homeland-security funding to our schools. Is it that our school and elected officials are afraid to talk about it as it may generate more fear in our communities?

Not addressing the real threat of terrorism in our schools creates more fear among parents and school officials due to lack of information. Education, preparation and communication are the best way to manage those fears.We need to create a comprehensive safeschool plan at the district level. Have a school-security staff, conduct periodic drills, coordinate emergency-management plans, screen vendors who provide services to schools, and enact and implement safety and crisis-preparedness policies.

Our teachers are the first responders in any school emergency. They need to be trained and prepared as to what to look for and how to handle a crisis.

This would not be voluntary; it must be mandated.

Although a terrorist attack upon schools in the United States or our community may be an improbability, the first step toward preparedness is admitting that it is at least possible that terrorists could strike a school or schools.

How much of an improbability is it? Look at Stockton, Calif. (1989); Frontier Junior High, Washington (1996); Pearl High School, Mississippi (1997); Littleton, Colo., (April 20, 1999); Taber, Alberta, Canada, (May 28, 1999); Conyers, Ga., (May 20, 1999); Deming, N.M., (Nov. 19, 1999), Fort Gibson, Okla., (Dec. 6, 1999); Santee, Calif., (March 5, 2001); El Cajon, Calif., (March 22, 2001); Red Lake High School, Minn., (2005); the Amish school in Pennsylvania (2006); Blacksburg, Va., (April 16, 2007). On Oct. 27 there was a shooting on the University of Central Arkansas campus.

The trend in recent years to cut schoolsafety budgets is disturbing. Our leaders have pushed to increase funding to protect our airlines, bridges, monuments and hallways of Capitol Hill. It makes no sense to cut funding to protect the children and teachers in the "soft-target" hallways of America's schools.

Funding for school security and emergency planning should not only be spared from cuts, it should also be incrementally increased as we continue to increase our national defense and anti-terrorism preparedness in other public sectors.

This is where accountability comes in for homeland-security funds. Where has the money been spent?

Our leaders must acknowledge that it is a possibility that some form of terrorism can occur in our schools, and we must have plans to prevent and prepare for such an incident.

Many of our schools have an emergency plan, but how many of us know what that plan is if it were to be implemented? How many parents would know what to do in the event of a school lockdown? Would rushing to pick up your child make a bad situation worse?

The emergency plan is one that we would hope to never use, but we need to exercise it to ensure that everything falls into place once it is activated.

Many of our schools have a plan in place but do not use or practice it. The review of a school's plan is not required by the federal government, which only needs to verify that an emergency plan has been filed with the state. Colleges and universities are not required to have a plan.

In 2007 a 50-state study by the Government Accountability Office showed that in many cases, schools have never trained alongside local emergency-response teams, and in a few districts, school officials won't even be able to use their walkie-talkies to communicate with first responders during an emergency.

Of those with emergency plans, 27 percent have never trained with first responders, as the government recommends; only 29 percent train with "community partners" such as hospitals and municipalities.

In the event of terrorist threats, the public needs to be informed as to what our local schools, teachers and officials will do to safeguard our children.

To say it could never happen, look again at the list.

Joseph Sinagra

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