P.O. Box 234, Brodheadsville, PA 18322 Phone: 570-656-4286

School Safety in the Post 9/11 Era

By Garry W. McGiboney, Ph.D., Executive Director—School Safety, DeKalb County School System, Georgia

The first telephone calls into schools and the central office from parents and the news media started less than ten minutes after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Life in the United States would never be the same, school safety would never be the same – or at least school safety should not be the same.

Schools and school systems must accept the fact that Post-9/11 is different than Pre-9/11, both in our psyche and in our safety and emergency preparations.

In recent years, schools have become more and more conscious of safety, but 9/11 turned our perspective in another direction. For example, our school system (DeKalb County School System, Georgia – 98,000 students) has required Safe School Plans for each school and center since 1994, but we now require, among other things, multiple evacuation routes and reunification sites.

We have printed Emergency Procedures in our schools since 1995, but they now include procedures when anthrax is suspected.

We have practiced intruder alert school lockdowns since 1992, but now we practice more often, the hallways must be totally clear, and each school receives a grade from an observation team.

We have inspected our schools for years, but now there is a formalized unannounced school safety and emergency preparations inspection process with a safety checklist.

For years, 12 schools were designated as “Civil Defense Shelters.” Now, every school is equipped and designated as an emergency shelter. Consequently, every principal has received emergency facilities preparation and response training. Each school has at least a nine-day supply of food and the American Red Cross is prepared to provide fresh water for as long as necessary. The school system is working with the American Red Cross and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to train staff and prepare schools for emergencies. Also, each school has a three-day supply of other essential supplies, which would give the Red Cross and other disaster relief agencies time to send in support.

The school system is part of the country’s Homeland Security Task Force, which shares essential emergency preparation information with all agencies and which shares the latest information from federal security sources. An example of the valuable information the school system receives from the Homeland Security Task Force is the warning in October 2001 that outdoor stadiums may be a terrorism target.

The day after receiving this information, the school system convened an ad hoc committee made up of explosives experts, crowd control experts, terrorists experts, transportation experts, logistical and tactical experts, fire and emergency response experts, and school system staff members to work out the details of stadium security and emergency evacuations. The committee worked all day and produced evacuation procedures that were printed and posted at each stadium in the school system and announced at the beginning of each game. This information was also shared with all private schools in the county and all nearby school systems. We also developed a safety perimeter at all stadiums and now check the ID’s if bus drivers before students are allowed to get on the bus at school. We station officers at the stadiums to check buses in and they remain at the buses throughout the game and check the buses out.

DeKalb, like numerous schools throughout the country, have schools in the proximity of potentially dangerous sites. After consulting with local, state, and federal emergency experts, DeKalb was advised that the Centers for Disease Control and the Doraville Petroleum Tank Farm (above ground petroleum storage tanks with 28 million gallons of gasoline) were high-risk areas. In the event of an attack or accident at those locations, we would have to evacuate the students very quickly, faster than a typical evacuation. Consequently, with tremendous cooperation from many sectors and with a great deal of planning (including studying aerial photographs; the logistics of involving a total of 66 school buses; coordinating police escorts, etc.), we developed Fast-Track Evacuation procedures for those schools near CDC and the Petroleum Tank Farm and we have practiced the implementation of those procedures. For example, Hightower Elementary is very close to the Petroleum Tank Farm. Before our Fast-Track Evacuation procedures were developed, it would take almost an hour to find the bus drivers, get the buses to the school and evacuate. Now, we can have the school emptied, the buses full, and buses out of the area in less than 10 minutes. The Fast-Track Evacuation practices are observed by emergency experts and by the news media. The emergency experts critique the evacuations, but why the news media? It is imperative to let parents and the community know that plans are in place. In fact, after the Fast-Track Evacuation procedures were put into place, parent meetings were held in the designated schools to discuss the evacuation procedures.

Less than three months after designing the Fast-Track Evacuation procedures, there was an accidental gas spill at the Petroleum Tank Farm. Within minutes the school was on standby. Fortunately, we did not have to evacuate, but the students, staffs, and parents were relieved to know that we had a plan. In fact, the central office was flooded with calls from grateful parents.

Of course, the evacuation is only one part of the equation. Where do we take several hundred students after an evacuation? We designated receiving school sites and trained the staffs of those schools on how to receive large numbers of students. This was so well received that we now have a plan for the entire school system that relocates students displaced from their school for a short period or for a long period of time.

Preparation is essential to emergency response, hut the other essential component is communications. Plans cannot he implemented without first effective communications, and effective communication cannot rely on one method. We developed three:

  • We developed a Hotline, Principal Private Line Single-Call Protocol, with assigned staff to call principals and schools on land lines to convey emergency messages.
  • Also, every principal has a Nextel Cell Phone. We, of course, call them on the cell phone, but we also send an Emergency Text Message that rings until the message is opened.
  • And thirdly, we send an e-mail through our internal internet. All three means are utilized simultaneously within minutes.

During the school day, we continuously monitor the policy, fire, and EMS radio channels. But we also continue to depend on notification of activities from citizens, who are typically the first to know. We are in the process of developing a DeKalb Citizen Information (DCI) Corp. We will give the DCI Corp specific information on what to look for in the community and near schools that should he reported to our school police and/or local Homeland Security Hotline. Regarding improving communications, the school system is upgrading the telephone system so that a voice emergency message can be sent to all schools instantly from the central office and from the school police telephones by making just one call.

Other Post 9/11 strategies include:

  • New procedures for all vendor deliveries to schools.
  • Emergency central office relocation to keep communication and essential  services operational.
  • Security of buses during after-school hours.
  • First Responder training for all school police and security guards.
  • Participation in local Mock Disaster Drills.
  • Emergency training for all staff members.

For the safety of our children in schools, it makes no sense to pretend that 9/11 had no impact on school safety. If nothing else, the events of that day should make us look at safety from a different perspective, so we can be better prepared. It’s always better to be prepared than scared.