School systems across the country are reevaluating their safety procedures after anthrax scares have shut down dozens of facilities and forced some school officials into temporary quarantine.

So far, no actual incidents of anthrax contamination have been reported at schools, but officials say they aren’t taking any chances.

Under a new policy introduced Oct. 18 by the Fayette County, Ky., Public Schools, officials will open the district’s mail in a designated bathroom and throw out anything that looks suspicious, the Lexington Herald-Leader has reported.

Parents have been asked not to use envelopes when sending notes to school with their children. If money for lunch or a field trip is sent to school, parents are urged to use a clear plastic bag; otherwise, parents should use eMail or the telephone to contact school officials.

For the unforeseeable future, parents should not assume that schools are reading their mail, Superintendent Robin Fankhauser said at a news conference.

“If anything looks suspicious, it goes in a plastic bag and gets disposed of,” the Herald-Leader quoted her as saying.

The policy change stems from an anthrax scare that occurred at Tates Creek Middle School Oct. 15. The school was evacuated and 12 people quarantined after an envelope containing a white powdery substance was opened in an office.

The envelope, which did not have a return address or postmark, did not contain a document, only the white powder, said John Toye, director of security for Fayette County Public Schools.

Eleven adults, including Principal Leon Dudley, and one male student, were decontaminated and sent to the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Medical Center for tests after the envelope was opened.

Other students and teachers were instructed to remain in their classrooms. The heating and airt conditioning systems were shut down to prevent air flow from the office to the rest of the building.

All students were kept on campus until regular dismissal at 3:40 p.m., but the school was closed the following day, until tests showed the substance was not harmful.

New dangers

The Tates Creek scare occurred on the same day that Kentucky state officials urged local school systems to implement policies for dealing with chemical and biological terrorism.

School emergency plans created with floods, tornadoes, and handguns in mind need to be redrawn to deal with terrorism, Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton and other state officials said Oct. 15.

“Safety has taken on a very different meaning in our nation” since the deadly attacks Sept. 11 that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, Patton said in a speech beamed to schools statewide over Kentucky Educational Television.

Model emergency plans developed by the state Center for School Safety in Richmond soon will include a component on chemical and biological terrorism. In the meantime, the center is offering tips from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for coping with chemical and biological threats.

All schools in Kentucky are required to have emergency plans, but most were designed to deal with weather disasters or student violence, Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit said.

“A lot of schools haven’t thought about the new kinds of dangers that are out there,” Wilhoit said. “Schools and other parts of society are on more of a level of alert now.”

Gloves and masks

In Madison, Wis., gloves and masks will be supplied to all city schools for use by employees who are uneasy about opening mail because of anthrax scares elsewhere in the nation.

Each principal also has been directed to have all mail opened in a designated room that can be quickly sealed if necessary, said Ted Balistreri, district security coordinator. The steps are part of procedures that were sent to schools Oct. 18.

Madison schools have not received threats, he said, but officials felt the schools could be vulnerable to copycat hoaxes, so the procedures were put in place to manage any potential problems.

Balistreri compared the new procedures to being prepared for other emergency situations, such as fire drills.

“Do we expect a fire tomorrow in one of our schools? No,” he said. “But we have to be prepared for that. We think these procedures will make students, staff, and parents feel more comfortable.”

Carole Peterson, secretary at Van Hise Elementary School, welcomed the precautions and said she would wear gloves when opening mail. “I think it’s just a good practice until things settle down,” she said.

Other scares

A Flagler Palm Coast (Fla.) High School sophomore was arrested Oct. 16 after admitting he spread white powder on a teacher’s desk in hopes that an anthrax scare would force an evacuation and cancel classes.

James Smith Jr., 17, was arrested and charged with planting a hoax of a destructive device, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. His arrest came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called such hoaxes “no joking matter” and Gov. Jeb Bush vowed to punish those who make false threats of anthrax with lengthy prison sentences.

In St. Simon the Apostle School in Indianapolis, fear of biohazard contamination enveloped hundreds of students and parents after a powder residue reportedly was found beneath gym bleachers. Firefighters eventually quarantined about 175 people inside the building until the substance was determined to pose no health hazard.

Indiana State Police were called to Maconaquah Elementary school in Bunker Hill, where a suspicious substance—later thought to be flour—was found among packages being delivered to the school.

All students at the elementary school and adjacent Maconaquah High School were released around noon as a precautionary measure, the Indianapolis Star reported.

Links:

Fayette County Public Schools, 701 East Main Street, Lexington, KY 40502; phone (859) 381-4100
web http://www.fcps.net.

Kentucky Center for School Safety, Eastern Kentucky University, 105 Stratton Building, 521 Lancaster Avenue, Richmond, KY 40475; phone (877) 805-4277
web http://www.kysafeschools.org.

Madison Metropolitan School District, 545 West Dayton, Madison, WI 53701; phone (608) 663-1879
web http://www.madison.k12.wi.us.