As educators nationwide remain alert for possible terrorist activity as a result of the war in Iraq, the federal government is offering new resources to help ensure the safety of students.

The national heads of education and homeland security have announced a new web site and $30 million to help school officials prepare for emergencies such as natural disasters, violent crimes, and terrorist acts. And a national facility perhaps best known for designing security systems to protect the Pentagon’s arsenal of nuclear weapons is offering its expertise to schools as well.

$30 million emergency-planning program

The emergency-planning web site, an addition to U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) site, is intended to serve as one-stop shop for information and federal guidance on handling crises.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced the site—and a $30 million grant program to accompany it— March 7 at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.

“The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved—from top to bottom—should know the drill and know each other,” Paige said.

Many schools already had emergency plans before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States—but in the wake of the attacks, school safety experts have urged schools to revisit their plans to account for new threats such as chemical or biological weapons. The federal No Child Left Behind Act also requires schools to have comprehensive crisis response plans in place.

“The tide of events since September 11, 2001 demands that schools be better prepared. We’re here to help—to provide more information and resources and to highlight programs we know work,” Paige said.

The site includes links to online resources, as well as examples of emergency-response plans from the Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., school systems and North Carolina public schools.

School districts could begin applying this spring for their share of the additional $30 million available to help them improve their emergency plans. Schools can use the funds to train staff, parents, and students how to respond to a crisis; coordinate their response with local fire and police stations; purchase necessary security equipment; and match up with organizations responsible for disaster recovery issues.

Besides working with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies on school preparedness, ED has consulted experts from around the country to develop a model emergency response and crisis management plan, which will be released later this year.

ED’s message to schools:

  • If you don’t have a crisis plan that was created in partnership with public safety, police, fire, health, mental health, and local emergency-preparedness agencies, consult with these agencies to develop one. Make sure it addresses crises such as fires, school shootings, and accidents, as well as biological, radiological, chemical, and other terrorist activities.
  • If you do have a crisis plan, review it. Ensure that it addresses issues related to terrorism, such as biological, radiological, and chemical attacks.
  • Train, practice, and drill.

Free advice on security technologies

Educators also can get free advice from Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy facility near Albuquerque, N.M., on evaluating and implementing the latest technologies to safeguard their schools.

Sandia was a nuclear weapons security facility during the Cold War. Since then, it has turned its attention toward education and now operates a School Security Technology Center to help schools implement high-tech security systems.

“Our primary focus in the past has been to do technology demonstration projects,” said Gordon Smith, manager of Sandia’s public safety technologies department.

For example, Sandia researchers have installed tamper-resistant video recording systems in schools to provide them with real-time monitoring capabilities. They’ve also installed hand geometry units—which measure the length, width, and height of fingers—to authorize the release of students to parents or guardians. The caregiver would insert his or her hand into the device to be measured and key in a personal identification number.

“It’s not as unique as a fingerprint, but it’s a technology that’s been around for a long time. It’s pretty robust and easy to use,” Smith said.

Sandia researchers also investigated the use of temporary visitor badges. Schools often have difficulty collecting all the visitor badges they hand out, so to address the problem researchers tested time-sensitive badges. The word “void” would be written in a special ink that would appear after a period of time, so the badges couldn’t be used repeatedly.

The center recently limited its research and demonstration projects and has shifted into more of an advisory role for schools. “We’ve decided not to do any new demonstration projects because we’ve already proven that the technology works—unless something major comes along and we need to see how it works,” Smith said. “Now we need to help schools that want to install security technologies.”

School leaders can turn to Sandia for unbiased, research-based advice on what pitfalls to avoid, how to negotiate contracts with vendors, and the impact that technologies such as metal detectors have on the school environment. Sandia provides information, analysis, and marketplace surveys on various topics—including hair analysis kits used for drug testing, metal detectors, improving exits, locking hardware, and policies and procedures.

The facility also is in the process of creating the second volume of its guide book “The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools.” The second volume, which will be released next year, will address drug and alcohol alert detection, deterring false alarms, intrusion detection sensors and alarms, and communication.

Educators are invited to contact Sandia for advice on what to include in requests for proposals, how various security technologies work, and how much equipment is needed. Schools leaders who have identified funding for their projects but still need specific advice can eMail Gordon Smith at gjsmith@sandia.gov or security specialist Mary Green at mgreen@sandia.gov.

See these related links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

ED’s Emergency Planning web site
http://www.ed.gov/emergencyplan

U.S. Department of Homeland Security http://www.dhs.gov Ready Campaign
http://www.ready.gov

Sandia National Laboratories
http://www.sandia.gov

“The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools”
http://www.ncjrs.org/school/home.html