No connection exists between terrorists and a computer disc found in Iraq that contained information about schools in six states, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said Oct. 8.

The disc was made by an unidentified Iraqi man who was doing research and had no connections to al-Qaida or the Iraqi insurgents battling U.S. forces, according to the FBI. The man did have links to the Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but that’s true of many former government officials and community leaders.

The material on the disc appeared to have been downloaded from a publicly accessible Education Department (ED) web site and included such things as manuals on workplace safety, crisis management studies, and building security diagrams. It also contained an ED report on school crisis planning that was published early in 2003.

“It’s not about schools; it’s about policy,” said FBI Agent William Evanina, spokesman for the FBI field office in Newark, N.J. “There’s no terrorism threat to these schools.”

Although there was no indication of a terror threat, the FBI reportedly decided to contact local officials out of “an abundance of caution.”

Education officials in six states were put on notice in September that a computer disc found in Iraq over the summer contained photos, floor plans, and other information about schools in their districts, two U.S. government officials had told the Associated Press on Oct. 7. That announcement had sparked grave concern among school leaders throughout the United States. Regardless of the FBI’s latest assessment, the incident served as a reminder to educators to consider carefully the kind of information they post online about their schools and colleges.

The downloaded data the U.S. military found in July–all publicly available on the internet–included an ED report guiding schools on how to prepare and respond to a crisis, one official said Oct. 7, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The ED report found on the disc is called “Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities.” It reportedly contained photos and floor plans of specific schools.

The districts mentioned on the Iraqi disc are in California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, and Oregon, officials said, adding that the FBI alerted local education and law enforcement authorities of the finding in September.

Officials did not provide the names of the districts. But Kay Baker, superintendent of Oregon’s Salem-Keizer district, confirmed hers was among them.

“Local law enforcement has no knowledge of a specific threat to any of our school buildings,” she said. “We will work collaboratively with law enforcement on any further developments.”

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the FBI told officials there it has “no direct information” that schools in his state are “under any kind of threat.” He said school building floor plans and other sensitive materials about schools are not available via the internet in Florida.

“We have talked to the superintendents to make sure that what they have been doing they continue to do–to make safety first and foremost for the kids of our state,” Bush said. Besides the Salem-Keizer district in Oregon, school districts reportedly mentioned on the Iraqi disc included those in Fort Myers, Fla.; San Diego and La Punta, Calif.; Birch Run, Mich.; Jones County, Ga.; and Franklinville and Rumson, both in New Jersey.

Wayne Wright, superintendent of the Birch Run Area Schools, said he was contacted late in September by FBI agents. “They said they get thousands of pieces of information coming out of Iraq every day, and this was just one of the pieces,” Wright said.

The San Diego school system sought to reassure parents through a letter sent to homes on Oct. 8. “It is very important that you know there is no specific threat to our schools and students here in San Diego,” the letter said.

The FBI contacts with local officials occurred shortly after the attack by Chechen rebels on a school in Russia that killed more than 330 people, nearly half of them children. But officials said the two events are not connected.

Early in October, the FBI and Homeland Security Department also sent to state and local officials a lengthy analysis of the Russian attacks with a long list of school security recommendations.

In a separate but more widespread warning put out at about the same time, ED advised school leaders nationwide to watch for people spying on their buildings or buses to help detect any possibility of terrorism like the deadly Russian school siege.

“The horror of this attack [in Russia] may have created significant anxiety in our own country among parents, students, faculty, staff, and other community members,” Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said in a letter sent Oct. 6 to schools and education groups.

Federal law enforcement officials also have urged local police to stay in contact with school officials and have encouraged reporting of suspicious activities, the letter said.

In particular, schools were told to watch for activities that might be legitimate on their own–but might suggest a threat if many were to occur in a short time.

Among those activities:

  • Interest in obtaining site plans for schools, bus routes, and attendance lists.

  • Prolonged “static surveillance” by people disguised as panhandlers, shoe shiners, or newspaper or flower vendors.

Said Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant, of federal officials: “It’s a positive sign that they’re finally discussing this after years of downplaying or denying even the possibility of a terrorist strike on schools. Public officials are in fear of creating fear, but we have to put the cards on the table, educate people in the school community, and make sure they are well prepared.”

The federal government is advising schools to take many steps to improve the security of their buildings. Those include installing locks for all doors and windows, having a single entry point into buildings, and ensuring they can reach school bus drivers in an emergency.

Links:

Education Department crisis planning help
http://www.ed.gov/emergencyplan