Sunday, March 9, 2003

Schools prepare for disasters


Bioterrorism joins list of weather, intruder threats

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer
and Sue Kiesewetter
Enquirer contributor

Upon touring Rex Ralph Elementary, disaster specialist Bob Armstrong declared that the school's open classrooms, which only have three walls, will make it difficult to create a disaster plan for chemical spills, tornadoes or an act of terrorism. Difficult but not impossible, said Armstrong, who is with the American Red Cross-Cincinnati area chapter.

Armstrong toured the school last week with Viki McCorkel, Mount Healthy school district's safe and drug-free school coordinator, to determine where students and staff should retreat in an emergency.

Schools across the Tristate are beefing up emergency management plans in light of heightened terror alerts. The U.S. Department of Education on Friday opened a new section of its Web site (www.ed.gov/emergencyplan) to help schools plan for any emergency, including natural disasters, violent incidents and acts of terrorism.

Armstrong said it's not expensive to be prepared.

"It would be ideal to have an underground bunker with its own ventilation system, but you're not going to have that," Armstrong said. "You have to work with what you've got. Ninety percent of it is about education and teaching people what to do and where to go."

Rex Ralph presents challenges, having been built in the 1970s when the "open" concept dominated classroom design. The classrooms, which are connected by hallways, make it difficult to find an enclosed shelter.

Despite that, McCorkel and Armstrong took just 45 minutes to plot out shelter areas for the 350 students.

Bathrooms were selected because they're made of sturdy concrete blocks or brick. Libraries received negative marks because even books could become deadly weapons in a tornado. Rex Ralph's computer room became a designated shelter because the lack of windows would reduce the risk of flying glass or toxins seeping from a chemical spill or biological attack.

Eventually, all the district's schools will be inspected and staff will begin rehearsing disaster plans this month.

New kinds of readiness

Districts across Ohio are inquiring about how to update disaster plans, said Scott Ebright, deputy director of communications at the Ohio School Boards Association.

"We're struggling to find definitive answers. This is so new to all of us," Ebright said. "The key is using common sense in applying the crisis plan."

Making it more difficult, Ebright said, is the fine line between informing the community of plans but not giving out too many details that might get into the wrong hands.

In Butler County, Lakota Schools began planning for a possible bioterrorism attack last fall. Besides meeting with law enforcement officials, educators are looking at their own crisis handbook.

"We have to think of the unthinkable," said Jon Weidlich, district spokesman.

"Schools are used to having evacuation and intruder plans. We've drilled for that, planned for that, talked to agencies about that. (Bioterrorism) is different."

In Fairfield, school officials began consulting with fire and police officials last fall and have reconvened a safety committee, said Superintendent Robert Farrell.

Cincinnati school principals last fall met with fire officials to review "shelter-in-place" procedures. In the event of a terror alert upgrading to red - the highest level - the district would take its cues from the Hamilton County Emergency Management Department on whether to close or stay open.

The district can contact parents through an automated phone system, but in most cases, parents would be contacted by individual schools, said spokeswoman Jan Leslie.

Many officials say they have been enhancing emergency preparations for years.

School shootings, like the Colorado shooting in which two young gunmen killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in 1999 at Columbine High School, led them to upgrade their plans long before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In 2001, the Kentucky Department of Education published a 156-page School-Centered Emergency Management and Recovery Guide to help schools review crisis plans. The guide does not specifically address terrorism but goes into detail about responding to chemical spills and similar disasters.

Principals in Covington Independent Schools review their crisis plans with staff before the start of every school year, said Henley McIntosh, the district's safety director.

In the event of a chemical or biological attack, schools would go into lockdown, meaning no one could enter or leave the building.

Schools also would set up a "shelter-in-place," or a safe place like a library, where students and staff would go. Cracks and crevices, such as windows, in the designated shelter would be sealed. McIntosh said custodians know to shut off ventilation systems.

Each school would set up a command center where parents could pick up children, depending on the nature of the emergency.

Despite schools' recent efforts, a 2002 national survey of school-based police officers found that 95 percent of respondents indicated their schools are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. And 79 percent said their schools are not adequately prepared for such attacks.

In the survey, conducted for the National Association of School Resource Officers by National School Safety and Security Services, school officers reported gaps in security and emergency preparedness as well as limited training and support to prepare for terrorist attacks upon schools.

"To have the best system against any terrorism is going to cost us a significant amount of money," said Alan Hutchinson, treasurer of Lakota Schools. "That's going to be tough considering we're in a situation where we're being cut by the state."

But the Red Cross' Armstrong said cost should not be a factor.

"When it comes down to it, you have to have everyone know what to do and when," he said.

Even with well-rehearsed preparations, schools can't be assured everything will go as planned, Mount Healthy's McCorkel said.

For example, in the event of a chemical disaster, school officials would be expected to lock children and themselves in designated spaces. But hypothetically, if a child had not followed instructions and ended up in a bathroom or another area of the school and later tried to enter the locked room, staff would be expected not to let that child in.

In that scenario, the staff would have to consider the well-being of the whole group to prevent chemicals - or other dangers - from penetrating the locked room.

Could officials guarantee staff members would not open a door during a lockdown to let in that child? McCorkel said that's never a guarantee.

"When you have the human element, you can't ever say for sure," she said, emphasizing the magnitude of that decision. "You just do the best you can."

E-mail jmrozowski@enquirer.com

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