NEW YORK – While more money is being poured into protecting the nation's critical infrastructures from terror attacks — including bridges, waterways and telecommunication networks — some safety groups say schools are being ignored.
"I certainly would hate to think that a child would be safer sitting atop a bridge or monument or the hallways of Capitol Hill than they would in their classroom," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services (search), a Cleveland-based consulting firm.
Last month, the National Association of School Resource Officers (search) — a group of 12,000 school-based law enforcement personnel and county police — released a survey showing that over 90 percent of respondents think schools are "soft targets" for potential terror attacks.
According to the NASRO survey, over 76 percent said their schools aren't prepared to respond to attacks; over 51 percent said their schools don't have specific guidelines to follow if there is a change in the national terror alert level; 71 percent said their school's employees haven't received terrorism-specific training; and 47 percent said the school-based police have not received anti-terrorism training.
"Our survey indicates we're no better off now than we were the day after Sept. 11," said NASRO Executive Director Curtis Lavarello. "It tells us that schools are not in the homeland security loop and they should be."
The U.S. Department of Education is expected to announce $38 million in grants within the next two weeks for schools to boost their emergency plans, some of which include how to protect schools from terror attacks and how to respond to school shootings.
The grants go to some of the 500 schools that applied in the spring for money to be used this school year for security efforts as well as natural disaster preparations, bus accidents and efforts to keep guns out of schools, said Bill Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (search).
"We're in a day and age when … it's not just 'a' thing schools have to be prepared for, they have to be prepared for a whole host of things," Modzeleski said.
The Education Department has encouraged schools to forge partnerships with local law enforcement, fire departments and first responders to create action plans for all types of incidents. Several school districts have already taken the initiative.
Miami-Dade County, for example, has a domestic security task force of which the chief of school police is a part.
In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools representatives sit on county emergency planning and management committees, and school plans are made in concert with all other local emergency plans.
"This is a game of partnerships," Modzeleski said. "I think that in the end, those schools that do a good job of partnerships in the community … will be better off if a crisis occurs."
Education Secretary Rod Paige and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in March unveiled a new Web site, www.ed.gov/emergencyplan, to be a one-stop shop to help schools for emergencies.
"As a former superintendent of the nation's seventh largest school district, I know the importance of emergency planning," said Paige, who used to oversee the Houston public school district. "The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what."
But not everyone is satisfied with the federal government's effort. Trump said the funding is just a one-time shot in the arm that doesn't help schools deal with the critical lack of protective services at schools.
After Sept. 11, "people asked me, 'Is this a wake-up call?' The question is, are we going to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep?" asked Trump.
"Sadly enough, when it comes to our schools and our children, we've taken this 'let's just wait and see' attitude toward the overall school safety issue," Lavarello said. "You can get to the heart of America or the heart of people very quickly if you threaten children."
NASRO wants Congress to pass an Education Homeland Security Act to fund school terrorism training, improve security and crisis planning. In theory, the measure would mandate school crime reporting and would hold schools accountable for crisis planning.
Washington also needs to clarify what schools should do when the Department of Homeland Security changes the nation's color-coded terror threat level, school officials said.
Officials said guidance should be given on whether school administrators should let kids out of school early or cancel field trips or whether heightened alerts means delivery rooms should handle mail more carefully.
But some in the school system say administrators can decide what's reasonable for their own schools.
"I have to be very honest, I think the color alert is bogus, it's more political than anything else," said Tony Brandone, principal of Van Antwerp Middle School in Niskayuna, N.Y. "That doesn't mean there's a local issue. We have to walk between what's a local issue and what's not a local issue."
Since Sept. 11, Van Antwerp has taken steps to boost security by mandating all staff wear ID badges, having lockdown plans on hand, and keeping all doors, except one, locked.
"Maybe if you were in a major metropolitan area that would be a possible candidate for any kind of terrorist attacks, you would have a different approach than you would have in a suburban school," Brandone said.
Trump's company suggests that schools should always be on "heightened awareness" for suspicious activity, people and packages; pay more attention to perimeter security and school access; verify the identity of service personnel and vendors; secure utilities and maintenance operations; evaluate food and drink protection procedures; and make sure there are enough nurses and medical supplies available.
But some worry that the farther away the nation gets from tragedy, the more people will forget just how big a threat still looms.
"I'm concerned that the farther we move from 9/11 and Columbine and other school shootings," Trump said, "that we're going to continue to push school safety to the back burner and off the stove."