NEW YORK – Although three years have passed since the Sept. 11 terror attacks (search), children are returning to schools this fall that still are not adequately prepared for terrorist incidents or other types of emergencies, according to security and educational experts.
"Unfortunately, really, across the board, we are complacent," said Juval Aviv, president and CEO of Interfor Inc., an international corporate intelligence and investigations firm. "Not enough has been done in education to educate those who are responsible for the safety of kids going back to school.
"One has to understand that the world has changed — it's a new ballgame," Aviv said. "Just because nothing has happened between 9/11 and today, doesn't mean that it won't happen again. We need to look at everything, and what is more dear to us than our own kids and our own families?"
For the past few years, money and effort have been poured into fortifying the nation's critical infrastructures — bridges, tunnels, waterways and computer networks — to safeguard them against terror attacks. But security experts say the nation's schools need even more attention because they hold the most precious cargo.
The horror that followed the deaths of scores of children in last week's terrorist attack on a school in Russia has drawn focus on the vulnerability of schools throughout this country.
"With the terror alerts and things like that, we're trying to figure out where schools lie in the grand scheme of terror threats," said John Kotnour, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. "Nothing's happened yet … but we're convinced it's just a matter of time before the hard targets of schools become soft targets."
NASRO — a group of 1,200 school-based law enforcement personnel and county police — found last fall that over 90 percent of respondents thought schools were soft targets for potential terror attacks. Over 76 percent of schools said they weren't prepared to respond to attacks, while over half said their schools don't have specific guidelines to follow if there is a change in the national alert terror level (search).
The organization is preparing to release this year's survey in about a month.
"Overall, I think one of the things we try to reaffirm every year is that [feeling of] complacency," Kotnour said. "There's just way too many of these crisis plans sitting on shelves. The only time they get dusted off is when a major event happens."
Some schools have implemented procedures such as practicing lockdown and evacuation drills and training staff on identifying trespassers on school grounds. But increased federal pressure for schools to improve test scores and continuing school budget cuts are hampering districts' ability to make sure enough safety programs are put into place to deal with any type of catastrophic event.
"A lot of administrators are under the gun right now for tests scores and things like that," Kotnour said. "When it comes to school safety, we are constantly asking, is it an agenda item? Is it being discussed with staff before school starts? When school budget cuts continue, unfortunately, school safety goes down the drain with it."
"School safety is going to suffer," added Kenneth S. Trump, president of the Cleveland, Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services. And "once the grant funding well dries up, school districts and law enforcement are pointing fingers at each other saying, 'who's going to pick up the tab?' That's when you see the real level of commitment to school safety."
Last year, the Education Department (search) doled out $38 million in grants to schools to boost their emergency plans. This year, it's offering up about $33 million and is in the process of determining how to allocate the money to about 100 schools.
The department recently sent out pamphlets to every K-12 public and private school, telling each to think about various emergency situations and make sure their emergency plans are up to date. Planning, preparing, response and recovery are the four aspects of the plan.
"The unfortunate events of both Columbine (search) and 9/11 have really caused schools to focus on this and they should," Deborah Price, deputy undersecretary for education, told FOXNews.com. "I think the perspective that it's only the large, urban cities that need to have a crisis plan is sort of falling by the wayside because a natural disaster, an emergency, can happen anywhere … schools are realizing that and it's important."
But it's vital for parents to be involved in the process as well, education officials said.
"Parents should be aware, right off the bat at the beginning of school, 'what is the school's policy in terms of some kind of a crisis? Do they lockdown? Do they send kids home?" Price asked.
Price also noted that her Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools (search) has booklets of safety information and how to establish an effective emergency plan online. The Department of Homeland Security will unveil a READYKIDS Web site next month to encourage kids and families to develop their own personal plans, Price said. Organizations like the Red Cross also have similar information available.
Parent involvement is vital, experts agreed, because schools need to be held accountable for their safety plans.
"We were really overwhelmed how little schools have done," said Aviv, whose company has surveyed schools on preparedness issues. "I'm really worried about it because schools have been targets in the past. If you really want to hurt America, you put a bomb in a kindergarten, then you get people's attention."
According to NASRO, non-fatal school-related shootings, stabbings and cyber bullying continue to be issues schools needs to confront. But because of the contentious presidential election in November and recent terror alerts indicating terrorists may try to disrupt the U.S. democratic process, officials are particularly concerned this year about terror in schools.
For example, many schools serve as polling places on Election Day. With so many people coming in and out of the schools during these days, experts said, it's vital for schools to have a system in place of identifying who is on the premises, and why.
"Whether we're talking about hurricanes, natural disasters or whether we're talking about terrorism, the message is the same for schools: plan, prepare and practice for emergency situations," Trump said.
"We've made significant improvements in school safety in the weeks and months after Columbine, but five years later we've stalled, and we … need to make sure we stay stable and balanced and move ahead. School safety planning is an ongoing process, it's not a one-time event."