Cabinet Secretaries Focus on School Security

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Cabinet secretaries for Education and Homeland Security visited a local high school in Montgomery County, Md., on Friday to tell parents and educators they need to prepare a plan and practice their responses to a terrorist attack now.

"If you have a plan review it. If you don't, get one," Education Secretary Rod Paige told parents, students and administrators at Montgomery Blair High School.

But Paige may have been preaching to the choir. When he told school administrators about a new Education Department web site that will help them with emergency planning, he was pointing out a site that prominently features the Montgomery County schools crisis-response plan, among other sources of information.

At schools outside the Washington area, security officials said terrorism fears are not as prevalent and planning not as advanced.

"People here are more concerned about snipers than biochemical things," said Janice Lake, director of safety for Talbot County, Md. public schools. Talbot County is located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, far outside the Metropolitan Washington area.

Lake said her schools are prepared for intruders and natural disasters, but chemical, biological or radiological terrorism is not something they often think about.

Schools close to Washington and New York are taking the threat of terrorism more seriously than other areas, said Judy Phelps, spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators.

Those districts "are living on a different level of immediacy," she said.

Even when schools have done as much as they can to protect students from danger, there are still some hazards they are not prepared for, said Steve Drummond, director of security for Howard County schools, also in Maryland. "Certainly we can't defend against that [biological terrorism]," he said, adding that the duct-tape-and-plastic warnings of recent weeks are of little practical use for large school systems.

"We're prepared to turn off the air handling system and close off anything that would cause a draft in the building and we've made sure that the schools have all the supplies they need," Drummond said.

But the type of planning Paige talked about Friday was not much more elaborate than the scenario described by Drummond. Tips ranged from being on the lookout for shrubs that could hide people or contraband near schools, to establishing a system for controlling the flow of people into and out of schools and letting parents know what is going on.

Montgomery County schools Superintendent Jerry Weast said his schools are working together with local emergency responders and are prepared for the worst.

But even he said that all the work his teams have been doing recently to prepare for a crisis has been a scramble.

"We've been working in synchronicity and paddling underneath," Weast said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge urged parents present to create crisis plans at home. "The level of comfort in plans that you create yourself will empower you," Ridge said.

Montgomery County school board President Patricia O'Neill urged parents to talk to their children about terrorism and crisis situations. She said that since Sept. 11 she has been concerned about her seventh-grade daughter.

"It's important to connect with your children because the unknown is frightening," she said.

Paige unveiled his department's new web site — www.ed.gov/emergencyplan/ — with the help of two Blair students piloting a laptop. "It's designed to be a one-stop-shop to help school officials," Paige said of the site, which went live Thursday.

Helping schools will help parents, too, he said.

"Schools are a part of the community, they are not isolated," Paige said.

"We must work together, as a community, to protect our most precious resource — our children."