Educators: Schools Should Stay Open in Absence of Direct Threats

Unless schools are directly targeted or threatened, they should stay open even though a sniper remains at large in the Washington area, educators say.

"You close them, you're throwing an awful lot of kids on the street, an awful lot of targets on the street," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Area school officials said they were meeting daily to consider whether schools should remain open. Most said students are probably safer in school, unless police can show they're being targeted there or en route.

"It's a hard call," Houston said. "There's no right or wrong answer — it's a whole new territory for everybody, including the police."

Police said a letter found near the scene of Saturday night's sniper shooting in Ashland, Va., said, "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time." Richmond-area schools closed Monday and Tuesday, but were expected to reopen Wednesday.

Most Washington-area schools were open Tuesday, but officials kept students indoors and canceled field trips and outdoor after-school activities, as they have since the attacks began. Police were posted near the entrances of many schools.

Alexandria, Va., schools spokeswoman Barbara Hunter said the threat, revealed late Tuesday afternoon, is ominous, but that officials must still consider whether kids are safer at school.

"As a parent, that would strike fear in my heart," she said. "However, I have — and our school district has — complete confidence in the police operations that are eventually going to bring this person to justice."

Elaine Furlow, chair of the Arlington, Va., school board, agreed.

"Keeping our schools open with safeguards seems like a reasonable decision to me," she said. "And I don't think it helps our kids to suggest that it's not safe to go outside their homes. I think the precautions that we have taken are reasonable and prudent, especially in light of the fact that they're re-evaluating every day, taking into account all new information."

On Tuesday, several area school district officials said attendance was normal, but asked that their specific districts not be identified, fearing unwanted attention.

This week's school closings in Virginia were among the only ones since the attacks began. In the only sniper shooting at a school, a 13-year-old boy was wounded Oct. 7 as he arrived at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md.

Ohio school safety consultant Ken Trump said the Virginia closings were "a dramatic but prudent" step that schools officials made because they felt there was a direct threat to children in their area.

Jane Hammond, superintendent-in-residence at the Stupski Family Foundation in Mill Valley, Calif., said children need the steady routine of school and should keep attending, especially if parents feel they're safe.

"It's best to keep it as normal as possible," said Hammond, who was superintendent of the Jefferson County, Colo., schools during the Columbine High School shooting rampage.

After the 1999 shootings, which left 15 people dead, Hammond said schools were closed only briefly.

"We wanted very much to have school the next day, but what we recognized was that we had some work to do with how our staff was prepared to work with the kids when they came back," she said. Jefferson County Schools opened two days later.

"We were very slow to close any of the schools in our community," Hammond said.