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When Terrorists Hit Schools


A Series of School Shootings Shocked Us


Dave Arnold

If you are an educator, then you must be shocked about terrorism in schools, especially since three incidents in the U.S. took place within a week of one another.

I happened to have been reading an article about the Beslan Massacre that occurred in September of 2004 in Russia.  I'd seen the figures before, but they still stagger me:

  • About 330 people -- half of them children -- found dead after Russian Special Forces storm the school.
  • More than 500 people hospitalized.
  • At the time, three days after the event, scores of people were unaccounted for.
    Initially, the authorities said 16 terrorists were behind the hostage taking and that 13 were reported to have escaped. Then, different officials cited numbers ranging from 29 to 34 terrorists, saying all had been killed, except for three who were captured.

As I read the article, I received word of a gunman entering a school at Bailey, Colorado. In my hands was the article about Beslan. On the TV screen was news about the assault of six girls and the murder of 16-year-old Emily Keyes. It was September 27.

On the 29th came the murder of John Klang, the high school principal shot to death by a 15-year-old freshman in Cazenovia, Wisconsin. Then the mass murder of five young Amish girls after 10 were taken hostage in their one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. That was October 2. What next!

Rude Awakening

While these terrible incidents were not on the scale of Beslan, it's terrorism. In both Colorado and Pennsylvania, the terrorists walked into schools with the sole intent to abuse or kill students.

When 12 students and a teacher were killed at Columbine High School in April 1999, we all awoke to the reality of school terrorism. We use to believe that our children were safe at schools. Reality says different.
 
The National School Safety and Security Services (NSSSS) stated in a survey that while it may not be a probability that terrorists will strike our schools, we must acknowledge that it is a possibility. So, reasonable steps must be taken to prevent and prepare for such an incident.
  
The NSSSS report states that "teachers, administrators, school support staff, school resource officers, school security personnel, and other professionals on the front lines of our nation's schools (and) are the first responders to any emergency."

Schools are Vulnerable

The survey found 95 percent of responding school-based police officers indicate that their schools are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, with 79 percent stating that their schools are not adequately prepared for such attacks.

To prepare, schools should train teachers and support staff on how to respond to terrorism, evaluate and refine security plans, and test school crisis plans. School policy should also encourage school personnel to maintain a "heightened awareness" for suspicious activity and to report same.

I spoke with my school principal, Jeanine Wendling, a deputy sheriff and friend of mine, about the possibility of a terrorist attack on a school occurring in the United States.

As we talked it became obvious that each of us had the same opinions and fears. Each of us believed in the possibility of another terrorist attack on a school. We also thought the terrorist would likely be a deranged gunman as in Bailey and at the Nickel Mine School.

Psychologists theorize that suicidal individuals will often seek out those that are powerless and defenseless as their victims because they themselves have always been weak and defenseless.

Going Undercover

An officer of the Illinois State Police once told me that he tested school security by visiting a school dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt, tennis shoes, and wearing his off-duty handgun on his belt.

Usually, he walked by students, teachers, and administrators and was not questioned. One day he walked into a school and met up with the custodian. She stopped him and demanded his name and the nature of his business.

When he revealed his purpose, she demanded he show his identification and badge. That still wasn't good enough for her, so she took him to the office and called the state police to verify. The trooper summed up the experience by saying, "God bless that lady. If we had more like her, we'd have a lot less problems."
 
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at dparnold@csuol.com.)

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.


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