Bush administration officials used a Montgomery County high school yesterday as their stage for announcing a $30 million grant program to help the nation's schools prepare for emergencies, including the threat of a terrorist attack. They also encountered something they didn't script: a small antiwar demonstration.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige spoke of the grant money and unveiled a disaster-preparedness Web site during a visit to Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. The event, which included an inspection of county emergency equipment, was intended to emphasize that "terrorism forces us to make a choice," Ridge said. "We can be ready, or we can be afraid. . . . We will be ready."
Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast shook hands not only with Ridge and Paige but also with a bomb-detecting robot named FRED that is owned by the county. County fire officials displayed chemical suits and explained toxic-testing kits to reporters.
The new school-oriented Web site, www.ed.gov/emergencyplan, provides links to information on everything from locking down campuses to stocking emergency supplies. It lists Montgomery schools, along with those in Fairfax County and in North Carolina, as having exemplary emergency response models. "All the nation's schools can hopefully follow your lead," Ridge said to local officials.
The recommendations on the government's Web site are not mandatory, officials said. Each school district is encouraged to come up with its own emergency plan, in consultation with local officials, or to review plans already in place. "The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out what to do," Paige said.
Like many school districts, Montgomery County developed its emergency response plan after the Columbine shootings in 1999, spokesman Brian Porter said. The plan was rewritten after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and revised almost daily during the Washington area sniper shootings last fall, he said.
Montgomery Blair students said the school has had several emergency drills this year. During practice for a Code Red, which would indicate immediate danger, students locked their classroom doors, turned off the lights, huddled in a corner and stayed quiet.
The drills are not taken lightly. If a classroom doesn't stay silent, administrators slip a note under the door that says, "You're dead." The exercises take about 15 minutes.
But despite all the practice, some students said the first thing they would do in an actual emergency is freak out. Iye Dedo, 16, a junior at Blair and a member of the school's safety committee, said she would like to think she would wait for instructions, but "if everyone else is going crazy, I'll go crazy, too."
Carly Viejra, a 17-year-old senior at Blair who said she opposes going to war with Iraq, expressed concern that it would come to just that. "It's a war the governments are fighting and not the people . . . and the toll will be taken on the people," she said.
Blair students were prohibited from attending the protest during class time, but the gathering outside the high school drew about 50 young people, some from local colleges and other high schools. As a senior with only a half-day of classes yesterday, Viejra marched with few worries. But she was concerned that a friend who snuck out of school to participate might not be so lucky. "Yes, [the school is] acknowledging our protest, but they're not supporting it," Viejra said.