With the war in Iraq in its second week and the terrorism threat level elevated to Code Orange, school systems throughout the Washington region are taking steps to protect students and ease parents' anxieties about the safety of their children.
Since the U.S.-led attack on Iraq began March 19, all three public school systems in Southern Maryland have restricted student trips and quickly posted information on school Web sites for parents concerned about the possibility of retaliatory terrorist actions.
Charles County Public Schools has an "emergency preparedness" Web page that outlines security measures in place at schools and educational centers. What schools will do in an emergency depends on the specific type of threat -- biological, chemical, etc. -- and the school's location.
Options for ensuring student safety include evacuation, temporary lockdowns of school buildings or a shelter-in-place approach, meaning that children would be kept in school for an unspecified amount of time.
Schools have been practicing evacuation drills.
Associate Superintendent Ronald G. Cunningham, who is in charge of security issues, has been fielding calls from parents and explaining school district procedures. He said every school has a "red bag" -- a portable emergency kit, named for the red pouch that contains a flashlight, a bullhorn, student emergency contact cards and other information.
Differences in procedures among schools will evaporate quickly in an actual emergency, Cunningham said.
"In general, as you go up the federal threat levels, there will be more direction from central staff on what's going to happen and less decision-making on the school level," he said.
McDonough High School junior Josh Swann said school officials have told students about the emergency plans. Talk about a possible terrorist or biological attack does not worry him, the 16-year-old said.
"They have a lot of water and food in the cafeteria, and I have my own stash of food . . . so I'm good to go," he said.
In a letter sent home to parents, Calvert school officials said teachers have been told not to allow television sets to drone on with war coverage all day, and the message from administrators described other precautions being taken to preserve students' emotional well-being and safety.
"Communication is the key to helping parents reduce anxiety," said Pat Young, director of personnel and administrative services for the Calvert schools.
Young said the school system also issued guidelines to all principals requiring that they practice the lockdown procedure with all staff before March 28. Teachers have also been directed to reassure students that safety plans are in place and not to request field trips for the remainder of the school year.
In St. Mary's County, Great Mills High School Principal Linda Lymas said students and staff are practicing five different kinds of drills. Although students are handling the situation well, she said, they are very much aware of the war.
"You can hear it in the private conversations," she said. "I think they're handling it in a calm manner, but that doesn't mean that they're not concerned, because this is all they're hearing."
Lymas sent a letter home to parents last week and plans to send an update this week.
"Parents call us and say 'What are you doing?' so it's important for us to constantly communicate what we're doing," she said.