An alert by the U.S. Department of Education urging schools across the country to heighten security and vigilance against terrorism has caused little alarm among Washington area school officials, who said they are prepared and are willing to do more.
The alert, issued Wednesday, came after the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security analyzed the elementary school hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia, early last month in which more than 300 people were killed. It was "not sent out due to any specific information indicating that there is a terrorist threat" at U.S. schools, said Eugene W. Hickok, deputy secretary of education.
There is "no imminent threat, no reason for high anxiety," Hickok said in an interview yesterday. "When we learn lessons about terrorism, we try to find ways to pass those lessons on."
The letter urged the staffs of the nation's schools to install locks on all doors and windows, watch for anyone who might be spying on buildings and review all crisis procedures, among other suggestions. Local school systems said the warning reinforced what has become common knowledge: A risk of terror exists everywhere, and vigilance is required.
Several school officials said they took the recommendations seriously and will consider revising their emergency plans.
"Ignoring these kinds of threats is frankly not an option," said R. Lorraine Fulton, a deputy superintendent of St. Mary's County schools. "At times, it's frustrating because we want to have our focus put on the education of these children. . . . But the term 'business as usual' has taken on a whole new meaning."
Among other things, school officials were told to watch for people interested in school attendance lists or bus routes, surveillance by those disguised as panhandlers or street sweepers, and any other "unexplained presence of unauthorized persons."
Fairfax County schools already follow all the recommended precautions except covering school windows with a protective coating, said Fred Ellis, director of safety and security. "When we look at the recommendations, both short term and long term, there's a sense of reassurance that we can check them all off," Ellis said.
Some security and foreign policy experts said the alert created fear unnecessarily because no specific threat was cited, and they questioned whether the letter was a calculated preelection move.
"With so many other warnings before, the cry-wolf syndrome becomes an issue. Credibility becomes an issue," said Alon Ben-Meir, the Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute in New York.
A recent study by the nonprofit America Prepared Campaign found schools in Fairfax and Montgomery counties to be the best prepared for terrorism of the nation's 20 largest school districts, with Prince George's County schools not far behind.
"The schools are on a heightened alert," said Russell Tedesco, the Prince George's school security chief. "And we do have emergency plans, and they are being reviewed, updated and revised."
At Calvert Middle School in Prince Frederick, school officials recently called in state police to report a "suspicious vehicle" parked nearby, Superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon said. As it turned out, the vehicle belonged to a newspaper reporter.
School officials in the District had no immediate response to the report.
In several Washington area systems, schools require identification badges for all visitors and have staff members scan the premises periodically.
On Wednesday, authorities in Charles County staged a mock terrorist attack at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf. "Gunmen" stormed a classroom and simulated killing students, said Raymond D'Arienzo, a Calvert County official who observed the performance. He said that schools have strategies to lock down facilities in response to various threats and that authorities have been trained to storm the school before waiting for reinforcements.
"We learned a lot from the Columbine situation," D'Arienzo said, referring to the 1999 attack in Colorado by two students. "One was, you don't stand by and wait until kids are killed in the schools."
Staff writers Rebecca Dana, Maria Glod, Ylan Q. Mui and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.