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Are U.S. schools prepared for terrorist attack?

What if a terrorist attack affected an American school? Are there plans in place to protect the nation's children? A new report studies the 20 largest school districts in the U.S.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

It's a story sending chills through every parent with a child in school, the tragic outcome of the terrorist siege in Russia. Several hundred children, teachers and parents were taken hostage by armed gunmen in their school building on Wednesday. Two days later, there was gunfire, explosions and disaster. Commandos stormed the school, and reports are that more than 100 people were killed. What if a terrorist attack affected an American school? Are there plans in place to protect the nation's children?

It’s morning in suburban Tampa, Fla., and a routine sets in. Kids are off to school and many moms and dads are already at work. The flag goes up, the pledge is said and it's quickly down to business. 

But on May 27 of last year, that routine was shattered. A deadly cloud of ammonia gas was released from a pipeline near two schools. Hundreds of children were at risk. Initially, the fear was terrorism.

Although it later proved to be a minor incident, it was a major test for the Hillsborough County School district, and it raises the question: Just how well prepared are the nation's schools to deal with a terrorist event?

That's the question journalist Steven Brill is asking. Brill, who wrote a book on the lessons of 9/11, is launching the America Prepared Campaign, with the help of a private grant.  The campaign's mission is to encourage Americans to plan in case of a terrorist attack. 

As part of the campaign, America Prepared is releasing a report on its Web site, looking at whether the 20 largest school districts in the country are following federal guidelines which advise school systems to make sure that aside from addressing general emergencies, they deal with the possibility of terrorism.

Chris Hansen: "What should the school district have in place, ideally?"

Steven Brill: "A plan that everybody understands. Everybody knows what their role is. In case we have to shelter in place at the school, what room or rooms should we bring the children into that will be the safest rooms? How will we communicate with parents? What supplies will we have there?"

Dr. Earl Lennard is the superintendent in Hillsborough County which had that gas leak. The district includes potential terrorist targets like McDill Air Force Base, home to the Central Command, and the Port of Tampa.  

Lennard: "I think you have to be ready to respond to a real threat, absolutely, every day. A major portion of what we do and a major portion of the balance of resources that we have geared towards providing a safe environment.

In Brill's judgment, Hillsborough county, like many others in his survey, has a good terror response plan and it's getting better. Phones have been installed in classrooms, water has been stockpiled, and some schools even have low-powered radio stations to keep nearby parents informed in an emergency.

Brill: "It doesn't mean they are paranoid. It doesn't mean they are scaring their children. It means that they have specific plans for specific types of emergencies, even specific types of attacks."

Remember, the Department of Education says those plans should involve specific drills, adequate supplies, and ways to communicate with students, parents and educators.

Brill points to another district which he says others may want to emulate. Montgomery county, Maryland which educates 140,000 students in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a well-financed and precise terror response plan that meets the government guidelines. It’s so detailed, it fills four loose leaf binders.

School administrators have produced their own video showing educators exactly what to do if children need to be sheltered, if, for example it's too dangerous to go outside.  Superintendent Jerry Weast's office is tied in directly to the county emergency response center.  The district's Web site has clear instructions directing parents to up-to-the-minute information on emergency plans and procedures. 

Hansen: "What is your biggest fear?

Weast: "Whether we can handle it -- and I don't know what the ‘it’ is."

Hansen: "Your cell phone goes off. A dirty bomb has just been exploded six miles from one of your schools. What do you do?"

Weast: "We're going to determine one, the area of the blast. Two, which way is the wind blowing. We're going to be locking down every building and bringing those children into the safest part of the building, depending on what the threat is."

Hansen: "You've though about this before?"

Weast: "You can tell." [laughter]

While Montgomery County makes America Prepared's A-list, Brill's group believes some school districts aren't doing enough. Among them is Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district with more than 600 schools and more than 400,000 students. Brill criticizes Chicago's schools for not having a specific plan for terrorism, nor conducting drills for terrorist acts, such as a dirty bomb.

Brill: "Someone has said somewhere that there was a dirty bomb. You've never drilled on it so you're not even sure what a dirty bomb means. What phone are they going to use? Who are they going to talk to? What are they going to ask about? And where are they going to go?

But Chicago public school officials say, "not so fast." Andres Durbak, the chief of security for the school district says there is a master plan for dealing with major emergencies and he says Brill's report is superficial. 

Durbak: "What we're prepared for here are shootings, we're prepared for weather emergency, we're prepared for threats to our buildings and our students from the many factories and other hazards that exist in this city every single day."

Hansen: "You would argue that being prepared for a school shooting or some sort of industrial accident or event also prepares you for something that might turn out to be a terrorist event."

Durbak: "Without a doubt."

Hansen: "This guy may be more worried about kids being stabbed or shot in school than he is about a potential terrorist."

Brill: "And that's a perfectly valid explanation. And I think if he wants to say that those are the priorities he should say that. I mean this report doesn't make him or anybody a bad person.  We were judging one thing, which was preparedness for emergencies such as a terrorist attack."

Brill says he wants this report to create controversy. In the wake of 9/11, he hopes it will at least get parents and educators to focus on preparing schools for a terrorist event.

Brill: "Something bad is going to happen and someone's going to write a report some day and say why didn't you do this? We just thought we should write that report first."