County schools respond to heightened security alert

By Megan R. Harrell

Star Staff

   Last week the United States was placed on its highest level of alert since the days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The orange level is the second highest in the advisory system and calls for the entire population to take measures to curb any possible attacks on the home front.
   With more than a quarter of the American population located at schools each day, the need for a systematic approach to protecting against threats in the educational environment has become a pressing homeland security issue.
   Under the orange, or high risk of attack, schools are advised to develop lesson plans for terrorism or tragic events, to review emergency plans, and to heighten their attentiveness to suspicious activities.
   The American Red Cross goes on to advise school administrators to prepare for handling questions from concerned parents and members of the community. They are also encouraged to develop methods of communication to discuss possible attacks with students, and to help them cope with the fears associated with the new chemical and biological threats that face our nation.
   Meredith Trott oversees the counselors who work with students in the county school system. She stated even though a new counseling plan for terrorist threats is not currently being implemented, that necessary actions are being taken.
   "We are taking the regular steps and talking about safety. All the counselors know to follow the guidelines already in place that call for reassurance, and to be steady forces," Trott said. "Also, to show students that we have a safe and secure environment, and not to panic because it is contagious and you do not want to pass it on to others."
   Even more immediate than the emotional impact of the terrorist threats are the physical concerns that arise with chemical and biological warfare at home.
   In response to the growing threats, Kevin Ward, Director of Maintenance and Security for county schools, has been working with Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Director Jim Burrough. Ward met with Superintendent of Schools Dallas Williams and school principals Friday to discuss a chemical and biological attack response insert into the county school system's current plan for dealing with potential threats to safety.
   "What we have right now is a crisis management plan that covers everything from, if an intruder comes into the schools to if we have natural disasters," Ward said. There is currently a crisis management handbook for each of the schools within the system that tie in with the local EMA's response plan. The plan provides principals, teachers and aides with a systematic approach to dealing with emergencies.
   The crisis management plan will be referred to in order to organize sudden evacuations or containment in the event of disaster.
   Ward stated that county school officials are working hand in hand with area professionals to come up with ways to beef up security efforts, and to make sure they are complying with all of the new regulations handed down by the Office of Homeland Security and the state.
   The county will receive copies of an Emergency Response Guide (ERG) from the state next week. The guide is geared especially toward terrorism and Ward will use it to determine whether or not there are any holes in the county's current crisis management plan.
   "We are looking to see what, if any, additional topics we need to address. A lot of the things we will be dealing with we have not had to deal with before, like chemical and biological warfare," Ward said.
   "We are looking to see if there are areas where we need to be more specific, then present it to the principals."
   Security plans are still being finalized, but Ward stated that in the event of a biological or chemical attack the first action taken by schools would be to have a shelter in place, then to arrange an alternative site in case relocation becomes necessary. He added that a method of sealing off ventilation systems must be developed. The windows and doors will be covered in plastic and everybody will be moved to a centralized location at each of the school buildings.
   "With all the new threats, we have to have a plan where we would have a designated place to take everybody into, which would probably be the gym," Ward said. "We would take plastic and cover the windows and doors and at a school you are taking in a big area, so we would try to get everybody isolated into one area first."