Schools Boost Preparations for Attack
Many Anti-Terror Plans Would Stop Parents From Picking Up Children

The Washington Post | February 14, 2003
By David Cho

School administrators in the Washington area yesterday stepped up preparations for possible terrorism, and most school districts told parents that they would be prevented, or strongly discouraged, from picking up their children in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

In Fairfax County, Superintendent of Schools Daniel A. Domenech told the School Board last night that he would deploy more security forces around schools, limit parking near buildings and cancel outdoor activities and field trips if the nation’s terrorist alert were raised to its highest level, Code Red. He said he also would consider closing schools.

Loudoun County school officials yesterday added a “shelter-in-place” plan against chemical attacks to their usual emergency procedures. Schools would be locked down and signs posted on the doors in Spanish and English saying that nobody would be allowed to enter or exit.

Some schools stockpiled PowerBars and bottled water and handed out duct tape to teachers in case they need to seal windows. Several districts canceled field trips, including one for an Anne Arundel high school that was to put nine students on a flight to London yesterday.

The preparations came amid intensified but still vague warnings of terrorist attacks in the United States. The sense of heightened alert was most visible in grocery stores, where canned goods and water spent little time on the shelves.

The Beltsville Costco sold as much water in one day as it usually sells in six — three tractor-trailer loads — and lines at the cash registers were more than a half-hour long at midday.

Employers and government agencies continued to tighten security and make contingency plans.

D.C. police officers pulled over suspicious-looking trucks entering the city, for example, and increased surveillance of government buildings and the homes of top officials.

On Friday, the Maryland Department of the Environment directed nuclear power plants, major water systems and chemical-storage facilities to review their security measures.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management said the federal government would be open as usual today. On Capitol Hill, members of Congress were told to keep a low profile — by varying their routines and removing vanity license plates — and to prepare a “go bag” of supplies and sensitive documents. Staff members were told how to use hoods to protect against biological or chemical agents.

In Montgomery County, police officers have been issued hazmat gear, including gas masks, and two “Bio-Packs” that contain antibiotics for use in a chemical or biological attack. The Bio-Packs — one of which is to remain at home, one on duty — contain doses of doxycycline that are to be taken only at the direction of the county’s public health officer, said Officer Derek Baliles, a department spokesman.

But much of the concern focused on children. All week, school administrators have met with public safety and public health officials and sent memos and e-mail to parents urging calm and explaining emergency plans. Most of the communications said children would be kept inside in the event of a chemical or biological threat, but the letters varied in the strength of their warning that parents should not try to pick up their children during a lockdown.

District school officials said that children would be kept inside in an emergency but that parents could come get them. “It’s parents’ prerogative to take care of their kids any way they want,” Chief Operating Officer Louis J. Erste said.

In Fairfax, Loudoun and Howard counties, parents are being told not to try to collect their children at school if terrorists strike with chemical or biological weapons. In Montgomery and elsewhere, officials said the kind of emergency will determine what they advise parents to do.

Sometimes, said Arlington County schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos, children are safest in school.

Some districts said regular lockdown drills are planned to prepare for possible chemical attacks — reminiscent of the “duck-and-cover” Cold War exercises of the 1950s and ’60s.
Westland Middle School in Bethesda had its students this week practice closing blinds in their classrooms, locking doors, papering over windows and doors and assembling away from windows. Ninth-graders at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring have watched a video to prepare them for similar drills next week.

Some schools stocked up on food and supplies, but most districts said there isn’t space for much extra. Prince George’s County officials said their schools receive food deliveries every five days, and they always have a two-day supply.

Charles County schools spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said that since Sept. 11, 2001, all schools have stocked flashlights, batteries, walkie-talkies and weather radios.
Domenech, in Fairfax, said emergency plans are meant to protect children for hours, not days. Still, Janet Johnson, principal of Little Run Elementary School in Fairfax, ordered bottled water for 500 students and staff and changes of clothes in case students come into contact with harmful chemical agents. Each classroom has a roll of duct tape.

“I think about preparations that families are making at home,” Johnson said, “and these are my children here.”

Caution was the rule in St. Mary’s County, where school officials have suspended field trips indefinitely. Great Mills High School teacher Sean Twigg said he dreads telling students they won’t be going to a Model United Nations conference in Alexandria.

Northwestern High School in Hyattsville even stopped issuing hall passes yesterday. The halls were so empty that “you wouldn’t even think that school was in session,” Principal Bill Ritter said.

All the preparation unnerved some parents.

“I was thinking how it’s prudent to plan,” said Betty Grigg, who has four children in Fairfax schools, “but it’s terrible to think that they would be locked down in a school and I would be inaccessible to them.”

Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast promised parents that he would communicate regularly with them and urged them to pay careful attention to their children’s emotional health. “We know that coping skills can be taught and encouraged,” he said.

Catherine Rizzo, principal of Old Mill South Middle School in Millersville, said the preparations didn’t feel out of the ordinary, after the 2001 terrorist attacks and October’s sniper shootings.

“It’s becoming almost a way of life,” she said.

Staff writers Justin Blum, Susan DeFord, Hamil R. Harris, Rosalind S. Helderman, Nelson Hernandez, Spencer S. Hsu, Fredrick Kunkle, Theola Labb?Vikki Ortiz, Mary Otto, Linda Perlstein, Elaine Rivera and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.