October 6, 2004
The recent terrorist attack against a school in Beslan, Russia, was obviously a shocking incident worldwide. Understandably, the horror of this attack may have created significant anxiety in our own country among parents, students, faculty, staff and other community members, particularly in light of the graphic details that many of us saw in the news. Today, I am writing to share information with you regarding some lessons learned from the Beslan school incident in an effort to better understand how it happened and apply lessons that might be used to protect U.S. schools.
For your background, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) works closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and we have teamed together with them on this important school safety issue. DHS and the FBI have recently analyzed the Beslan situation and shared their analysis with state and local law enforcement officials in your community, which is why I wanted to share that information with you as well. Again, they have done this in an effort to use the information to safeguard American schools and our students. The analysis was done proactively; it was not sent out due to any specific information indicating that there is a terrorist threat to any schools or universities in the United States.
You should also know that DHS and the FBI, as a part of their analysis, have encouraged local law enforcement officials to maintain contact and open lines of communication with local school administrators such as you and to ask personnel to report any suspicious activities. While I am aware that many of our nation's schools have been developing comprehensive crisis plans and that ED widely disseminated informational material in August called "Practical Information on Crisis Planning," I also believe the following information will be useful as you update your plans. The FBI-DHS analysis described some specific protective measures that I would also like to share with you, many of which would be applicable to a variety of potential emergency situations, including natural disasters.
Short-term protective measures include reviewing procedures to safeguard school facilities and students and others within them. Those recommended in the DHS-FBI bulletin include:
- Review all school emergency and crisis management plans. Helpful guidance can be found at www.ed.gov/emergencyplan/.
- Raise awareness among local law enforcement officers and school officials by conducting exercises relating to school emergency and crisis management plans.
- Raise awareness among school officials and students by conducting awareness training relating to the school environment that includes awareness of signs of terrorism.
- Raise community awareness of any potential threats as well as vulnerabilities.
- Prepare the school staff to act in a crisis situation.
- Consider a closed-campus approach to limit visitors.
- Consider a single entry point for all attendees, staff and visitors.
- Focus patrols by law enforcement officers on and around school grounds.
- Ensure that school officials will always be able to contact school buses.
- Ensure that emergency communications from and to schools are working.
- Download the Red Cross brochure, Terrorism: Preparing for the Unexpected, at http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster/
keepsafe/terrorism.pdf and provide a copy to students, staff and faculty.
- Report any suspicious activity to law enforcement authorities.
Long-term protective measures should include physical enhancements to school buildings. Among the measures schools should consider are the following:
- Install secure locks for all external and internal doors and windows.
- Install window and external door protections with quick-release capability.
- Consider establishing a safe area (or safe areas) within the school for assembly and shelter during emergencies.
- Apply protective coating on windows in facilities that face traffic. That and other helpful information on school facilities can be found at www.edfacilities.org/.
In the analysis they provided to local law enforcement officials, DHS and the FBI have also outlined activities to watch for that may suggest potential unwelcome surveillance of educational facilities. These indicators alone may in fact reflect legitimate activity not related to terrorism. Multiple indicators, however, could suggest a heightened terrorist or criminal threat. They are:
- Unusual interest in security, entry points, and access controls or barriers such as fences or walls;
- Interest in obtaining site plans for schools, bus routes, attendance lists and other information about a school, its employees or students;
- Unusual behavior such as staring at or quickly looking away from personnel or vehicles entering or leaving designated facilities or parking areas;
- Observation of security reaction drills or procedures;
- Increase in anonymous telephone or e-mail threats to facilities in conjunction with suspected surveillance incidents;
- Foot surveillance involving individuals working together;
- Mobile surveillance using bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, sport utility vehicles, limousines, boats or small aircraft;
- Prolonged static surveillance using people disguised as panhandlers, shoe shiners, food, newspaper or flower vendors, or street sweepers not previously seen in the area;
- Discreet use of still cameras, video recorders, or note-taking at non-tourist locations;
- Use of multiple sets of clothing and identification or the use of sketching materials (paper, pencils, etc.);
- Questioning of security or facility personnel; and
- Unexplained presence of unauthorized persons in places where they should not be.
It is my hope that you carefully review this information and work with your security staff, local law enforcement, first responders and emergency preparedness personnel to ensure that these protective measures are included in your School Crisis Plan. I encourage you to visit ED's Web site on crisis planning, www.ed.gov/emergencyplan/, where additional information about key elements of a crisis plan can be found.
To help with questions that parents, students, faculty and other community members may ask, we have developed a series of the most frequently asked questions regarding the issue of responding to a crisis in general. (See attached.) I have also included a list of available resources if you would like more information on a variety of topics, from crisis planning to how to talk to children about these types of incidents. In addition, I am enclosing information about various ED grant programs concerning school safety that may be of interest.
In closing, I want to assure you that we are working very closely with DHS, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Secret Service to ensure that our schools and our children in them remain safe. And, again, the information recently provided by DHS and the FBI to state and local law enforcement was not generated by any threats received by U.S. educational institutionsit was a routine communication reflecting their analysis of the Beslan incident.
Thank you for your attention to this matter, and please feel free to call the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at (202) 260-3954 for more information or if you have any questions. We look forward to hearing from you.
Eugene W. Hickok
Attachments PDF (194K)