WASHINGTON – Maryland schools are prepared for tornadoes, snipers and a nuclear power plant meltdown but random terrorism has officials stumped.
“I don’t know how you plan for that,” said Larry Faries security coordinator for Carroll County Public Schools.
In the wake of the heightened terrorist threat level announced Friday, Maryland school officials are scurrying to improvise a response to a gas or other attack that could have children and teachers holed up in hallways.
On Friday, federal officials raised the nation’s terrorism threat level from yellow, or elevated, to orange, or high, and Tuesday they urged Americans to prepare their homes in case of a biological, chemical or radiological attack, by stocking up on food, water, duct tape and plastic.
Those items are not on Anne Arundel schools’ emergency list, according to district spokeswoman Jane Beckett-Donohue.
“Just like any other school system, we have hundreds of windows,” Beckett- Donohue said. “We don’t think (sealing windows) is even practical or possible.”
Officials in her district had not yet met Wednesday to discuss emergency guidelines for schools, Beckett-Donohue said.
“I can honestly say we don’t have anything out there right now as far as an overall systemwide crisis plan. No one knows what situation we are dealing with.”
In case of a random attack, Faries said his school system would improvise.
“We’ll turn off the air handlers or the water; bring in bottled water. We’ll go with the flow; do what you got to do,” he said.
But for now, Faries said, “It’s business as usual, there is no way we’re going to stop teaching during this time of turmoil.”
Administrators at schools close to large metropolitan areas were more reticent about sharing information about safety plans.
Binnie Spiegel, early childhood program director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, said her school has a security plan in case of terrorism, but she declined to give specifics.
A school security task force has been working with the county government all week in Prince George’s County to make plans in case of an attack, a spokeswoman said, but she was not permitted to describe any details.
Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said parents shouldn’t be concerned about children’s safety at school. He urged parents not to come to school to get their children in an emergency.
“We’ll move (the students) to a safe place. If the school is in danger it doesn’t make sense to put the parents in danger.”
But Howard Zuses, spokesman for the private Sandy Springs School said administrators there told parents they may get their child any time they feel the child would be more safe with them.
Irfan Latimer, spokeswoman for Annapolis’ Key School, said her school would not be in a position to tell families they could not come pick up their kids in an emergency.
“We would tell them you need to do what you think is best, but the schools are safe places.”
Jennifer Reed, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington said every Catholic school has its own crisis plan and they are in contact with local authorities for guidance in case of an emergency.
Local authorities, Reed said, had not contacted them about preparing for a chemical or biological attack.
The University of Maryland, College Park, on Wednesday posted an emergency information alert to students concerning the heightened state of alert. It told students that a siren would sound in an emergency, and students should look for shelter on the lowest level of a building in an interior hallway and seek information on the radio or the web.
Students were also assured the campus has sufficient food and water for the student body for three days.
Each school has to have its own individual plan, Faires said. “A plan for a 3,000-kid high school has got to be different than for a 500-kid elementary school,” he said.
But planning is of the utmost importance, he said, even if districts are not sure what they are planning for: “You can’t have a contingency for everything but at least you can have a plan.”