School officials confront a new kind of crisis


Sniper: A series of random shootings puts a school system's emergency plan into play.

October 13, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FIFTY YEARS ago, a kid's nightmare was a Russian nuclear attack. Today, it's getting shot by a mysterious sniper hiding in the bushes outside school.

The threat in 2002 was more terrifying because several people, including a student in Prince George's County, were shot. It was an individual threat, not a collective one. It was all the more horrifying because of its irrationality; the shootings occurred seemingly at random, without regard to race, age or gender.

The nuclear threat of the 1950s was nothing like the extended crisis confronting area school systems in the past week and a half. "I've never seen anything like it," said Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (and a Montgomery County public school parent).

"We had Columbine, which was one day followed by repercussions," Bagin said, "but never one that went on for more than a week. There've been cases of sexual predators at school bus stops who kept kids inside for a period of time, but nothing this prolonged."

When it's over, Bagin figures, Montgomery's response will be a case study. County school officials already had learned lessons from the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado three years ago, and to some extent from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were so close to home that 125 Montgomery students and staff lost loved ones in Washington and New York.

"To some extent, this is the crisis that binds," said Brian Porter, the district's chief spokesman.

"We knew we had to do procedural things, but we also had to do psychological things to relieve the fright and uncertainty," he said. "We also knew we had to keep everyone informed every step of the way to achieve the highest level of confidence."

Unlike other Baltimore-Washington metropolitan districts, Montgomery already has in place sophisticated internal and external communications systems. By the end of last week, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast had sent five letters home to the parents of Montgomery's 139,500 students, each responding to "people's fears, anxieties and wonderment," said Porter. A Web site, www.mcps., was turned over exclusively to the crisis.

When an emergency arises in Montgomery, Weast and other top officials don't have to go through school switchboards. The county's "incident command system" features internal e-mail, and to prevent the misunderstanding of oral messages, everything is in writing.

When a shooting at a gas station in Virginia occurred Friday morning, the "code blue" order - prohibiting outside activities and postponing weekend events - went out immediately.

"One of the things we learned from Columbine," said Porter, "is that we had to align our procedures with those of the county police. Everyone had to know their roles and responsibilities in case of a crisis, especially if it required tactical response by the police."

The sniper crisis created problems no one could predict.

For example, AAA, the auto people, reported that for the first time in memory, 7,000 kids in the system's safety patrol couldn't take up their posts.

The problem was partially solved when 1,200 parents, community members, business executives, government employees and others volunteered for duty on busy streets and intersections near schools.

"The unprecedented response is in keeping with the public's support for our schools and the community's understanding that vulnerable children need visual reminders of safety and courage from adults," Weast wrote in his Friday letter to parents.

Montgomery's crisis plan requires that all officials have two backups in case they are absent or out of the loop.

A command team, including Weast, meets first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon every day.

Before school started in August, Montgomery put its emergency plan to the test in a mock crisis.

In light of recent emergencies, said Porter, it seemed logical that the pretend calamity would be a killer tornado.

Two months later, it turned out to be the rampage of a random killer. "Who would have dreamed that's what we were preparing for?" said Porter.

At least in the 1950s we knew who the enemy was, and we knew his purpose. Our bomb drills - extraordinarily silly in retrospect - were acts of patriotism.

As we crouched under our desks, as though they would save us from annihilation, we were relieved to know the good guys would respond in kind if the bad guys struck.

It's a new day - and for the schools a new kind of bad guy, a new kind of drill.

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