In the wake of yesterday's tragic school shooting in Pennsylvania, there will be the predictable calls for more metal detectors, and an increased police presence at schools across America. The question is whether such measures would actually make a difference; recent studies--including analysis of recent school shootings--suggest that these steps have little deterrent value in actually preventing gunmen from entering a school, taking hostages and killing them.
And, unfortunately, this sudden spate of school shootings will be noted by more than just the lunatic fringe who might be contemplating their own, murderous rampage. The recent killings at schools in Colorado, Wisconsin and Nickel Mines, PA will almost certainly be scrutinized by terrorist groups, and possibly influence future attack planning. The United States has almost 100,000 schools, representing a potentially lucrative target set for Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. The physical and psychological impact of a terrorist strike on a school would be devastating, and disrupt the nation's educational system for years.
The September 2004 siege in Beslan, Russia serves as a grim reminder of what terrorists can do when they attack a school. Chechen terrorists stormed the town's elementary school on the first day of classes, taking hundreds of students, parents and teachers hostage. When Russian commandos stormed the building two days later, the terrorists began shooting their captives and detonated carefully planted bombs, increasing the carnage. More than 300 people--about half of them children--died in the Beslan school tragedy.
Could the same thing happen here? In the wake of the Beslan disaster, the U.S. Department of Education conduced a study (in conjunction with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security), and offered proactive guidance for American schools. Compliance with the letter was not required, and much of the information could be categorized as a series of suggestions, outlining steps schools could take to safeguard facilities, students and staff members from terrorist attacks. It's a bit disturbing that it took the Beslan massacre to spur the Department of Education into action, and more disturbing that anti-terrorism preparations vary greatly from one school system to the other. For every district that has developed a detailed plan and conducts periodic drills (like Montgomery County, Maryland and Fairfax County, Virginia), there are many more (such as Chicago) that have done virtually nothing.
Note: in my own personal experience as a teacher, I've found the Chicago "example" is closer to the national norm. None of the three districts where I worked as a teacher had anything that could be called a terrorism response plan, and our ability to deal with that sort of crisis.
Even among districts with an anti-terrorism plan in place, there is virtually no discussion of another option for increasing school safety: arming teachers and administrators. Israel implemented a similar program in the early 1970s, after a series of bloody Palestinian attacks on Israeli schools. Armed staff members were supplemented by parents who patrolled school grounds with automatic weapons; the attacks quickly stopped and the terrorists began to look for other targets. It's also worth noting that the school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi, was halted by an assistant principal with a gun. When shots rang out, the principal retrieved the weapon from his car and confronted the gunman, who quickly surrendered.
Local police departments, the NEA and the PTA would probably recoil in horror at the prospect of armed staff members and a "parent patrol" providing security on school grounds. But in a war where every town is a potential target, all options should be on the table, particularly if they provide a deterrent presence that could discourage or prevent terrorist attacks. The successive tragedies in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will re-ignite the debate on school safety and gun laws, but the discussion shouldn't end there. It's very likely that these events have attracted the attention of others who wish us harm, and we need to do more to prepare our schools for potential terrorist attacks.
As a first step, Congress and the Administration should mandate compliance with protective measures outlined in that 2004 Education Department letter--and provide the funds required for security upgrades. Beyond that, local school systems need to implement some common-sense steps that improve security, but cost very little. Seven years after the Columbine massacre, ABC News reports that 77% of the nation's schools lack security cameras; half do not have security personnel on campus. Seventy percent lock some, but not all, of their doors, and virtually all leave their front doors unlocked. In today's potential threat environment, that's tantamount to a welcome mat for your local psychopath--or an Al Qaida cell.