- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

The nation's education and homeland security chiefs yesterday gave schools new tools and money to help them prepare for terrorism and other disastrous events.
"Terrorism forces us to make choices," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told teachers and students at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. "We can be ready or we can be afraid. And you know Americans aren't afraid of anything, so we'll just be ready."
With war in Iraq appearing imminent, many schools have grown jittery over how to protect students and calm parents.
Mr. Ridge joined Education Secretary Rod Paige at the event to demonstrate that schools are part of the nation's preparations for terrorism. Asked if any intelligence showed schools as a target, Mr. Ridge said, "No, none."
Still, he said, "We need to make sure schools are prepared in the unlikely but possible event something could happen."
A new Web site serves as a clearinghouse for federal guidance on dealing with disasters. Schools also can draw upon $30 million in federal money to help them prepare for emergencies, and the president has proposed the same amount for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
Valerie Ervin, president-elect of Blair's Parent-Teacher-Student Association, said all parents, particularly those not active in school affairs, need access to more information. "That's where they need to put the money," she said. "The Web site is a great idea, but not everyone can access that information."
The promise of new money comes as President Bush's budget would cut $50 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program. The budget plan says the decrease reflects program weaknesses that must be fixed. William Modzeleski, an Education Department safety leader, said those grants were "winding down."
But this is no time to cut any money earmarked for safe schools, said Ken Trump, president of a national consulting firm that helps schools prepare for emergencies.
"I give them a great deal of credit in recognizing plans have to be tailored at the local level, and that they're providing at least a one-time shot in the arm," Mr. Trump said. "But we need to make sure this is built upon so that we reach the masses of schools."
Federal officials say they regularly have worked with schools to improve their response plans, particularly after a spree of shootings in recent years. Nevertheless, they say many of the country's roughly 15,000 school districts are not as prepared as they should be.
An exception is Montgomery County, which has dealt with the September 11 attacks, the anthrax scares and the sniper shootings over the past two years. Mr. Ridge and Mr. Paige cited its emergency response training as a model for others.
"The plan, and the practice of the plan, had a calming effect," said schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "People felt like we were prepared, and they had confidence we were organized. It makes a difference."
A national school crisis plan will be released soon, offering tips on how leaders can respond to terrorism such as biological and chemical attacks.
"What many principals tell us is they were never trained to handle these kinds of issues, and I think teachers feel the same way," said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
"Whether $30 million is enough is another question. It's important that you have a plan, but you need to have the support behind it."

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