Schools Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack: Some Security Experts Say U.S. Schools Offer Soft Targets for Terrorists and Warn That Efforts to Improve Safety Are Being Hampered by Denial and by Concern about Image. (Nation: Campus Security)

Article excerpt

The shocking videotape of the explosion that rocked Hebrew University in Israel sent chills through American parents who wondered if it could happen here. Surely not. But the fact is that it has happened here--for instance, when four left-wing radicals targeted the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to demonstrate their opposition to the Vietnam War.

It was Aug. 24,1970, when the explosion shocked a nation that thought its schools were safe from a faraway war. Curiously, that was domestic terrorism comparable in its simplistic method to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. In Madison, too, a homemade bomb was packed with ammonium-nitrate fertilizer, mixed with fuel oil and given a dynamite detonator. It was exploded in a stolen van parked at the loading dock of the Army Research Center, killing a graduate student and seriously injuring five others.

None of the victims had anything to do with the Army center. The blast also did $6 million worth of damage to property, destroying 20 buildings.

Three of the four suspects, brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong and David Fine, were arrested and served time in prison. The fourth, Leo Burt, went underground and surfaced only once, in 1972, when he published a manifesto. Later, the FBI named Burt as one of 200 possible Unabomber suspects. Eventually the preponderance of Unabomber evidence pointed to Theodore Kaczynski, who appears oddly to have plagiarized part of Burt's manifesto for his own rambling discourse on the "Industrial Society and Its Future."

While this sort of domestic terrorism may have seemed unthinkable in the United States until 1970, it certainly is on the minds of security consultants who worry today that America's schools are ill-prepared to deal with such threats. In fact, it appears the schools learned little or nothing from their Vietnam-era experience, especially when it comes to protecting laboratories.

"Colleges are very focused on protecting students in their dorms. While the dorms are closed, the labs are pretty much open places housed in businesses and academic classrooms," says John Fannin, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Delaware-based SafePlace Corp., which provides safety-accreditation services for lodging facilities, health-care facilities, assisted-living communities and schools. He says, "Colleges are poorly prepared for a terrorist act against their chemical and biological labs."

Fannin believes another vulnerability on college campuses involves protecting intellectual property. In many schools, he says, the door is open for terrorists to "utilize [radioactive] materials or steal them to create a dirty bomb."

While some colleges, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, have set up special task forces to identify and help implement security for its biological, nuclear and chemical labs, there is no universal safety code or standard to measure whether such labs indeed are safe. "There isn't even a national fire code in this country," Fannin notes. As a result the codes differ from state to state and sometimes county to county. He would like to see the federal government set up some type of standard and says the government could withhold federal funds from schools if they chose not to implement an antiterrorist program.

Colleges are not the only schools that might become targets, warns Ken Trump, president and CEO of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. In the last three years there have been 79 students killed in elementary, middle and high schools, according to media reports, and that number could pale in comparison if terrorists strike U.S. schools as they have in Israel. "The purpose of terrorism is to inflict mass fear and change the way we live," Trump says. "Terrorists may want to hit soft targets which lack security. Al-Qaeda has said it will hit us where we least expect it. …