WASHINGTON – Federal law enforcement authorities notified six school districts in five states last month that a CD found by the U.S. military in Iraq contained crisis-planning information about their schools, two U.S. officials said Thursday.
The downloaded information found in Iraq in July — all publicly available on the Internet — included an Education Department report guiding schools on how to prepare and respond to a crisis, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said FBI special agents in charge in the areas mentioned in the downloaded material — Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and two districts in California — went to those school districts about three weeks ago to inform education officials there.
He said there were serious questions about whether the military’s find in July represented any threat; for instance, it could have come from someone innocently involved in civic planning, specifically school planning.
The CD contained an Education Department report called “Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities,” published in May 2003, as well as photos and floor plans.
In a separate but more widespread warning put out this week, the Education Department advised school leaders nationwide to watch for people spying on their buildings or buses to help detect any possibility of terrorism like the deadly school siege last month in Russia.
The warning follows an analysis by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department of the siege that killed more than 330 people, many of them students, in the city of Beslan.
“The horror of this attack may have created significant anxiety in our own country among parents, students, faculty staff and other community members,” Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said in a letter sent Wednesday to schools and education groups.
The Education Department’s advice is based on lessons learned from the Russia siege. But there is no specific information indicating a terrorist threat to any schools or universities in the United States, Hickok said.
Federal law enforcement officials also have urged local police to stay in contact with school officials and have encouraged reporting of suspicious activities, the letter says.
In particular, schools were told to watch for activities that may be legitimate on their own — but may suggest a threat if many of them occur.
Among those activities:
_ Interest in obtaining site plans for schools, bus routes and attendance lists.
_ Prolonged “static surveillance” by people disguised as panhandlers, shoe shiners, newspaper or flower vendors or street sweepers not previously seen in the area.
_ Observations of security drills.
_ People staring at or quickly looking away from employees or vehicles as they enter or leave parking areas.
_ Foot surveillance of campuses involving individuals working together.
The effort is the latest by the Education Department and other federal agencies to encourage school officials to maintain and practice a plan for responding to emergencies.
“It’s a positive sign that they’re finally discussing this after years of downplaying or denying even the possibility of a terrorist strike on schools,” said Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant who has worked with officials in more than 40 states. “Public officials are in fear of creating fear, but we have to put the cards on the table, educate people in the school community and make sure they are well prepared.”
After the terrorist takeover of the Russian school, President Bush (news – web sites) asked his top advisers to review their strategies for dealing with hostage situations, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has said.
The federal government is advising schools to take many steps to improve the security of their buildings. Those include installing locks for all doors and windows, having a single entry point into buildings and ensuring they can reach school bus drivers in an emergency.
The Education Department sent its letter by e-mail Wednesday to school police, state school officers, school boards, groups representing principals and many other organizations.
The Homeland Security Department also sent a bulletin to federal, state and local emergency officials to provide fresh guidance based on the review of the school siege in Russia.