Students rally at Blair
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Secretary of Education Rod Paige unveiled a new initiative at Blair last Friday to bolster schools' emergency response plans, amid student protests and criticism from some faculty members.
The event came less than a month after MCPS issued official guidelines in response to the heightened national terrorism alert outlining preparations for possible chemical, biological
and radiological attacks.
Blair was selected for the visit because of its outstanding safety record, said Ridge, who praised MCPS' crisis management plans. "All the nation's schools hopefully will follow your lead," he said.
Blair will play a significant role during biological attacks, according to a Johns Hopkins University plan. "In case of a civil disorder, Blair will be used as an inoculation site and will be delivered vaccines from Johns Hopkins University," said Mark Curran, chair of Blair's crisis planning team.
Other components of the joint initiative between the departments of Homeland Security and Education include $30 million for strengthening school districts' emergency response plans and a new website devoted to readying schools for emergencies.
MCPS' current plan presumes an external terrorist attack and does not address situations in which the school is a target, according to District Chief Brian Geraci of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services.
The guidelines also call for principals to be designated as "incident commanders" who will coordinate the emergency response within their schools. Principals received crisis response training after the Sept 11 attacks, said Geraci. Curran said guidelines are also being developed to prepare schools to house students for up to three days.
Ridge encouraged such measures as a way to prevent fear. "Terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be ready, or we can be afraid. And you know Americans aren't afraid of anything, so we'll just be ready," he said.
Ridge emphasized that the new initiative was not in response to any specific threat to schools.
Other proposed changes in the MCPS guidelines include heightened fire alarm security and procedures for shutting down a school's ventilation system.
Blair, like most new or recently renovated county buildings, is sealed; the only air circulation is via the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. If an attack occurs, Blair's ventilation systems can be turned off in a "matter of minutes," said Building Services Manager James Brown.
Principal Phillip Gainous said Blair may be the most secure location in the community. "Schools tend to be the safest places to be. We are prepared if the worst should happen," he said.
But Ridge's and Paige's security presentation did not reassure all students, some of whom instead held demonstrations opposing Bush administration policies.
An estimated 250 students participated in the protest, held during 5A after the secretaries' departure. The demonstration drew criticism from the Blair administration.
The demonstration was not sponsored by any Blair-based group but included members of Students for Global Responsibility (SGR), Montgomery County Students for Peace and Justice (see story, page 19) and the Blair Anarchist Network.
According to SGR sponsor and social studies teacher George Vlasits, students protested because of a potential war's impact on U.S. security. "The message was that you can't separate out the whole issue of security from the imminent war," said Vlasits.
Protestors were confronted twice by school security when the group attempted to cross lines established as boundaries. A more intense confrontation took place in the administrators' parking lot when some students attempted to enter the school via the main office entrance. School security, along with several police officers, stopped the students' entry.
Following the confrontation, Vlasits and Gainous told students to leave the main office entrance and move to the SAC side. Although some students did depart, many sat down in protest.
Security Team Leader Edward Reddick said that although the protestors were "well behaved," the protest did prevent Superintendent Jerry Weast and other conference attendees from exiting the building, according to Gainous.
Gainous also said he objected to the demonstration because of the risk posed to student safety. "I was disappointed that they got out of hand, which could have had serious ramifications if the secretaries had not left," he said.
Still, most student leaders heralded the demonstration as a success, particularly in terms of diverse participation. "We looked like Blair out there," said Ben Austin-Docampo, an SGR member.
The secretaries' visit also drew criticism from several faculty members. Social studies teacher Joann Malone felt the secretaries came to Blair in order to use Blair's diversity as a "backdrop for the Bush administration."
Social studies teacher David Swaney declined to participate in the scheduled roundtable because of similar concerns. "I believe that our actions send messages, and I decided upon reflection that that was a message I did not want to send––that I condone the use of Blair as a venue for the event," said Swaney.
SGA sponsor Julia Smrek felt that the process of student participant selection was based partially on organizers' desire to present racial diversity. Although she cited Sara Furlow's SGA presidency as the main reason for Furlow's participation in the roundtable, she said "race and gender had a lot to do with it."
According to Gainous, however, the selected students were either representatives from Blair organizations such as the Safety Committee and the SGA or students whom the secretaries' visit displaced from class.
Additional reporting by Kevin Chang, Alan Coleman and Rachel Yood
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