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June 3, 2005

Father and son explore terrorism's impact on schools

In Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School, terrorism and school-safety experts Michael Dorn and Chris Dorn catalogue past incidents of school terrorism and discuss cost-effective precautionary measures. Innocent Targets provides a matter-of-fact account of the natural and human threats facing schools today, and provides broadly applicable tools for crisis prevention and preparedness. Dorn and Dorn refrain from the alarmism in which the media so often indulge, instead emphasizing the extremely low probability of a school terrorism incident.

This book is a must-read for school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff members, as well as fire fighters, police officers, and other emergency personnel. Many concerned parents will appreciate its sensible, concrete advice; however, this book is not for the alarmist or the faint-of-heart. If you refuse to fly on airplanes for fear of crashing or refuse to swim in the ocean for fear of sharks, this book is not for you.

Innocent Targets begins with the Beslan massacre, the worst modern incidence of school terrorism. Chechen terrorists took an entire Russian middle school hostage at gunpoint and placed "10 to 30 bombs" among the hostages, threatening that "one press of a button was enough to detonate everything." Outside, "Hundreds of armed and angry fathers of the hostages" had encircled the school, at points preventing the military from advancing. After 52 hours in the hostage situation, during which some of the children were driven by extreme thirst to drink their own urine, some still-undetermined event triggered the explosion of the bombs and "a desperate scramble for freedom ensued." Terrorists opened fire indiscriminately on the fleeing children. According to Dorn and Dorn, "a struggle ensued between a mix of terrorists, soldiers, police, and the vigilante mob. The military attacked the school with brute force, using helicopter gun ships and at least one tank." Ultimately, between 330 and 1,000 died in the Beslan massacre.

Dorn and Dorn explain that Beslan is a tragic example of what not to do. The terrorists managed to hide their supplies in the school months prior to the attack. Also, the military failed to keep the vigilante mob from storming the school—interfering with the efforts of the Russian military officers, greatly contributing to the chaos of the situation, and making it easier for the terrorists to escape unnoticed.

Dorn and Dorn provide a number of useful strategies for school-related terrorism and other crises. Their suggestions include rooftop numbering on school buses, an emergency switch on school buses to activate an external flashing light, and detailed digital and printed maps of campuses.

Perhaps most importantly, Innocent Targets emphasizes the need for careful risk-return analyses. Dorn and Dorn provide the incredible example of a school board so moved by the Columbine tragedy that it wanted to construct helicopter landing pads at each school in the district. The levelheaded superintendent, fortunately, managed to convince them that there were more efficient ways of spending the money. After all, a helicopter pilot would not even require a concrete landing pad to land on one of the campuses.

Dorn and Dorn warn of the "wolves in sheep's [sic] clothing": poorly qualified or unqualified consultants who can incite fear, spread misinformation, and give a duped school a false sense of security. One district, the authors write, retained one such fraudulent consultant who sold them a plan that failed in two actual crises. The district was subsequently sued. Prudent parents and school officials would be wise to heed these warnings.

Dorn and Dorn, whose expertise lies in school safety and antiterrorism, are quite clearly out of their league in the chapter on "The Emotional Impact of School Related [sic] Terrorism on Children," which comprises a heap of gobbledygook involving words like "withdrawal," "risk-taking," "crisis counselor," and "community partnerships." It should come as no surprise that this chapter is nonsense, however. For starters, they cite as their principal "expert" none other than Marleen Wong—queen of Let's-Talk-to-Make-it-Better!

I highly doubt Dorn and Dorn have seen the Center for the Advancement of Health's November 2003 "Report on Bereavement and Grief Research," which found that post-tragedy therapy "may be harmful for a significant percentage of people." I also doubt they are familiar with Furnham, Petrides, Sisterson, and Baluch's 2003 literature-survey article that found that "repressors score low on neuroticism, negative emotions, negative daydreaming, negative self-references and somatic complaints. They score high in positive emotions and self-reliance," in addition to showing "less self-rated fear, sadness, and hostility."

Innocent Targets is an invaluable tool in efforts to prevent school-related terrorism. Dorn and Dorn are supremely qualified to discuss issues of school safety and terrorism, and they have done a great job of summarizing the pertinent issues and strategies.