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With war under way, schools heighten focus on safety

Parents assured that nothing is being taken for granted



It would be an "unthinkable" consequence of the war with Iraq, but administrators at the White Salmon Valley School District are revisiting emergency plans in the wake of the conflict's beginning.

Although the threat of possible terror attacks in White Salmon appears very remote, school officials want to assure parents that nothing is being taken for granted.

On March 20, the day after strikes were launched on Iraq, Superintendent Dale Palmer sent a letter home with every student attending White Salmon's schools, including preschoolers through high school seniors. There are about 1,350 kids under the school's care during a given day.

"Mainly it's reiterating what will happen if there is a problem," Palmer explained last week. "There are plans in place for bomb threats, intruders, fires, that kind of thing. We wanted to get it back on the table to review so everyone -- teachers and students -- know what to do."

The letter also offered tips to parents on ways to handle childrens' questions about the war in Iraq.

Palmer said the school district's letter was sparked by an e-mail from the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction. The memo called for public schools around the state to "make sure you're looking at all these things."

"We're going by their [WSPI] guidance as well, including what to do in the event of a need to follow `shelter in place' precautions," Palmer explained.

"Shelter in place" refers to a situation where an attack creates a situation where kids are most likely to be safe if they remain at the school temporarily until an emergency ends.

Palmer's letter -- in both English and Spanish -- is addressed "Dear Parent," and explains the school's position in the event of any emergency: "Recent national events that include the possibility of a conflict with Iraq give rise to concerns of safety and well-being for all Americans," the letter began. "In recognition of these issues of concern, we would like to assure our parents that our school district is reviewing all steps possible to prepare for emergency events. We are preparing emergency response actions, training staff, and have conferred, and will continue to confer with state and local emergency planning authorities."

Ned Kindler, chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, said local law enforcement officials would respond in the event of any emergency related to the schools.

"There is heightened awareness on the school's part, and we're on high alert with the rest of the country," Kindler said. "We work together with the schools. They can count on not only the county and city, but also the State Patrol and other agencies. A good example of seeing that at work were the bomb threats we've had the last couple of years at the school, with the ambulance and fire departments there too."

Kindler added that he gets updates from the Department of Homeland Security as well as from the local Coast Guard facility in Portland.

"They are up to date on any suspicious activity around the port and the Columbia River, and they are good at keeping us advised," he explained.

Palmer's letter stressed that in the event of a school closure, "our first option and priority will always be to safely transport our students to their homes."

According to Palmer, the letter was sent home with kids to speed the distribution of the letter.

"It would have taken another day or two or three to mail them," he noted.

At least so far, Palmer said he hasn't noticed any change in the students following the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq.

"The administrators I've talked to haven't noticed any change," he said. "It is a good opportunity for social studies teachers to help kids through the process, from the history and how we got to this point."

Despite the precautions, Palmer said he hoped the emergency plans would never need to be implemented.

"It's on everybody's mind," Palmer explained. "We hope and pray it never gets to that point. We're probably not a likely target in the big scope of things."

Kindler said he was hopeful the calm would continue.

"Things have been fairly quiet," he said.



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