Executive Perspective

Crisis Skills of Septembers Past

by Daniel A. Domenech

This is my first September back in the Washington, D.C., area since my last year as superintendent in the Fairfax County Schools in Northern Virginia and, unfortunately, it brings back some unpleasant memories. My last three Septembers in Fairfax accounted for some of the most anxious and harrowing experiences that my area colleagues and I ever encountered as superintendents.

Sept. 11, 2001, started as a beautiful, sunny, crisp day — not a cloud in the sky and unusually free of the humidity that tends to linger through much of September in the nation’s capital. I was meeting with my leadership team that morning and we were reviewing what had been a highly successful opening of schools. We were still recruiting some special education teachers and we needed more teachers in English as a second language for our growing population of non-English speakers.

My administrative assistant came into the meeting room and placed a folded piece of paper in front of me. It told me that an airplane had just hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I assumed she had brought me the message because she knew I had been raised and lived for many years in New York.

I concluded, as I am sure most people did when they first heard the news, that it was probably a small plane whose pilot had been blinded by the sun’s glare off the windows of the tower. I had been to the World Trade Center’s observation deck many times with my children, and I remember commenting on how we could look down on the airplanes flying in the vicinity. Thirty minutes later, however, my administrative assistant again came into the room with a piece of paper that said that yet another plane had hit the other World Trade Center tower.

Danger Alert
This was beyond coincidence and my colleagues agreed. We were not sure what was happening, but we felt it was important for all of us to return to our posts. I had barely entered my office when I received the news that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Most people unfamiliar with the area think the Pentagon is in the District of Columbia, but actually it sits in Arlington, Va., right next to Fairfax.

I knew many of my children’s parents, many of my staff’s spouses and many of my friends worked at the Pentagon. As I watched live television coverage on the collapse of the towers and the Pentagon in flames, I received a phone call from a federal official informing me of their fear other airplanes were circling the area aimed at additional targets. Fairfax is home to the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Center, Fort Belvoir and many other strategic federal facilities.

For years, Fairfax County has hosted the International Children’s Festival at the Filene Center of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. This wonderful event brings school-age performers from around the world to the Filene stage. Over a three-day period Fairfax sent thousands of its students to watch these talented students perform. Sept. 11 was one of those days, and I had thousands of my students on school buses on their way to Wolf Trap while, supposedly, airplanes circled overhead looking for targets to strike.

There was no time to consult with others and soon all telephone lines were overwhelmed and became inoperative. The awareness of imminent danger and the responsibility I felt for the lives of thousands of students and staff hit me like a ton of bricks. I immediately ordered all school buses to turn around and bring all children back to the schools. We implemented a lockdown of all schools and no dismissal until further notice. The last thing we wanted was to have children wandering through the streets on their own because we had no idea what was happening or how long it would take working parents to return home.

It is now part of history that the remaining plane, thanks to the courageous passengers who sacrificed their lives, crashed in western Pennsylvania rather than the assumed Washington-area target. Although more than 100 lives were lost in the Pentagon, many of them friends and relatives of my staff, not a single school employee abandoned his or her post that day, choosing to stay with the children they were entrusted to protect. Weeks later, the Washington Area Superintendents’ Study Council would meet and we would share the incredible events of that day.

Repeat Crises
September 2002 and September 2003 did not fare much better for the superintendents in the D.C. region. The region was traumatized by the sniper attacks that lasted more than two weeks in 2002 and Hurricane Isabel came calling in September ’03. Those are stories for another day.

Superintendents are primarily thought of as the education leaders of our communities. They are entrusted with the health and well-being of the children they serve. Rarely do we think of these men and women as having to make imminent life-and-death decisions, but on three consecutive Septembers, superintendents in the Washington metropolitan area had to do just that.

Crisis management is not unique to this area, and we know that superintendents around the country have confronted events that threatened the lives of children and staff. Add this to the skill set required of education leaders today.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org