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French Children Prepare for Terrorist Threat With Drills at School

At a briefing for parents last week, the principal at a preschool in western Paris ran through the usual back-to-school checklist and scolded those bringing their children late. Then he turned to a new item on the agenda: “intrusion alert” drills to prepare teachers and children in case terrorists attempt to storm the school.

“The schools are targeted by terrorists,” said Olivier Rossignol, the principal, as a hush fell over the crowd of assembled parents. “We must train little by little so that the children can keep quiet and hide themselves in the classroom.”

As France prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, the new security procedures required at every school in the country are a sobering sign of how a spate of Islamist violence has changed everyday life.

The brutality of the assaults, usually directed at civilian targets, is forcing authorities to prepare for the possibility that even a preschool could fall into the crosshairs of Islamic State operatives or sympathizers.

The steady pace of terror attacks and foiled plots over the summer has cast a shadow over “la rentrée”—France’s annual back-to-school ritual. This month , a homemade bomb found near Notre Dame Cathedral the weekend after students returned to school rekindled fears about the terror threat.

“There is this festive atmosphere in Paris for ‘la rentrée,’ and I did think we haven’t had a terrorist attack to dampen that” when the Notre Dame incident happened, said Amy De Leusse, whose daughter attends the preschool. “It is constantly in our minds.”

French authorities are still grappling with the dilemma of securing the country against another attack without crushing the rhythms of everyday life. Facing a diffuse threat, officials canceled sports events, public markets and other festivities this summer after concluding that security services didn’t have the manpower to protect them. Machine-gun toting soldiers now roam the streets, while private security guards check bags at the entrances to large stores.

In schools, officials acknowledge that the new procedures risk alarming parents and children in a country already on edge since January 2015, when Islamist militants killed 17 at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and other targets around Paris.

“We don’t want this to become a culture of fear,” said Alexandra Cordebard, a deputy mayor of Paris who helped develop new security procedures in the capital. “The fact that all personnel in Paris schools would be trained to respond calmly to a situation gives a sense of security, without a problem.”

Still, school authorities are tailoring the drills to the age of the students. For preschoolers, teachers are told not to mention the words “terror” or “attack” when they prepare their students.

Instead, Mr. Rossignol said, they might design the drills like a game in which the children are supposed to hide, then surprise the school director.

“Each teacher must find a signal in the class to make the children understand that they should be quiet,” he said. “Making 30 children, two to three years old, be quiet for a while—well, that is difficult.”

In the U.S., mass shootings in recent years have prompted an increase in the number of schools conducting “active shooter” drills. Two-thirds of U.S. school districts conduct some form of shooter drill, though only 12 states have a requirement for schools to do so, according to a survey released in March by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

France has decided the terror threat is so serious that drills will be required for every school in the country. The education ministry announced the policy over the summer, with the goal of holding them in October in each school.

Teachers say the timetable puts schools under heavy pressure to implement the requirements.

“It’s very serious, what we have to do,” said Christian Chevalier, the secretary-general of one of France’s largest teacher’s unions. “The deadline is very soon for things to be done properly.”

The education ministry is also requiring junior high students this year to learn first aid, to foster what it calls a “common culture of security” in schools.

Paris schools have already had a scare this year. In January, six of the city’s most prestigious high schools were evacuated after each received an anonymous bomb threat. A search of the schools turned up no explosives.

Most Jewish schools in France have been protected by armed guards since 2012, when an Islamist radical killed a rabbi and three children at one near Toulouse.

Authorities say public schools don’t need that level of protection. Instead, the government is stepping up patrols of uniformed and plainclothes police, who will pay special attention to schools, officials say.

The Paris mayor’s office has also devoted money to reinforcing security infrastructure. That includes building new fences, installing security cameras, and covering windows with one-way mirrors so people can’t see inside classrooms from the street.

Yet some parents worry that money in the city budget for these improvements has been slow to reach the schools.

“I don’t understand why other things come before security,” said one parent at the preschool, who asked not to be named.

“Things have gone well until now,” Mr. Rossignol said toward the end of his speech as he fielded questions from the parents. “One shouldn’t dramatize things or become paranoid—but times have changed.”

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Via: wsj.com

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