Posted: October 3, 2002
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Article Summary How should teachers talk to kids about terrorism? This short article has my views and the views of others.

Teaching about terror

The BSCS Newsletter [Biological Sciences Curriculum Study], Fall 2002

After last year’s terrorist attacks, Americans felt threatened. Besides an epidemic of sleepless nights, in schools across the country students suddenly bombarded their science teachers with questions about biological, chemical, or radiological weapons.

But teaching about terror, while not easy, is not a bad thing, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). To mount an effective response against these unconventional threats, the general public must understand them, and because these threats involve science, science teachers have a role to play. “It is by understanding these risks, these microbes, chemicals, and other potential threats, that we will be able to respond in a much more organized, intelligent, and effective way,” said Fauci.

First comes the problem of what to teach. Weaponized anthrax spores, Sarin nerve gas, and radioactive cesium dust aren’t part of the standard science curriculum. Teachers can be hard put to find good information. Fortunately, the Internet has a huge amount of information about the science behind different terrorist threats, and many Web sites have done a good job collecting and presenting it for different audiences.

When it comes to bioterrorism, getting across the basics of how public health decisions are made is one of the best things teachers can do, noted Monica Schoch-Spana, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies in Baltimore, Md. “People need to understand what public health is all about, including how we control disease outbreaks, what a vaccine is, how antibiotics work, what antibiotic resistance is, and how we fight it,” she said. If the public is reasonably familiar with these issues, people will cooperate much more effectively with authorities after a bioterrorist attack, she added. “People won’t take their medicine if they don’t trust the doctor,” she said – and familiarity breeds confidence.

“Many students brought up the topic regarding smallpox and anthrax,” said Anna Kong, who teaches at Stone Academy, an inner-city school in Chicago. “Some students confessed anxiety and fear that they and their families would be at risk of being harmed by bioterrorism. Even though I was feeling anxious myself, I was very cautious not to add to their discomforts and uncertainty,” which stemmed, Kong felt, from lack of information.

“Students wanted to know up-to-date information regarding how easily the diseases could be disseminated by terrorists to the general population,” added the teacher of 26 years. “Students were interested in knowing the symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and survival rates. They also wanted to know about other forms of bioterrorism.”

Paula Henderson, a biology teacher at Newark High School in Newark, Del., agreed that it is critical to give students accurate and timely facts. “I think it is important that students understand the basics of issues where biology makes the news so that they are able to listen to material being presented and pick out the important points,” she said. “They also need to be able to recognize when something is being exaggerated by the media for the sake of a story.”

Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant in Princeton, N.J., who advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on bioterrorism crisis communications, noted that – for adults or children – the emotional reaction to unlikely but appalling threats is complex. According to Sandman, authorities tend to focus on the “hazard ” – how likely a risk is to do actual harm. The public, however, zeroes in at a level of “outrage,” a combination of fear, anger, and uncertainty. Outrage depends not on statistical risk, but on factors such as whether people have any choice about being put in danger, whether they can take any active steps to limit the threat, and how familiar the risk is to them. For this reason, experts’ perceptions of hazard and the public’s degree of outrage often fail to align – which will be no surprise to anyone who has tried to teach teenagers about the health risks of smoking.

What makes communicating about unconventional terrorism unusual is that until an incident happens, outrage hardly exists. But after an event, outrage is sure to be universal and extraordinarily high, whether the hazard is real or imagined. And, noted Sandman, the fear will not necessarily be for personal safety. People also will dread having to watch more death and destruction of their fellow citizens on TV.

Teachers can best deal with outraged and curious students by understanding what Sandman calls “the seesaw of risk communication.” In general, he said, if a communicator focuses on one aspect of a crisis – say, how that threat is statistically very small – the public will focus on the opposite – say, how outraged it feels to be in any danger at all.

For any form of catastrophic terrorism, the “reassurance seesaw ” is the most important. “To calm our fears, you should express those fears for us rather than insisting they are exaggerated,” he said. That means a teacher should be straightforward about how bad catastrophic terrorism can be. That doesn’t mean you should only communicate doom and gloom, Sandman emphasized. Instead, recognize the fears underneath, but go on to put them into context.

For bioterrorism, this means first acknowledging that we live in a world in which people who hate us also may be both willing and able to attack us with biological weapons. Once your audience sees you calmly recognize this fact, it will be ready to hear that the probability of attack at any one place and time is low and that society is by no means powerless to cope. The ultimate goal is to move people toward the center of the seesaw – away from both denial and paralytic fear, toward a state of rational, well-informed concern.

That means not giving in to an impulse to offer blanket reassurance, out of a mistaken fear of creating panic. Despite considerable worry among government spokesmen about fanning fears during a terrorist crisis, real panic is very rare, Schoch-Spana said. A far more common reaction is what we saw in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, with people spontaneously organizing to help those in need, she said. “But you have to be honest with people about the dangers they face, or you will lose their trust,” she added.

“Students’ real concern is can this happen to them? What kind of treatment is there? Can we vaccinate everyone?” said Carole Wheeler, a teacher at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Greg Nichols, a teacher at New Options Middle School in Seattle, said his students asked similar questions, including, “Can they get to us?” “I was on the spot,” he said. “What do I tell them? Yeah, they could get to us.” He said he doesn’t believe in minimizing the situation because “they’re not stupid; they understand.” “I think a lot of the population underestimates what a middle schooler can handle,” Nichols commented. “I call them Frosted Mini-Wheats™: adult on one side, kid on the other.”

Sandman agreed. “The conventional wisdom is that young people are somehow more fragile than adults, but I don’t think that’s so,” he said. Adolescents need to be listened to and allowed to vent more than others, but they don’t really need to be coddled, Sandman believes. “The best thing to do is be as straight as possible with them – in the end, they’ll hear you better.”

Copyright © 2002 by The BSCS Newsletter

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