The terrorist attack on students at a university college in Garissa, Kenya, shocked the world, for its brutality and senselessness. As in most cases in this age of overt terrorism, the terrorist’s religious ideology influenced their need to inflict as many casualties as possible.
Loss of life is irrelevant the more deaths the better, especially since they believe that non-believers deserve to die.
And where else is greater physical devastation more conceivable than in schools?
Herbert Arinaitwe, a criminologist in the Community Service Department of the ministry of Internal Affairs, believes that although schools should not be handled as an isolated case, they have a high propensity for attacks.
“Terrorism is about showing presence.
Terrorists believe that if they hit on a school, the impact will be felt more than if they attack a police station. The impact is far-reaching because schools have the numbers.”
In the wake of the murder of Senior Principal State Attorney, Joan Kagezi, Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, said that the Uganda Police were in receipt of credible information indicating that terrorist group al-Shabaab intends to attack school, colleges and universities along Jinja-Kampala highway.
He called for increased vigilance around schools, threatening sanctions against schools that fail in this regard.
Schools are a soft target because they are frequented by many people, assumed to be parents. Besides, students are drawn from all religious and social statuses, giving the terrorists mileage for their cause.
A serene quietness welcomes visitors to St Mary’s Boarding School Kitende, a few meters off Entebbe Road. It is 9am and as I stand at the guardhouse, I can hear teachers getting on with the first lesson.
I adjust my bag, in which I have placed two dresses, to make it look bigger. The guard does not give it a glance instead, as he looks outside the gate, he asks whom I want to see.
“You go to the office,” he says as I am still labouring to explain. As I walk up the steep incline, he walks out of the gate. I have not been checked, neither have I presented identification nor have I signed in the register.
Patrick Onyango, Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman says that schools on highways are susceptible to attack because they are easily accessible than other schools.
“Village schools or those in the towns are in congested areas where any suspicious activity can easily be noticed. An added aantage is that on a highway, the roads are smoother and it is easier for the terrorists to get away quickly,” Onyango says.
He adds that these schools, especially the private ones, are guarded by private security guards, who are trained in preventing attacks.
However, Arinaitwe insists that some of these schools are poorly guarded.
“The guards are not well trained and do not know that alertness and inbuilt suspicion is the first requirement when it comes to fighting terrorism.”
Teaming with the community
At Budo Junior School, there is a semblance of vigilance. There is a boda boda stage directly opposite the main gate.
Besides calling for customers, the boda boda riders visibly scrutinise every visitor to the school.
This falls in line with the police stance of deploying crime preventers.
“We are in the process of training individuals in communities around schools who can get information on the ground that they hand to police officers,” says Onyango.
This cannot be said for the small gate, which stands forlornly a few metres from the street level, devoid of any human activity.
At the main gate, besides the gateman, there is a policeman sitting in the guardhouse. In 2008, suspected arsonists attacked the school, torching a girl’s dormitory. Nineteen girls perished in the fire. The tragedy marked the start of school fires that have since damaged property, in various schools, worth millions of shillings.
I sign in the register and get directions to the administration block from the policeman, who remains firmly glued to his seat. The gateman pokes my bag playfully and asks what is in it.
He backs off when I tell him it contains “women” stuff, and continues fine tuning his radio.
Ernest Kavulu, the head teacher, says the school is doing everything possible to reduce the risks of an attack.
“Our guards are on high alert and monitor the movements of every visitor. People have been netted and put in custody for lying to the security personnel. They are vigilant when it comes to unfamiliar faces and uncoordinated movements.”
But herein lays the problem. Terrorists work in shadows they do not come out overtly.
Arinaitwe says that terrorists cooperate “with people who know the geographical location and loopholes of the places they intend to attack. It does not necessarily come down to suspicious faces. It could be a gardener, a cook or even a teacher.”
Onyango says the Uganda Police Force will offer training courses to upgrade the skills of security guards.
“We are encouraging them to perform searches on people entering their premises. They have to know the reason of the visit. In the training, we show them what bombs look like.”
In the same way that the Westgate Mall was attacked in Nairobi, the university in Garissa, was attacked by gun-welding men who were shooting indiscriminately.
“Security guards from private firms have guns, but some schools hire civilians as guards. In these instances, we provide the school with the telephone numbers of the nearest police station or post.”
Teachers standing in the gaps
“The number of schools is big and police cannot assign policemen to every school because that would leave the other institutions without protection,” says Arinaitwe.
At Budo Junior School, teachers participate in the night patrols.
“Our staff mans the gate, guards the dormitories and inspects the guards to make sure that they are alert and stationed where they are supposed to be,” says Kavulu.
At St Mary’s Kitende, only the headmaster is mandated to talk about and oversee security.
However, on the day Daily Monitor visited the school, although it was confirmed that he was on the school premises, he could not be located either on phone or physically for about an hour.
However, when it comes to security, parents and children are an important partner.
“Security measures should not be left to the school authority alone,” says Arinaitwe.
“When stringent measures are introduced at checkpoints, parents should not take them as inconveniences or something to laugh about. Instead they should see these measures as the school’s effort to safeguard their children.”
Sometimes, because of the environment in which the school is set, it is not easy to physically secure the place. The Creamland Campus of St. Lawrence Schools is surrounded by thickets and a light forest, with no visible fencing in the thickets.
Angela Nakimuli, the deputy headmistress, insists that the trees provide the best security for the school.
“No one can penetrate that thicket. Besides, the houses near the trees belong to our guards so the area is well protected. The dormitories are difficult to breach by a stranger because every house is gated-off. The verandahs are sealed off with burglar proof (metallic bars).”
She seemed bothered by the fact that although there is a metal detector in the gatehouse, the guards did not use it. In fact, as I approached the gate, they told me to open it for myself while they remained in the gatehouse. They did not ask for identification.
“We always tell our gate people to be cautious and be alert to suspicious people,” says Nakimuli. “But besides the security at the gate, we also have other guards who carry out vigilant patrols at all times. Our students are also very alert because we inform them of the terror attacks around the world,” Nakimuli says.
What school authorities must do
Understand the school environment and look out for loopholes where security can be breached
Constantly run security tests to see how to bridge the gaps
Involve area local leaders and the general community in detecting suspicious activities in the school community
Look out for suspicious people masquerading as parents
Always have a register that visitors should check into to after presenting identification
SOURCE: Daily Monitor