Home Schoolers Incensed By Drill Scenario

Muskegon County emergency officials, along with school and hospital personnel, learned a lot from a mock terrorist exercise Tuesday, but the incident also became a lesson in sensitivity for one of the event organizers. 

In the exercise, a domestic terrorist group -- dubbed Wackos Against Schools and Education -- plants a bomb on a public school bus loaded with students. According to materials handed out to explain the fake scenario, the "Wackos" believe everyone should be home-schooled.

But the name and scenario used in the exercise "bombed out" with home-schoolers across the nation.

The Chronicle and local officials were deluged with phone calls and e-mails from across the nation, complaining about the choice of words.

A Monday Chronicle story previewing the event, and describing the fictitious "Wacko" group, was posted on the newspaper's Web site. Home-schoolers then discovered it and apparently distributed it, via mass e-mails, to other home-schoolers.

Chris Klicka, senior counsel of the Home-Schooling Legal Defense Association based in Washington D.C., called the characterization outlandish.

"Home-schoolers have never been accused of violence against any school," Klicka said, after calling The Chronicle. "There's an outpouring from the nation -- it's a mockery against what home schooling is and the contributions home-schoolers have made to the country.

"To label them even in a fictitious context is uncalled for and unneeded. Home-schoolers are one of the most patriotic groups in the United States."

The Chronicle received similar complaints in phone calls and e-mails from at least a dozen states.

"Likening home-schoolers to disgruntled postal workers would be bad enough, but terrorists?" wrote Debbie Nelson of Savannah, Ga. "I vehemently oppose instigating fear of home-schoolers by public servants and the school system. Home education is a legal option in every state of the U.S."

Daniel Stout, chief deputy for emergency services with the Muskegon County Sheriff's Department, said he never meant to offend anyone.

"That's just what I decided to use," he said of the name choice for Tuesday's drill. "It may have been a poor choice, but that's what was used ... I'm the one who wrote the scenario."

Planning for the event began last year, he said, and no one indicated that the name would offend anyone until a few weeks ago. Stout said he decided not to change the name. He said it will not be used again.

Last year, a similar terrorism exercise at Muskegon's Heritage Landing was called "Wackos Against Relaxation and Recreation," he said.

Fictitious group names often are made up for anti-terrorist drills. Stout referred to a May 2002 exercise in Manistee County where the domestic terrorist group was called ELF, which stood for Ethical Liberation for Fish.

Area school officials, bus drivers, students and parents participated in the drill, along with county agencies, hospitals and emergency responders.

The Muskegon Area Intermediate School District Tuesday issued a statement saying the areawide organization was not aware of the scenario, but nevertheless apologized.

The statement said the MAISD "shared the disappointment of others when we learned the emergency preparedness drill referenced home-schoolers as the fictitious group responsible for a mock disaster. We apologize."

It said the MAISD and local school districts "were not aware of the scenario, and it was not shared with students or parents who took part in the exercise."

"We sincerely regret offending home-school educators. We believe that all parents are educators and do important work at home with their children," the statement said.

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© 2004 Muskegon Chronicle. Used with permission