The 1999 Columbine High School attack has been referred to by many as an act of terrorism. Domestic terrorism, obviously, but still terrorism.
Did the act fit the definition of terrorism? If not the formal definition, it certainly fits the concept.
In my first book (Practical School Security), written back in 1998, I identified terrorism as one of the many potential threats to school safety. I noted it could be domestic or international terrorism. And I’m sure some people thought back then, a year prior to Columbine and three years prior to 9-11, that perhaps I was insane.
Even after 9-11, when I talked about schools being potential targets for terrorism, some said I was being alarmist. But many agreed: Schools fit the definition of “soft target” perfectly.
Three years later, following the terrorist attack upon a school in Beslan, Russia, there was a bit more buzz around the idea of schools as targets for terrorists. While many “insiders” in the school security, public safety, and anti-terrorism/counter-terrorism professions had their greatest fears validated, our government leaders, education community, and nation as a whole rather quickly moved forward with minimal-to-no national leadership in starting a meaningful dialogue and planning for a terrorist attack upon our nation’s schools.
Now, 11 years after Columbine and approaching nine years after 9-11, our nation’s schools have seen moderate improvements to school security and emergency preparedness. But by no means enough to suggest that our schools are less of a “soft target” today than they were over a decade ago. In fact, I would argue that the progress made in school security in the months and years immediately after Columbine has progressively declined in recent years.
Schools are already “soft targets” and they are getting “softer” every day thanks to:
- School board and administrators are making school security staff and School Resource Officers (SROs) the first to be eliminated in times of school safety budget cuts. Schools around the country have wasted no time in making such cuts in the past year or so.
- Prevention and intervention service resources are being cut to the bare bone and less time is being allocated for delivery of those services in schools where they are still being provided.
- Federal and state education agencies, along with many school districts nationwide, are operating with “academic blinders” on — a tunnel vision focus on meeting test score mandates. The result is that the “urgent” drives out the “important,” pushing proactive school security and crisis training, crisis planning, and related necessities to the back burner.
- The political hijacking of school safety by civil rights advocates, anti-security Ivory Tower academicians, and other special interest groups who are trying to use school safety to further their own political, philosophical, and special interest agendas.
The result is that we are less prepared than we should be for preventing or responding to both the threats from within and the threats from outside of our schools.
Internally, the threat of harm from students with untreated and/or undiagnosed mental health needs continues to be real. As one school administrator said to me, “The next Columbine can happen any day in any school in this country.”
The threat of international terrorists attacking again on American soil is not unforeseeable. If anyone believes schools could not be a terrorist target, just think about the number of children in any given school on every single weekday. Think about the psychological impact a terror attack upon our schools would have on parents and the nation’s psyche as a whole. And think about the economic impact a terrorist attack on our schools would have on temporarily shutting down or slowing down the “business” aspect of the education industry.
We also need to look more closely at the domestic or “home grown” terrorists. We’ve heard more in recent years about extremist groups and individuals right here in the United States. While international terrorists and students with mental health issues could commit an attack upon our schools, we need to also recognize there are some in our nation who may post a threat of domestic terror.
School security and emergency preparedness, in general, is better today than it was in the pre-Columbine era. But we’re not close to where we could be, and we seem to be taking our eye off the ball a little bit more each day.
What are your school leaders doing to make your schools less of a soft target?
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