Libya, Iran, Al-Qaeda, Mexican drug cartels, and the list of other possible threat sources to U.S. national security and public safety continue to grow.
In fact, one veteran national public official openly asked this week if the U.S. has more international enemies now than we did just prior to 9/11. When you think about it, it is a reasonable question.
Minimal Conversations on Schools as Terror Targets
Our federal government has never fully, openly, and proactively addressed the threat of terrorism to our schools. I testified at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee in 2007 on “Protecting our Schools: Federal Efforts to Strengthen Community Preparedness and Response.” The General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report around that time which cited weaknesses in school emergency preparedness.
I also participated in a 2003 National Strategy Forum special working group conference in D.C. on “Schools: Prudent Preparation for a Catastrophic Terrorism Incident.”
In addition to numerous professional articles, I authored a detailed web page on Schools & Terrorism: School Terrorism Preparedness. My new book published in April of 2011 also has a dedicated chapter on Preparing Schools for Terrorism.
Even Less Action on Schools as Terror Targets
And with minimal scattered things said and written about schools and terrorism, where are we now? About as far ahead as we were before or right after 9/11: Not very far ahead at all.
In fact, it is arguable that we moved backwards. In the past month, the Obama Administration eliminated the only dedicated K-12 school emergency planning grant (REMS) program for schools in the FY2012 budget. Congress then followed up by eliminating the program for FY2011 in a politically expedient move to get to a Continuing Resolution for the 2011 budget.
Local school boards and administrators are following suit by cutting school security, policing, and preparedness measures. These areas tend to be first on the chopping block.
And the Threats Continue to Grow
Yet we continue to see a number of high-profile violent incidents in schools. A number of veteran school safety professionals believe any day now “Columbine 2” could occur somewhere in the country.
In the past year, I have seen a growing number of incidents involving adult, non-students posing a serious threat to schools. In January of 2011, an employee of the Bethlehem Area School District in PA was arrested for a plan of attack upon his school. Also in January, in Elizabeth City, NC, a 24-year-old man was arrested for threatening to “shoot up’ a school after federal officers found five firearms and 200 to 400 rounds of ammunition while searching his home. He also had an AK-47 assault rifle on layaway.
Meanwhile, our list of international enemies grows with many on the list having histories of terrorist activities. Closer to home, the “radicalization” of Americans has become a popular topic of conversation among terrorism experts, Congressional officials, and other national security gurus.
A respected friend and colleague with over 35 years in education, many of those as an administrator in local school and then at the state level, recently shared his perspective that one of the least talked about but foreseeable potential next threats to our schools could be from domestic terrorists. Whether driven by social, political, economic, or other influences, such individuals could easily target schools in their own local areas.
There is legitimate cause to take a closer look at the potential for threats to schools from domestic terrorism. The overall climate of our society at many levels is one of concern, uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety.
And the climate in many K-12 schools is not much better. Budget cuts, education reform, and a tunnel vision focus on improving test scores has shifted the focus off proactive security and emergency preparedness planning in far too many districts.
Will it take another tragedy to focus on school security and emergency preparedness?
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