If terrorists want to strike at the heart of America, they will strike at its children.
I made that comment before and after the 9/11 attacks on United States. This past weekend’s ISIS attacks in Paris, France, are a tragic reminder that this comment still applies now, if not more than ever, here in America today.
A historical glance back at discussions on schools and terrorism
Domestic terrorism was touched up from my perspective when I mentioned it in a discussion of bombs and bomb threats in my first book in 1998. I revisited it again in a subchapter in my 2000 book with reflections on international and domestic terrorism attacks. In my latest book on Proactive School Security and Emergency Preparedness Planning, I dedicated a chapter to school terrorism preparedness.
Following 9/11, a couple of my colleagues and I took some hits from naysayers and fence riders who dared not to broach the issue of U.S. schools being terror targets. But after the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia, the U.S. Department of Education sent out a letter to educators addressing school preparedness in light of the Beslan attack, and a few presenters on school safety stepped up to more openly acknowledge this threat. In 2003, my colleague Chuck Hibbert and I participated in a National Strategy Forum (NSF) two-day workshop of experts that culminated in recommendations published on Schools: Prudent Preparation for a Catastrophic Terrorism Incident.
Sadly, our federal officials and others failed to meaningfully build upon the 2004 Department of Education letter and the NSF forum recommendations and other measures, and the conversation and action on schools as terrorist targets largely ceased at that point. To their credit, Congress and the Clinton Administration created and funded what eventually became known as the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) school emergency planning grant program, which brought about many successful projects and lessons learned that were shared with schools and their first responders nationwide. Unfortunately, this program was destroyed when the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated it from the federal budget shortly after President Obama took office, and to date it has not been restored in its original form where grant resources for this specific purpose are directly made available to schools.
In 2007, I was invited to testify before Congress when the House Homeland Security Committee when they held a full committee hearing on school readiness and emergency preparedness planning. A major thrust of my recommendations focused upon the need for our public officials to acknowledge the threat of terrorism to our nation’s schools and school buses. I submitted six key recommendations to restore and strengthen cut school emergency preparedness funding, and to strengthen interagency coordination on school readiness and emergency preparedness planning.
Now eight years later since that 2007 Congressional hearing, myself and others are still waiting for the REMS program to be restored following its elimination, and for meaningful discussions to be held on schools as targets for terrorists.
Revisiting U.S. schools as potential terrorist targets
The ISIS attacks in Paris this past weekend are a chilling reminder of our vulnerability here in the United States. Undoubtedly, we are better prepared with improved homeland security measures in our airports and other facilities than we were pre-9/11. But to a large extent, American schools remain soft targets and vulnerable to a terrorist attack due to the decline in momentum and resources that were generated after the 1999 Columbine attack and the 9/11 attack on our nation.
It is time for Congress and the Obama Administration, and the next incoming presidential administration as well, to focus discussions, planning, programs and funding on school emergency preparedness. Hold some hearings in Congress to get expert input on schools and school buses as potential terrorist targets. Get the Education, Homeland Security and Justice departments to focus policy specifically on schools and school buses as potential targets of terrorism.
Then act: Do something beyond talking about it. Restore the REMS grant program and funding to get resources back in the hands of local schools. Keep the conversation moving down to the local level to get our new generation of school administrators and crisis teams thinking and better prepared on school emergency readiness.
Strengthening school security and emergency preparedness during times of heightened terrorism threats
Superintendents, principals, school boards and their first responders can take a lead in strengthening their school security and emergency preparedness during times of heightened terrorist threats. Many practical steps for heightened school security and emergency preparedness have long been outlined on our dedicated web site page on School Terrorism Preparedness. I encourage you to spend some time visiting that site.
Then encourage your education associations and legislators to restore school emergency preparedness planning programs and funding to help schools better prepare for a terrorist attack. Let’s not wait for six suicide bombers to walk into random schools across the United States. The threat to our nation and to our schools is real. And right now, we could and should be doing more in a balanced, rational and comprehensive way.
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