Sitting around the table, the team of local, state and federal emergency management leaders discussed options and made quick decisions that would impact the safety of communities affected by a terrorist attack.
But this rehearsal wasn’t preparation for government leaders. It was designed to help high school students learn about homeland security and the responsibilities officials take on to protect their communities.
This rehearsal, which took place in Alburquerque, NM, is one of three high school programs across the nation designed to instruct students on homeland security.
Sandia National Laboratories’ High School Homeland Security program, Albuquerque, NM
The Sandia High School Homeland Security Program is designed to enhance the critical thinking skills of high school students in homeland security and emergency preparedness situations.
The program began in 2005 when John Taylor, manager of strategic studies of Sandia National Laboratories, operated by Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin company, for the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, was visiting his small hometown of Needles, Calif. He had been addressing classes there after returning home from working at Sandia.
“One year, the teacher I was working with and I talked about doing an exercise,” Taylor said. “Instead of me coming in and talking to the kids about what I was doing, we created an exercise for them to do, and it was a huge success.”
The concept was to get the students thinking, he recalled, and he worked with teacher Lynn Parker to implement it.
“We saw the opportunity to teach the students a number of different things, from enhanced critical thinking skills to an enhanced appreciation for the real issues that people deal with. They definitely learned an appreciation of public service during emergencies,” Taylor said. “Often, they see the results of emergencies on TV or in the newspaper, but they don’t appreciate the challenges these people have to face in real time and the consequences of every decision.”
The program is designed to meet a number of objectives, including teaching students the basics of homeland security and emergency management while enhancing their critical thinking and social interaction skills. The idea is to use homeland security as a vehicle to do that, Taylor said.
Typically, Taylor will visit a class in the fall and teach the students basic homeland security principles such as where responsibilities lie and which responder is responsible for which situation.
The students are provided with case studies to use to evaluate their understanding and their hometown’s preparedness, he said. Then they’re presented with standard problems, which allow them to discuss the event and how they might handle it.
“The principal centerpiece of the program is an annual tabletop exercise,” Taylor said. “It is a four-hour, full-scale exercise in which students are given a scenario that they have to work out.”
Students are placed on teams typically broken down into local, state and federal about four weeks before the day of the exercise.
“From there, we begin to send them weekly updates as if they were being briefed as a mayor or the FBI,” he explained. “We give them a report regarding something that happened on the border or something was stolen. Often, information is buried in the report that may not look important, but there are threads in the reports they will need to pull out at the exercise.”
In one instance, a town is given a hypothetical chlorine plant, and the students must deal with a dangerous release of chlorine and a plume threatening the region. The student groups have to interact and make decisions about the problem they’re facing.
“One of the things they come away with is an enhanced appreciation of public service,” Taylor said. “They have a basic understanding of homeland security and what it entails to manage a major event. The underlying concept is critical thinking. This kind of curriculum improves their ability to process this sort of information.”
A group of home-schooled students in Livermore, Calif., also participated in the tabletop exercise under the tutelage of Tim Shepodd, who also works at Sandia.
“The response we got from parents and students was spectacular,” Shepodd said. “John and I taught the students for about a month and a half in homeland security. We talked about things like public relations, who has the authority to do what with the fire department, creating an emergency plan for your home, what it means to declare a state of emergency and more.”
During the Livermore class’ final, scenario-based exercise in March, students experienced the chaos and uncertainty inherent in crises with information on the chlorine event coming in spurts rather than all at once. Communication between the three groups was clearly an important factor in addressing the fictitious event, but limited by the instructors during the exercise due to lack of resources, dissimilar priorities and needs among each group and time issues.
“Communication, thinking clearly under pressure and active listening all apply to real-life situations that they (the students) encounter every day,” said Guy Schalin, whose sons Patrick, Kyle and Brett were students in the Livermore class.
“This was a real valuable experience,” added Kyle, 15. “You may want to panic, but you have to stay cool, keep your head and think things through. It was a stressful situation, so we all needed to keep our composure.”
Shepodd said the leadership aspect for the students is critical to the lessons learned.
“They are exposed to the breadth and depth of potential opponents in responding to a homeland security threat,” he said.
In April, Sandia National Laboratories hosted its first High School Homeland Security Conference. During the conference’s working sessions, student participants discussed the results of their most recent full-scale exercise and received a new problem to work.
Select students from the various programs that had participated in the homeland security program were invited to Albuquerque and challenged to plan for disruptive incidents in their own communities.
At the conclusion of their planning, a tabletop exercise tested their skills again as they confronted a complex emergency situation in near-real time. Participants had to deal with catastrophic dam failures and a terrorist-caused hazardous material explosion.
“We had four groups that sent students for the conference. None of the kids had met before, and we mixed them up and they worked together marvelously,” Taylor said. “They talked about their shared experiences, what worked and what didn’t work.”
Additional schools are picking up the program, Taylor said, with it now spreading from California to Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
“We’ve made it a little bigger and we’re talking about how to expand it,” he said.
Discussions are in the works with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the National Institute for Hometown Security, for further exercises.
“We can’t take it nationwide at this point, but we are thinking about having a curriculum workshop for teachers in which they would work with some educational specialists and homeland security specialists,” Taylor said. “That would allow them to have the experience of what the kids have been up to and put together a curriculum that could be socialized more broadly. That would remove the need for one or two specific people having to go to every school.”
Taylor also hopes to form a network of high school homeland security educators.
LaGrone Advanced Technology Complex, Denton, TX
Opening in August 2006 with a goal of training high school students in high-demand occupations, the Denton Independent School District (DISD) opened the Sarah and Troy LaGrone Advanced Technology Complex (ATC) in Denton, Texas, with nine academies, including the Advanced Legal and Protective Services program.
“We look at the high-demand occupations that require a degree, as well as those that need certifications and licenses,” said Marty Thompson, dean of the LaGrone Advanced Technology Complex and director of DISD career and technical education. “We can train students for careers in dispatch, law enforcement, DEA, CIA, FBI, among other areas.”
Going into its second year, the program offers courses including introduction to homeland security; combating and understanding terrorism; emergency communication; corrective officer course; pre-law; fundamentals of criminal law; and criminal investigations.
Students may select a package of options that works for their intended career choices, Thompson noted.
“It’s definitely a high-demand occupation, and our goal is to have students graduate the program with certifications and licenses allowing them to enter the workforce with a career,” Thompson said. “They can also take the classes for community college credit.”
In the past year, students who earn a B average have been able to earn up to 13 hours of college credit without having to pay for college tuition, said David Fears, criminal justice instructor at the ATC. Fears is a certified police officer and instructor in police, peace officer and jailer.
“For students going into the military, this gives them a step up,” Fears noted. “One former student was the only soldier in his group who knew how to do searches properly during training.”
Students are accepted into the ATC program only if they have a clean background and zero drug use. They also must have good attendance records.
The ATC has a summer camp for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders to give them exposure to the various academies offered. It also instills the importance of staying in school, earning good grades and staying out of trouble if they want to participate in these fields to prepare them for the careers of their choice, Thompson added.
“One of my students went into the Army last year and he told me that if it hadn’t been for this program and the ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Program] program, he would have been like his brother, in a gang,” Fears said.
Students who want to go to work immediately after high school have their applications put at the top of the stack with the Denton County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) for communications and corrections officers, according to Fears.
As part of a partnership with the DCSO, the sheriff’s office pays for the first exam for emergency communications and corrections officers. Fears stated that 60 percent of the students who completed the program last year were hired by the DCSO upon graduation.
“This provides students—especially at-risk students—a chance to have a career when they finish school. For students who don’t have money for college, this gives them an opportunity to earn good money while they attend college,” Thompson added.
Jasmine Luna, a 2007 graduate of Denton Ryan High School, participated in the ATC criminal justice program.
“I want to do criminal justice as a career and I knew it would help me later on and provided me more opportunities,” Luna recounted. “After we did one or two assignments, I was thinking differently and really thinking more about how other people might think.”
With lots of hands-on projects, Luna said the classes helped her examine how different people think about terrorism, ranging from average citizens to terrorists.
In the introduction to homeland security course, students get an overview of homeland security principles and practices. Areas covered include cyber security, Community Emergency Response Teams, weapons of mass destruction, risk assessment, terrorism, as well as air and maritime transportation security.
“We try to get them to look globally at terrorism as a whole and what causes these people to commit these acts, whether they’re racially motivated, religious or political,” Fears explained. “We want them to understand their point of view as best as possible and what they’re fighting for. We don’t talk about whether it is right or wrong—that is not our determination. But, if we can understand why they do it, the next step is to understand how to stop it or try to find ways to stop it.”
Students work in small groups researching actual terrorist organizations’ training, funding and leadership organization and structure.
“They compare the organizations to actual corporations and learn what kind of terrorist activities they promote. They really had to think and make evaluations,” Fears said.
Homeland Security Academy, Baltimore City, Md
In its second year, the Baltimore City Public School System’s Homeland Security Academy has had its share of challenges, having been through four different principals.
The Academy is located within the former Walbrook High School, now called the Walbrook Education Complex.
With a largely minority and underprivileged student body, the academy focuses on English, mathematics, social studies, foreign language and science, as well as courses that will prepare students to enter post-graduate programs related to firefighting, emergency medical services, emergency preparedness, law enforcement, criminal justice, forensics and security issues related to computer science.
It has its own student body and administrative structure within the complex, with about 600 students.
The academy’s guiding concept is to start recruiting students with an interest in fire and police careers so they can start making better choices during their adolescence, said Arnetta Rudisill, the current principal.
“From that idea, Baltimore City moved to smaller learning communities from the larger high schools, which had housed 2,000 students,” she said. “We want to create the small learning communities and specialized schools. The Homeland Security Academy was designed and developed by one of our current police officers, Angelo Brooks. He visited a number of programs to determine what will work for our students who are at risk because of poverty and a neighborhood plagued with drugs, low literacy and crime.”
Rudisill said about 80 percent of her students read at a sixth-grade level or below. So, she has introduced two reading interventions programs to help those students.
She also said the families of the students are committed to helping their children have better opportunities and are volunteering to help, too.
The Baltimore City Public School System offers students several options for high school academies. Some select which school they want to attend; others are assigned based on where they live, Rudisill said.
“We want our students to go to college or enter the workforce with a career,” she added. “The idea is for our students to have these options to go to college or explore criminal justice as a career. Our reality is that our students don’t have a huge college fund waiting for them, so they will have to work while going to college. With this program, if they can have a career while they go to college, it not only gives them real world experience but allows them to earn money to go to college.”
The school has Career Technology Education partners focused on such fields of law enforcement as: Criminal justice, fire safety, emergency medicine, forensic science and geographic information systems.
One of Rudisill’s new ideas for the academy is a freshman academy, which separates the ninth-graders from upper classmen to help them adjust to the changes while also offering courses to help them succeed.
Before they even step into specific curriculum for the academy, the students participate in a freshman seminar class and focus on study skills and conflict resolution, which is “huge in our area with gangs,” Rudisill said. Getting students to communicate effectively through debate and public speaking is a way to further that, she said.
In the second semester, they are introduced to homeland security and the career options available in that realm. Field trips and fieldwork, as well as project based learning and guest lectures, are part of the introduction.
“We want them to see that their role is in a larger society. Often, they feel displaced and don’t really see beyond their neighborhood, so we try to help them see the bigger picture,” she explained. “When they get in the 10th grade, they start experiencing a pathway toward fire or police, for example. By their senior year, they should have completed courses, which would allow them to take the civil service exam, where they can apply for a job with these departments.”
Rudisill pointed out that there are many job opportunities for students who complete the program because local first responder departments are working to hire more minorities to match the demographics of their communities.
“Much of their college career would be paid for by those agencies, because they want to have better relationships between the officers and the communities they serve,” she said.
The new principal is also working with governmental agencies, as well as Lockheed Martin Corp., to develop summer internships for students, too.
“The challenge is getting our young people to see that there is an attainable, honest living out there,” she explained. “With the program, we can show them the steps they need to take to prepare. We are instructing them on attire, being consistent and timely, following rules and making good decisions. The idea is for them to assess themselves and see how that might translate to a career.”
Of the 600 students, only 60 are seniors.
“We have a large freshman class and we’re investing a lot in the freshmen,” she continued. “We’re doing bold new things to introduce them to these concepts while they’re young. We want them to know there are lucrative careers doing something important for the community available to them. If we can get them in the ninth grade, we can help them with the choices they make with peer relationships, attendance and more.”
Looking closely at homeland security as a career and enhancing the educational opportunities within that field is Rudisill’s ultimate goal.
As she put it: “We would like to add a JRTOC program by next year, as well as partner with other federal agencies to make sure the homeland security program is authentic. We are developing a board of advisors from the various industries and agencies that follow homeland security to determine what pathways would make the most sense. We want the students to go right out of high school into entry level positions in these fields or go to college while working in these fields.”