There’s a new reason kids may be kept home from school. And it’s not so they can try out the toboggan they got for Christmas.
In the age of seemingly omnipresent jihadist terror threats, all it takes is a mysterious email to a school administrator to shut down an entire school district for the day. Indeed, for schools across the U.S., terror-threat day has become the new snow day. It could happen any time, though the thermometer need not be below 32 degrees.
Both New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two largest school districts, received terror threats earlier this month. While New York determined the threat to be a hoax, Los Angeles took the highly controversial step of closing its schools down altogether for the day as an act of caution — a move that cost the district at least $29 million and caused unquantifiable headaches for thousands of parents.
In the week following the L.A. closure, the number of school districts around the nation reporting terror threats skyrocketed. Schools in Nashua, N.H, canceled classes on Monday in response to a threat, as did three school districts in Indiana last week.
Other districts that received threats but deemed them not to be credible include Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in Florida; Houston, Dallas and McAllen in Texas; San Francisco and Long Beach in California; and Las Vegas, just to name a few.
These threats on schools and the subsequent reactions exemplify the new reality of terror awareness that Americans live in after jihadist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. What these attacks best highlight is that America is living in an era where every public space is fair game for terrorists and no threat can be written off entirely.
“The threat has always been incredibly real, the issue is we haven’t taken it as such,” said Sebastian Gorko, a national security expert and chairman of the Threat Knowledge Group. “The recent events on U.S. soil have allowed the general public to wake up to the seriousness of the situation.”
Sadly, schools — which are comprised of an essentially helpless population and often have minimal, if any, security — are potentially the ideal setting for terrorists looking to impose maximum quantities of fear and disruption on society.
“There are no innocent victims in the eyes of terrorists,” said Dean Alexander, a counterterrorism author at Western Illinois University. He emphasized that the internet has drastically changed the nature of threats against schools — instead of making threatening phone calls or mailing white powder, someone a thousand miles away can simply click and send an ominous email or post to social media.
This new reality necessitates a cultural shift where public safety becomes everybody’s priority.
“It’s really a question of mindset,” Gorko said. “When my family goes into a public space, we play a kind of mental game. As soon as we sit down in a food court or movie theater, I ask them very simple questions: where are the entrance and exits? Where are things you can hide behind and which of those things are going to stop bullets? Even if nothing happens, just asking those questions gives you a level of awareness we have really forgotten about.”
John Mueller, co-author of “Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism,” argues that hysteria only plays into the hands of the terrorists and that the threats must be kept in proper context. The probability of being killed by an active shooter in the U.S., he says, is about one in 90 million — far less likely than being struck by lightning or being killed in a car crash.
Further, he reckons that the majority of terror threats received by schools and other venues are hoaxes, for the obvious reason that terrorists have nothing to gain by publicizing their intentions.
“San Bernardino was a fantastic horrible surprise; that’s why it was so successful,” he said. “Terrorists usually do not say what they are going to do, at least not in the current context.”
Regardless, where to draw the line between paranoia and precaution regarding terror threats is a question that hardly existed 20 years ago but now must be weighed on a daily basis by law enforcement, teachers and parents.
That is the new normal in which we live.