On October 30th, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was joined by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings at Mt. Vernon High School in Alexandria, VA, to promote their collaborative efforts and initiatives to improve the preparedness of America’s schools. Given the constant demands upon the schedules of Cabinet Secretaries, it’s not often that you can get two of them in one room to meet but getting three of them together is a real coup. I guess it’s sort of like docking the Space Shuttle to the Space Station – it requires lots of patience and practice. I have no doubt that this was a nightmare for the scheduling staffs but it is a credit to each of the Secretaries and their Departments to come together to talk about an issue that parents wonder about every day as their child goes off to school, “Are you going to be safe?”

Regardless of whether your child goes to public or private school, as a parent, you cannot help but think how safe your kids are from the moment they walk in the schoolhouse door to when they exit the building after the last bell. The tragic shootings that have occurred in K-12 schools (Columbine, Pearl, etc.) over the last decade have been a real wake-up call on a number of fronts. The places that we have all thought of as safe harbors of learning are now implementing plans and procedures for emergencies that go beyond lining the kids up at the classroom door to exit the building for a fire drill. The calls of ‘duck and cover’ that meant something to the baby-boomer generation now have an entirely new context today.

No school community – inner city and rural alike – has been immune. Like the fires, tornadoes and earthquakes that strike with random fury, school shootings have been equal opportunity tragedies that leave grief, sorrow and scars in their wake.

DHS, Commerce and Education deserve a firm ‘thumbs up’ and some strong applause from all of us for coming together to promote safer schools and preparedness and for paying particular attention to the K-12 community. Unfortunately, their efforts and energies fall dramatically short when it comes to the higher education community. If there is any soft underbelly of vulnerability when it comes to education readiness and resiliency, it is in our universities, colleges, community colleges, technical schools and other institutions of higher learning.

It is all to easy to point to the tragedy at Virginia Tech this past April or the September shootings at Delaware State University as default examples of campus vulnerabilities. While there is no dispute to the heartbreak and impacts of those incidents, the men and women that were shot or killed in those horrific incidents are just one part of the picture of campus vulnerability that we need to pay greater attention to if lives, property, communities and reputations are to remain intact.

Nowhere has the campus vulnerability lesson been more painfully learned than in the State of Louisiana. Campuses of all types, sizes, disciplines and locations bore as much of the wrath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as did the notable communities (New Orleans, Plaquemines, Lake Charles, St Bernard, etc.) that dominated the media coverage for months. Students, faculty and staff from schools such as Tulane, Xavier, McNeese University and others were evacuated and dispersed across the country; buildings and other education infrastructures were destroyed or damaged by the storm and flooding; classes for the first semester or entire year were either disrupted or cancelled outright; and so forth. Each of these impacts is individually significant but combined together; they are a very formidable nightmare to contend.

Only compounding the vulnerabilities of the higher education community is the fact that there is no one point in the Federal Government for these impacted schools (or those that will have to contend with future emergencies) to turn to for help or guidance in preparing, responding and becoming more resilient institutions. While there are pockets of help within the Department of Education and DHS (i.e., FEMA, Infrastructure Protection Division, US Secret Service), the lack of a ‘center of gravity’ to give voice, energy and leadership leaves this important community often overlooked and forgotten.

This condition is only exacerbated further when you recognize that higher education is not even on the immediate ‘radar screen’ when it comes to considering critical infrastructures and key resources. [It’s considered a ‘subsector’ under the Government Facilities Sector which is led by the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.] I guess that is sort of like being the third cousin, once removed on your mom’s side that is forgotten about when its time to have a family reunion photo taken.

Again, there has been some really solid work and efforts done by individual components of DHS, the Department of Education as well as other federal partners in trying to better protect students, teachers and staff but if we are really serious about instilling a ‘culture of preparedness among schools,’ the current loose confederation of interested parties needs to create a single point for leadership and action for the education community and in particular, the higher education community to engage. Having one piece here, another there and another one way over yonder is no way to provide leadership or real initiative. As parents working with our kids at the kitchen table doing homework, we know that piece-meal approaches are not acceptable when trying to complete an assignment. They shouldn’t be acceptable when we want our schools to be better prepared either.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More