Designating schools as critical infrastructure could help keep students safe

Designating schools as critical infrastructure could help keep students safe

The horrific attack against The Covenant School in Nashville is the latest in a chilling pattern of attacks against K-12 schools over the past several years. While it is difficult to identify a single factor responsible for these various incidents, the same combination of individuals with access to high-capacity firearms and personal grievances, troubled histories and likely mental health problems seems to fit the pattern seen with other tragic events over the past decade. 

The country seems unable to find working solutions to address these aspects of the school shooting phenomenon. But one idea that has not yet been translated into action is to designate kindergarten-12 schools in the United States as critical infrastructure and to bolster the ability of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to carry out its mission. 

DHS was created in 2002 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and with that came a major focus on the hardening of critical infrastructure throughout the U.S. While the U.S. government had recognized the importance of critical infrastructure protection during the 1990s, those efforts were still in the stages of early development then, and it took the shock of 9/11 to catalyze a higher level of focus, which has played out over the last 20 years. 

In the early days, DHS sought to heighten physical protection measures in vulnerable industries and sectors such as nuclear power, energy, water, telecommunications, banking and finance. That resulted in comprehensive assessments of these efforts in documents called National Infrastructure Protection Plans. Measures ranged from establishing perimeter fences, security cameras, armed guards, robust site security plans, training and exercises and other practices designed to make it harder for determined attackers to target these facilities. 

The department continued to build out the framework of critical infrastructure and focus on physical security measures. And, in the aftermath of a series of cyber breaches and attacks in the 2010s, it also began to heighten its attention on cybersecurity and the intersection of the physical and cyber worlds in relation to infrastructure protection. 

The creation of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in 2018 as part of DHS allowed for the consolidation of different critical infrastructure programs and activities in one central organization that reported directly to the DHS secretary, a change from previous years. 

Currently within CISA, K-12 security rests within a sub-unit in the Infrastructure Security Division called the School Safety Task Force. The Task Force has taken on several responsibilities towards the goal of strengthening safety at K-12 schools throughout the country. But now would be an ideal time to give serious consideration to expanding this effort within CISA by creating an entirely new division on school safety, or by designating K-12 facilities in the United States as a standalone critical infrastructure sector. As it stands, none of the current sectors overtly align with school safety concerns.

Designating K-12 schools as a distinct critical infrastructure sector would allow higher levels of DHS-backed funding, training, expertise and support to facilities that strengthen security and either deter would-be attackers in the future or minimize the threat they pose if they attempt attacks. Efforts like CISA’s State and Local Cybersecurity Grant Program could provide a model for how this can be replicated with K-12 schools, although this would be far-ranging in scope and difficult at some levels to implement, with uneven levels of success in the program’s initial phase. 

DHS would have to work with Congress to adjust its budget for such a new initiative. But the good news is that the DHS secretary possesses the authority to designate sectors as critical infrastructure. Given this flexibility, and with bipartisan support from Congress, such a move could start to pay dividends and ultimately prevent future K-12 school attacks.

Javed Ali is an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He has more than 20 years of professional experience in Washington, D.C., on national security issues, including roles at the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.  

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