Why on Earth Are We Allowing the Homeland Security Department into Public High Schools?

The following is an excerpt from the new book A Curriculum of Fear by Nicole Nguyen (Minnesota Press, 2016): 

As I did most mornings in the field, I drove up to Milton High School’s faculty parking lot, passing through a barbed wire–lined chain link fence that wound its way around the school. Two signs welcomed me onto Milton public school property, which rests on the edge of the Fort Milton military base in the greater D.C. area: “Warning: Restricted Area” and “This area patrolled by military working dogs.” After parking, I walked to the front of the school and bound up the long set of stairs, nodding hello to two students hanging out on a blue metal bench marked with the school’s logo. On my way, I noticed two police cars parked out front, one more than usual.

I knew the school’s front doors would be locked, so I peered through the small windows next to the steel doors in search of a student who might open them so I could avoid buzzing the main office. Soon enough, a student pushed open one of the doors for me. After I walked in, he glanced outside for any other stragglers. I then reported directly to the main office, following the signs that asked me to do so. I maneuvered around dillydallying students who, late to class, dragged their feet even more to spite the teacher who chided them as she passed by. On my way, I found that the cheerful murals of the Capitol and Statue of Liberty brightened the school’s windowless but clean hallways.

Once in the main office, I routinely handed over my driver’s license to the school secretary, who scanned its barcode into her computer. Using the data attached to my driver’s license, the school computer ran my name through Raptor’s vSoft visitor management software, which detects registered sex offenders and those with a record of domestic violence. My presence in the school required that I submit an official form of identification and that I comply with this background check each time I entered the school. While I waited for the computer to complete its scan, I turned around to sign the school logbook. I documented who I was, when I entered the building, and where I intended to go. Looking up at the clock to record the time, I took a minute to glance at the color TV monitors displaying real-time images from the school’s security cameras.

Behind me, administrator walkie-talkies buzzed with activity, calling school staff to classrooms to remove disruptive students and reminding administrators of meetings to which they were already late. Students bustled in and out of the main office in search of a late pass, a missing notebook, a friend. A parent waiting for a meeting with the principal nervously tapped her foot. I smiled. On this April morning several months into my fieldwork at Milton, the cadences of the school day felt familiar, with these scenes predictably playing out in similar fashion each time I visited the school.

Turning back, the school secretary reached out with a visitor sticker that displayed the photo from my license, my name, the date and time of my entry, and my destination. As I took the sticker, my eyes wandered to a small, telephone-like device behind the secretary. Surveillance video from a camera perched above the school’s front doors circuited to this device and allowed me to watch as a parent rang the main office for entry into the school. After checking this screen, the secretary pressed a button that momentarily unlocked the front door.

Peeling off the back of my visitor badge, I pressed the sticker to my chest. Looking down, I checked that the sticker stuck and was clearly visible to the police officers and hall monitors patrolling Milton. A hall monitor had recently chastised me for not submitting to these security procedures, and so I intended to show my full compliance, at least for one day. Holding the door open for the newly arrived parent, I thanked the secretary and turned to head to the class I was set to observe that day: Foundations of Homeland Security 1, a required course for students enrolled in the public school’s specialized Homeland Security program.

On that spring day, I observed ninth-grade students in the Foundations of Homeland Security 1 class discuss with their teacher “Besides death, why would a terrorist attack U.S. agriculture?” As the teacher explained to her eager students about the economics of the U.S. food supply and the deaths that could result from the movement of contaminated foods across state lines, I wondered, how did the United States get here? What investments and social structures made this discussion about terrorism and national security in a U.S. public high school not only possible but frighteningly normalized?

Opening the Doors to the National Security Industry

Having observed and interacted with mostly ninth-and tenth-grade students at Milton, my first real conversation with eleventh grader Jamal occurred when I formally interviewed him toward the end of the school year. A soft-spoken and polite Black boy with braces, Jamal enrolled in Milton’s Homeland Security program in his freshman year and was on track to graduate with a geographic information systems (GIS) certification that would qualify him for entry-level map-making jobs as a GIS technician. Given his training, Jamal intended to pursue a career in the cybersecurity industry for either the government or the private sector. He was even in the process of obtaining a “top secret” security clearance for a summer internship at the National Security Agency (NSA).

In his interview, Jamal reflected on his time in Milton’s Homeland Security program, tracing what he learned, the opportunities made available to him, and his new career goals:

"I came in not knowing anything about terrorism and, you know, you learn a lot of information and background on it. And also get opportunities you wouldn’t really expect to get. And, okay, so, what can I do? They kind of help you with your career and even make sure your grades are on point. . . . It might be like for the government ’cause, like, GIS, I’ve thought about opportunities. You don’t even have to work for the government. You could work for private companies. So it gives you a lot of options to think about. . . . And I’m meeting good people. For instance, internship opportunities: one of the internship opportunities I was given was for NSA. I was an intern for DISA, for the Defense Information Systems Agency, and I met some good people. . . . And, that’s probably the best part of this program is you get lots of experience. You meet lots of people, high people like military generals."

In meeting “high people” through the Homeland Security program, Jamal landed a potential internship with the NSA. Like most jobs at the NSA, Jamal’s internship was contingent on passing a security clearance: a rigorous background check of both prior behavior and loyalty to the nation. Sixteen-year-old Jamal told me that he had begun the security clearance process in September and expected that it “wouldn’t end until August.” He went on to say that he had already “taken [his] polygraph at least three times” but that it was typical to take multiple polygraphs because “you’re nervous and, you know, your heart rate is up and stuff like that.” Being at the NSA for his “poly” (as some Milton students called it, using the jargon they learned from guest speakers) was a new experience for Jamal, especially because the NSA required that he answer questions without the presence of his parents: “The poly’s kind of hard ’cause you’re in an environment that you’re alone. . . . I’m not used to that: being alone and in a work environment. But I’m getting through it.”

Eleventh grader Martrez echoed Jamal, explaining that Milton’s Homeland Security program not only taught him about terrorism but also “opened doors” for him as he “met a lot of NSA officers and the CEO of Dell.” Martrez, for example, “went to a meeting/luncheon that had all the high corporations in there.” At this event, Martrez “talked about cybersecurity and stuff like that” with these high-level national security experts. For Martrez, this experience represented how he “got to meet a lot of people” through the Homeland Security program. In fact, while Martrez “always wanted to get a job with the government,” the opportunity to “see all the guest speakers that come in or the people [he] met” through the Homeland Security program “narrowed” his “career decision.” By studying terrorism and learning about national security careers, Martrez now “knew” he “want[ed] to get a job in NSA, FBI, something like that.” In addition, Martrez regularly “turned on the news to see what’s happening,” especially “if it’s something really interesting like what we’re talking about like terrorist attacks.” Martrez applied his new national security knowledge to “be aware of what’s happening around [him]” and “make certain judgments about certain people just by the way they carry themselves.”

After spending many months at Milton, I found my conversations with Jamal and Martrez unsurprising. Most Milton students spoke knowledgably about the threats the United States faced, their potential careers in the national security industry, and what they needed to do to qualify for those jobs. Like Jamal and Martrez, many students expressed excited enthusiasm over their participation in the Homeland Security program and eagerly relayed to me their experiences, opportunities, and new knowledge.

While I found the national security focus of the program unsettling, spending time at Milton proved to be a pleasurable experience. The program’s newly designed classes, field trips, guest speakers, and hands-on learning opportunities kept me, and the students, engaged. Jamal and Martrez’s trajectory—learning about national security threats for the first time, going on field trips and meeting “high people,” dreaming of a career in the security industry, and sometimes even earning coveted security clearances—mirrored the experiences of other students enrolled in Milton’s Homeland Security program.

Jamal’s and Martrez’s narratives are but two stories that animate what a high school education in national security entails and what it means for students, teachers, and the United States.

Stumbling on Milton

When I initially explained to colleagues that my research looked intimately at a high school with a Homeland Security program, some expressed surprise that such a curriculum existed. Others asked how I had arrived at such a research project. Like me, they had never heard of a specialized Homeland Security program despite routinely immersing ourselves in literatures on public school reform, militarization, and national security. The program’s focus on terrorism, deep imbrication with the national security industry, and absence in scholarship on U.S. public schools captured my, and my colleagues’, attention. From the outset, we agreed that this emerging trend in U.S. public education required more attention.

I first learned about Franklin County Public Schools’s Milton High School and its Homeland Security program through an off-the-mark Google search for articles on the mobilization of girls’ education to justify war. After a spiraling series of haphazard Internet clicks, I stumbled upon a newspaper article lauding Milton’s Homeland Security program. This article framed the program as an innovative project that aligned with the region’s rapidly growing national security labor needs. Milton’s new program, the article reported, intended to improve the quality of education for its student body, primarily poor and working-class youth of color. To do so, Milton connected classroom learning to future national security jobs. Curious about a public high school with a national security–focused, work-oriented program, I read on.

In 2008, I learned, Milton High School implemented its Homeland Security program in an attempt to turn the struggling school around and revamp its reputation as an influx of middle-class families began moving into the rapidly growing area. Many of these families relocated to Franklin County to assume elite jobs in the national security industry, which experienced massive growth across the United States after September 11, 2001. Milton partnered with major defense contractors like Northrop Grumman and federal agencies like the NSA to facilitate these efforts. These public–private partnerships helped transform Milton’s classes to focus on issues of national security and provided pathways to industry-related jobs. Teachers worked with these partners to connect classroom learning to national security skills, values, and jobs.

Algebra teacher Ms. Simmons, for instance, described a “power lunch” with a Northrop Grumman engineer to develop eight lesson plans related to national security. These lesson plans included applying the probability factor to determine the threat level at international airports and studying parabolas to calculate the trajectory needed for a U.S. sniper to shoot a target in North Korea. For Ms. Simmons, connecting mathematics to the national security industry showed her students “why you need to know this,” thus sparking interest in her class. District administrator Mr. Arnold echoed Ms. Simmons, insisting that the Homeland Security program counteracted Milton’s “discipline problems” and “improved academic improvement” by “giving kids a connection” and “a reason” to engage in the classroom. Meanwhile, industry partners lauded these curricular rewrites as an innovative way to train students for future national security jobs.

The Homeland Security program, it seemed from these brief write-ups, intended to improve underperforming Milton by engaging its students through hands-on lessons, field trips, and guest speakers all related to national security. To do so, the school invited high-level national security experts to talk with Milton students about their daily work preventing terrorist attacks. Students attended field trips to places like a nearby international airport to learn about the security measures used to thwart terrorist hijackings. Milton students also enrolled in newly designed discussion-based and current events–driven courses like Foundations of Homeland Security 1 and National Security Intelligence. Students chose national security–related electives like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which could credential them for entry-level work in the map-making industry. Through all of these opportunities, Milton staff provided their students with a comprehensive training in national security that prepared them for vocational jobs in the industry.

Milton administrators told reporters that training students for careers through these corporatized work-based learning opportunities served as a way to bring “relevance” to education. Consequently, students who might otherwise have disengaged from school came to class excited because their learning linked directly to future national security jobs.

As I scrolled to the bottom of the newspaper article, I felt surprised. A U.S. public high school trained its students as the next generation of national security workers? I had never heard of a high school with a Homeland Security program designed to prepare poor and working-class youth of color for national security industry jobs. I knew that U.S. schools increasingly reorganized their curricula to prepare their students for work after graduation and that military-themed charter schools were proliferating in places like Chicago’s South Side. I never, however, encountered a school with such a narrow focus on national security. I imagined that Milton’s program was a rare anomaly. As I continued to read, though, the article mentioned that Milton crafted its program after another public high school’s Homeland Security program.

A few more clicks and I found that about fifteen other high schools in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, and California also boasted their own formalized Homeland Security programs. In fact, I later learned through informal networks established at Milton that eleven public schools in the Mid-Atlantic region alone offered their own Homeland Security programs. In addition to these established programs, twenty-two Mid-Atlantic schools and two in Georgia planned to install programs in the coming years. Most of these schools relied on active partnerships with the U.S. military and national security industry. Because no database catalogs these high school Homeland Security programs, more inevitably exist, especially as public high schools continue to establish their own programs.

Even though these programs seemed to target students across race and class, Milton’s Homeland Security program coordinator Mr. Hopkins later explained that another nearby high school designed an engineering-focused Homeland Security program “because it’s more affluent.” Milton, conversely, created a program with “more of a military focus,” training students as future Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection guards, cybersecurity technicians, and even “military grunts” rather than for the upper echelons of the national security industry. While all kinds of communities host high school Homeland Security programs, schools often slated poor and working-class youth of color for a military-style national security education while “more affluent” students enjoyed an engineering-focused program.

In addition to these formalized Homeland Security programs, the national security industry contributes to a variety of national security clubs, extracurricular activities, competitions, and college scholarships. In fact, one of Milton’s industry partners, Northrop Grumman, annually invests millions of dollars in educational programs from “early grades through the university level” across the nation. Totaling $26.7 million in 2013 alone, this financial commitment advances the “ongoing companywide mission to ensure a pipeline of diverse talent needed for [Northrop Grumman’s] future workforce.” Over the last few years, this major defense contractor provided significant financial support to CyberPatriot, a middle and high school cybersecurity competition, to spark student interest in the field. Northrop Grumman also gifted $135,000 to a Los Angeles charter school operator to build a Northrop Grumman Innovation Lab “where students research, design, simulate, and test their real-world projects in a state-of-the-art multimedia center.” This lab mimics the Northrop Grumman workplace, fostering the skills necessary to succeed within the company. Northrop Grumman also welcomes schools, including Milton, for tours of its Cybersecurity Operations Center (CSOC) in Maryland and its Center for Innovative Solutions in Virginia. Milton reported that on a field trip to the CSOC, students learned how to “prevent, detect, identify, contain, triage, and eradicate cyber threats that occur daily . . . by individuals and national actors including Russia, Iran, Israel, India, Cuba, South Korea, North Korea, and France.”

To supplement these and other programs, Northrop Grumman employees regularly visit schools across the nation. Milton tenth grader Tyrell explained that in his old neighborhood in another school district, Northrop Grumman engineers visited his elementary school once a year to discuss their work. Tyrell credited his desire to “get into engineering and work at Northrop Grumman” to these early experiences. Given these Northrop Grumman presentations, Tyrell explained that “it always seemed fun to be able to help build the aircrafts and stuff that the military uses and do other things like that.” Northrop Grumman’s continued presence in Tyrell’s school life shaped his career aspirations. Northrop Grumman commits resources and expertise to preparing a “pipeline” of skilled workers for its labor force.

Northrop Grumman’s multi-million-dollar investment in education and the increasing number of schools with formalized Homeland Security programs indicate that Milton was hardly unique. In fact, Milton seemed to point to a growing trend in public schooling. Over the last decade, the September 11 attacks (re)intensified U.S. practices of security, defense, and protection through increased militarization, surveillance, indefinite detention, and zero-tolerance policing in its domestic and foreign engagements. The creation of several high school Homeland Security programs seemed to signal that this amplified focus on national security also informed U.S. school reform projects and, perhaps, everyday life in schools.

Excerpt is reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from the Introduction to A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools by Nicole Nguyen. Copyright 2016 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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