Jan. 11, 2008 — -- Homeland security is one of the hottest issues in this year's presidential election, the candidates sparring daily over who is best qualified to protect the nation against terrorist threats.
Meanwhile, Leah Beaulieu is busy educating the next generation of security experts. Beaulieu teaches the nation's first homeland security high school program at Joppatowne High School in Joppa, Md.
Sixty-one Joppatowne 10th-graders enrolled this year to spend three years learning about protecting the country against terrorism.
The sophomores choose specific areas of homeland security that they would like to explore during their junior years. And as seniors, they complete internships or shadow homeland-security professionals on the job.
"We introduce our students to all major areas of homeland security. We start off with a historical perspective, learning where terrorism comes from, the political motivations, even going back to the Crusades and talking about change over time," said Beaulieu.
The program, which has been lauded by some in law enforcement, educates them on cutting-edge security technology, law enforcement and criminal justice, and teaches them to identify potential chemical and biological threats. Its creators say it will prepare the young students to enter a growing industry that could one day employ thousands of new workers.
But the program has also raised concerns about the appropriateness of teaching such a serious, politically charged subject matter to high school students.
David Volrath, director of secondary education for Maryland's Hartford County public schools, insists that the school's main motivation is to help students find future jobs. There are high-tech companies in the area, and the Defense Department's Aberdeen Proving Ground is nearby.
"When we recognized that these industries were coming to support research at Aberdeen, we realized the opportunity for our students," he said.
And Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent and president of Clayton Consultants Inc., a global risk crisis management firm, praises the high school for being the first in the nation to take this initiative.
"Those of us in this type of business often get criticized for running around, screaming the sky is falling, [but] we do have to keep the public vigilant," he said. "This is a very important educational message. If it's first introduced at the high school level, along the line it will increase people's professionalism."
But other observers warn that the the educational message must remain distinct from any political implications.
Jonathan Zimmerman, director of New York University's History of Education Program, encourages the inclusion of homeland security issues in the school's curriculum, but he urges the school to make sure it focuses on teaching national security.
"The devil is in the details. Is the school educating or indoctrinating? The job of public schools is not to get people to vote for or against Bush. [Rather] it's to teach kids the tools to evaluate Bush," he says.
Doron Pely, vice president of Homeland Security Research in Washington, D.C., says that by the time the students in the program graduate, homeland security will have grown into a $120 billion worldwide industry.
Nevertheless, he is wary of this novel integration of homeland security at the high school level.
"Kids at this age should just have fun," he said. "Homeland security is not fun. It starts from a paranoid worldview, someone is attacking me and I have to defend myself. I want my son running after girls, not defending himself."
Frank Mezzanotti, magnet program coordinator for this homeland security program, says the Maryland Emergency Management Administration has invested $275,000 in the program
A large part of the program covers communications technology, which includes GIS software and technologies, Global Positioning System and satellite geo-spatial mapping. Other students specialize in law enforcement and criminal justice.
"The kids are learning what professionals know," said Beaulieu, who wants students to know how to read satellite images for signs of security threats. "We purchased a software program used professionally all over the country from SPACE STARS. It's the actual satellite program NASA uses."
Eddie Hanebuth, from the Department of Labor's National Standard Geospatial Apprenticeship Program, helped develop the curriculum.
"Students learn that location matters in several areas," he said. "When faced with limited resources, how do we respond and from which direction? [Students] will cover risk assessment, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. In each area they learn from a demonstration project, then they apply their skills and knowledge to their own community."
In the law enforcement and criminal justice component of the program, students are taught about the Constitution, criminal law and how laws are enforced. They also learn about criminal evidence collection and how the FBI and CIA operate.
The homeland-security sciences part of the program covers different biological, chemical and radiological threats.
"[Students] basically learn about different threats … how to protect yourself, what does it take to develop a gas mask," Beaulieu said. "They're also learning about the research design aspect. Everything we do, we relate it back to homeland security."