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Should we rethink school shootings as a homeland security threat?

Jeff Sessions on Florida school massacre
Jeff Sessions on Florida school massacre 04:47

When a 29-year-old man from Uzbekistan plowed a truck into a crowd of people in Manhattan in October, killing eight, President Trump's response to the attack as a matter of homeland security was swift. Within hours, the president decried the attack and attacker as having been carried out by a "sick and deranged person," implied an affiliation with ISIS, and said he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security step up the "Extreme Vetting Program."

But when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz allegedly massacred 17 people with a gun at a high school in South Florida last week, the president — in his initial tweet and in a speech to the nation the following day — said nothing of the suspect, or any need to step up homeland security-related efforts. 

More than 400 people have been shot since the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012 that rocked the nation, according to a New York Times analysis. A Washington Post analysis discovered more than 150,000 students at 170 schools have been touched by a shooting since the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado nearly two decades ago. But such attacks, taking place at the nation's K-12 schools — unlike terrorism — are not listed as priority threats to homeland security. 

Frances Townsend, who was homeland security adviser during President George W. Bush's administration, said it might be time to rethink how the country treats school shootings.

"I mean, imagine, for a moment, if the shooter had been a Muslim, we'd have been having a different conversation," Townsend recently pointed out on "CBS This Morning." "... And how wrong does that feel? This ought to be at the top of homeland security threats, because we have an obligation to protect our children. And we need to deal -- even though it's a difficult political issue -- it's time for people to put that aside and say, we're going to deal with it."

Townsend, speaking further with CBS News, explained that if the suspect's name had been different, people would be calling it an "act of terrorism," a designation that garners more attention. Strictly defined, domestic terrorism, as the FBI puts it, is an act "perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature."

While the suspect's motives in Florida remain unclear, the outcome of chaos, violence and fear, is the same. 

"The reason that that's important, is it turns on a whole series of policy discussions, and gives it a level of attention that it otherwise doesn't get," she said. 

"We don't treat school shootings that way and consequently they happen over and over..." she added. 

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking to an America First Policies event in Dallas on Saturday, said the Trump administration will be making protecting children at schools the "top administration priority." He didn't elaborate on how that might be accomplished. 

The FBI and DHS did not respond to a request for comment as to if or how they prioritize school shootings as a threat, or mass shootings more generally speaking. The FBI admitted Friday that it received a detailed phone tip about the suspect on Jan. 5 of this year, and did not follow proper procedure to investigate it. 

The FBI lists counterterrorism first in its list of current threats to the homeland. 

"Preventing terrorist attacks remains the FBI's top priority," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in testimony prepared last September for a congressional hearing.  

DHS lists border security and counterterrorism as top priorities. 

Townsend said there are a number of steps that can and should be taken at the federal level. According to a March 2016 Government Accountability Office report, 67 percent of school districts require active shooter exercises. That figure, and teacher training, should be universal, Townsend noted. 

A "lack of a bridge" between mental health and gun sales should also be a homeland security issue, she said. All states have laws requiring some mandatory reporters — like health professionals — to notify authorities of suspected child abuse. Perhaps, Townsend said, that should also be the case for disturbed individuals who certain types of professionals believe to be capable of violence. In the case of the Florida suspect, people did report his behavior — and authorities, at least in the case of the FBI, appear to have failed. 

The private sector also needs to be more involved, Townsend said. Cruz allegedly posted multiple social media posts that showed a concerning disposition to violence. Private social media companies need to devote more resources — perhaps with federal aid — to identifying and reporting those posts, she said. 

"You've got to broaden the aperture of what is terrorism," Townsend said. 

Finding solutions towards prioritizing school shootings as a security concern will require concessions from both conservatives and liberals, she said. Second Amendment advocates need to recognize that access to guns is a part of the problem, and pro-gun control advocates need to realize guns aren't the only part of the problem, she said. 

"But this requires real leadership," Townsend said. "It requires leadership from the White House. It requires leadership from the Department of Homeland Security and the homeland security adviser of the White House. And it requires leadership on Capitol Hill."

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