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DHS Sec. Mayorkas: Relationships, Not Tech, Central to Creating Safe Schools

Top federal security official declines to comment on botched police response to Uvalde shooting, calls the tragedy ‘unspeakable’

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas leads an agency — born in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — perhaps best known for mass surveillance and rigid airport security checkpoints. But to Mayorkas, the key to keeping students safe at school rests with strong relationships. 

Time and again, gunmen have displayed a range of warning signs before opening fire in schools, including fascinations with violence and a history of trauma. As cryptic — and at times explicit — social media posts emerge post-attacks, conversations often center on missed opportunities to intervene. It takes a vigilant community, Mayorkas said, to break the cycle. 

“We’re seeing individuals potentially with mental health problems, grievances, and they have manifested their challenges outwardly, they have spoken about violence,” he told The 74. “What we’ve seen is expressions of an interest in violence and an expression of a planning or plotting to conduct an attack. And we need to educate people on identifying those signs, those expressions and also what to do about it to seek help for those individuals.”

Amid a surge in mass school shootings, districts nationwide have pumped more than $3 billion into school security. Campus police have become commonplace, active-shooter drills have grown routine and, for students across the U.S., digital surveillance has been normalized. The Department of Homeland Security has endorsed “threat assessment,” a process where educators, mental health professionals and the police analyze a student’s behaviors and statements to determine if they, as Mayorkas put it, are “descending down a path towards violence.”

The environment has created a balancing act for school leaders who are charged with keeping schools safe while protecting students’ civil liberties. 

The department recently invited The 74 to interview Mayorkas about this complicated landscape ahead of its first-ever National Summit on K-12 School Safety and Security. Mayorkas fielded questions about the sharp uptick in mass school shootings, the botched police response in Uvalde, Texas, and a massive ransomware attack that targeted the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re seeing an uptick in active mass shootings, including those that are targeting schools. What are some of the trends that you’re seeing within these campus attacks and what are some of the key strategies that your agency and other federal agencies are using to combat this increase in violence? 

So, Mark, tragically 2022 saw the greatest number of school shootings in our nation’s history. I think it was just over 250. And we have a multifaceted approach to it, of course, to educate and empower schools to understand how they can be safe environments. 

Every child, every person in this country and frankly around the world, deserves a safe, secure, supportive environment in which to be educated. And so we have our Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA as it is known, that has a website schoolsafety.gov that is dedicated to this critical mission set. 

We have the United States Secret Service’s’ National Threat Assessment Center, the NTAC, that provides resources to schools about how they can maintain a safe environment. We have critical grant programs that fund innovative efforts to really build resilience, and to help prevention models, as well as our Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership, CP3, which is developing a one-stop shop that identifies federal resources for schools to access.

We have a lot of different efforts underway throughout our department and throughout the administration.

Absolutely. So let’s jump into the threat assessment one. You mentioned the Secret Service. They’ve done this study basically finding that mass school shooters almost always have observable traits before the attack. And it’s basically a “See Something, Say Something” kind of mantra. Can you talk a little bit about threat assessments, and identifying people who might present a serious risk, but doing so in a way that doesn’t trample on people’s civil rights?

That’s right. So it’s very important, Mark, the last part of your question. We have a statutorily created Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and a statutorily created Office of Privacy. It’s very important that we keep those fundamental rights well protected and do not in any way infringe upon them. 

Indeed, if we take a look at recent events, the assailants in Uvalde, Texas, in Buffalo … and Highland Park, these individuals exhibited signs that were observable to individuals around them. And the key is to empower people to educate people about how to identify those characteristics when somebody’s descending down a path that has a connectivity to violence, and really intervene. And to intervene not in a way that delivers accountability, but rather assistance, support. 

We’re seeing individuals potentially with mental health problems, grievances, and they have manifested their challenges outwardly, they have spoken about violence. More generally what we’ve seen is expressions of an interest in violence and an expression of a planning or plotting to conduct an attack. And we need to educate people on identifying those signs, those expressions and also what to do about it to seek help for those individuals.

You mentioned Uvalde and I’m really curious on your thoughts about the law enforcement response to the tragedy. More than 350 officers from local, state and federal agencies descended on the school. And ultimately, officers under your watch were the ones who were able to stop the gunman. But I’m curious about the delay. It took more than an hour for law enforcement officers to ultimately confront the gunman. I’m curious if you have any insight into the factors that led to that delay, and what lessons educators, law enforcement officials and anybody in the security space can take from that police response?

I think there are going to be a lot of lessons learned from the response in Uvalde. That response has been the subject of a number of investigations and some of those investigations are, in fact, ongoing. So I think I’m going to refrain from commenting upon the reported delays in the response. 

That was an unspeakable tragedy and I think there are different responses in different situations. There is a great body of training and active shooter training and how law enforcement should respond. I think the critical part is to take a look at every incident — unfortunately they occur all too often — and to learn from them to refine those best practices, to make sure that we’re disseminating those best practices throughout the law enforcement community. And not just the law enforcement community, but the health care community and the like. 

One of the things that we’ve focused on in this administration is an all-of-government and all-of-community response to this threat. So we are engaged with the Department of Education, we’re engaged with the Department of Health and Human Services, we’re looking at local community groups, parent associations, school systems, local health, mental health networks and providers. This really requires an all-of-community response to the fact that individuals are expressing their infirmities, their challenges, through acts of violence and through acts of violence targeted at children.

One of the interesting things about the response to the shooting has been a lot of concern about law enforcement officers in schools. The federal government has put a lot of money over the last several decades into putting police officers in schools. I’m curious what your response is to advocates who’ve been calling for police-free schools? 

This is a very difficult issue and it’s an issue that we do encounter not only in the school system but also in other contexts as well. This is a conversation I’ve had with faith leaders about how to make places of congregation, of learning, of worship, welcoming, open and the like, and also safe and secure, to not be foreboding. 

I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. I think we have to take a look at the safety imperative. I am not opposed to having security guards in schools, I myself. But how they are deployed, how they are integrated into the fabric of the school community, I think is vitally important. 

We’re going to talk a little bit about cybersecurity and dark corners of the internet. In Uvalde the school district used a company called Social Sentinel, basically to monitor social media and try to identify potentially threatening social media posts. School districts across the country use a large range of different surveillance tools to basically monitor how kids interact on the internet and to try to identify violence before it happens. But the White House recently came out with what they’re calling a Bill of Rights for AI, and it basically says to schools, ‘limit the continuous surveillance of students if it has a potential to infringe on their civil rights.’ I’m curious on your thoughts on this idea of monitoring students’ behaviors on social media and other internet platforms to identify threats of violence?

The key is to create with one’s children an open line of communication so that one can learn what type of online activity one’s child is engaging in. So an open, communicative environment is absolutely critical, as is digital literacy so children can understand what is credible and what is not credible. 

We can employ privacy settings — parents, not the government — the parents can employ privacy settings and understand what their children are doing and communicate about it. It’s really important that children who are online are educated with respect to their own behavior and the behavior of others. I think that is what is key, that open, communicative environment, an environment of digital literacy and an environment where if children see something, they understand what it is they are seeing and know how to respond to it. And also, for parents, friends, relatives, school teachers and the like to pick up on the signs when a child is descending down a path towards violence.

If we’re talking to parents here for a second, what do you think are some of the most critical signs that folks should be looking out for?

It gets very difficult and I would really defer to mental health professionals and the like but let me give you a few examples. If we are dealing with an individual who expresses an intent to commit violence, who expresses a fascination with violence and begins to withdraw from societal communications with friends and the like, I think it is time to communicate, to ask questions, to engage with that child to learn more.

Many communities in the last few months haven’t even experienced shootings — but have been told that they are. A bunch of schools across the country in the last few months are being subjected to swatting calls.

Swatting is a very dangerous phenomenon that we’re seeing an increase of. That prank call to emergency personnel to deploy when, in fact, they’re not needed. That’s a criminal activity and it really puts innocent people at risk.

I’m curious when you can tell us about the surge right now. It appears that many of these are connected. Can you give us any insight into what’s going on and why schools are suddenly experiencing a surge in these kinds of calls?

One of the things that’s of concern when it comes to swatting, and it’s also applicable to malicious cyber activity, is the ease of replication. That if a swatting incident occurs in one geography, others may be motivated, unfortunately, to do the very same thing in a very different venue. We seek to prevent it. We work with the state, local, tribal territorial partners, campus law enforcement, to educate students, to educate people about the danger of swatting. It’s not an innocent prank call. It’s the deployment of precious law enforcement resources and could have unintended consequences. Education and prevention are key here.

Speaking of cybersecurity, the Los Angeles school district, America’s second-largest school district, was just the victim of a ransomware attack. They ultimately did not pay the ransom and as a result had some of their data posted on the dark web. I’m curious what you can tell us about the threat actors who we’re holding LAUSD ransom and in general the threat actors who are targeting schools?

We’ve seen a tremendous rise in ransomware over the last several years by criminal actors. They target not only schools, they target hospitals, law enforcement organizations, businesses, the range of victims is quite wide. We caution, we recommend that victim entities not pay the ransom. We are very well aware of the precarious situation in which they find themselves when they’re held hostage to a ransomware actor. But we have only increased our defenses, really only enhanced our defenses, and also strengthened law enforcement’s response to it.

Now, if I’m a school leader and I’m the victim of a ransomware attack or some sort of cyber threat, what kind of assistance can I receive from the federal government? What role do you play in helping school districts respond to this?

Our Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, is very well equipped to assist a ransomware victim as is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Secret Service. We have a whole suite of capable agencies that can assist in identifying the intrusion, assisting in expelling the intruder, helping in patching the vulnerability that the intruder exploited and, of course, holding hopefully the intruder accountable. And the FBI has done an extraordinary job in investigating and identifying bad actors.

A recent Pew poll found that about a third of parents are very or extremely worried about a school shooting occurring at their child’s school. You’re a parent. I’m curious, have you had these similar concerns from a parental perspective? And to what degree do you think that parents should be concerned about a shooting unfolding at their school?

It’s a tragic state of affairs when parents are concerned about sending their children to school because of a potential attack that impairs the safety and security of their children. 

It is important for schools to train their personnel and their students on how to respond in the case of an active shooter. When I was a child in Los Angeles, California, where I spent much of my youth, we were trained on responding to fires, to earthquakes, even to a bomb. School shooting was not in the panoply of threats to which we were trained to respond. Now, tragically, it is, and schools need to train and parents need to communicate in an informed way with their children — not in a way to create hysteria — but in a way to create vigilance and alertness.

Online platforms like forums have been used over the last several years to radicalize young people, whether that be to become mass school shooters, or to go down a path of white nationalism. I’m curious if you can elaborate a little bit on the landscape of these online forums and ways that we can combat that without stepping on the First Amendment? 

So the threats, the diversity of the threats is much broader than what you identified, of course. And this is where I spoke earlier about the need to communicate with children, with youth, who are impressionable, to be able to create a safe environment where they feel comfortable communicating with what they’re seeing. For parents to be vigilant in terms of privacy settings, to really develop digital literacy amongst our youth so that they can understand what is credible, what is not credible, what is threatening, and what is innocent.

We really have to do that, and we’re working in partnership with industry, with the private sector, with think tanks about how to best build that digital literacy. This also requires an all-of-community response, it is not for the government exclusively to engage in this. 

We are working with online gaming companies to really build a safe environment to really instruct children about the perils of the online environment, to really guard against cyberbullying as well as extremism that seeks to draw people to violence.

What is it about the gaming community? It’s interesting that you’re specifically reaching out to people in that space. Why? 

Well, we’re reaching out much more broadly. We engage with social media companies, we engage with thought leaders that are important voices. The gaming community reaches so many children, they’re a critical partner in developing a safe and secure ecosystem so people can understand the benefits of, as well as the perils of, the online environment. 

Our increased connectivity is a tremendous tool for achieving prosperity. It also brings risks to it.

Thank you so much for taking the time to field these questions and talk about this really important topic. Is there anything else that I haven’t asked, that you think is important? 

I want to return to a point of sadness and a point of vigilance. The point of sadness is, of course, we’re speaking about school safety and the fact that it is such a phenomenon right now. 

On the other hand, the community — and the federal government is a member of that community, but the community is much broader — is very, very alert to this phenomenon, and very vigilant in addressing it in a really productive and constructive way.

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