Playing with Fire

The problem with protecting K–12 and higher education environments is the realization that many bad actors come from within. And it can be hard to tell the difference between students with genuinely bad intent, and stupid teenagers just being stupid teenagers.

Within a week of 9/11, the U.S. was hit with a series of anthrax attacks ranging from Washington, D.C., to New York to West Palm Beach. The nation was on red alert, and any rational person would likely realize that the cultural bandwidth for any security-related jokes or pranks was at an all-time low. Unfortunately, most 14-year-old boys are not rational people.

My friend was in eighth grade at the time. We met years later, so I’ve only heard this story in retrospect. But the way he tells it, he was bored during class, and he used a pen to crush up a piece of candy—a Sweet Tart? a Spree?—into a fine powder on the desk. He then wrote “ANTHRAX” directly onto the desk with an arrow pointing at the pile, packed his belongings, stood up, and left for his next class.

What followed were weeks of questioning from school officials and local law enforcement. He told me that ten years removed, he knew his name was on file with the Department of Homeland Security and wasn’t sure if his case had ever even been resolved. He said that most of the authority figures involved knew immediately that he’d made a dumb joke and that there was no real risk of danger. But the atmosphere was so tense at the time that his moment of bad judgment brought down the full measure of response. He was even mentioned—not by name—in a local news piece about “anthrax threats in our town.”

School shootings have brought a similar level of tension back to schools in 2023. There’s just no space for any shred of levity or “teenagers being teenagers” when it comes to guns. Paintball guns, Airsoft guns, Nerf guns, water guns all draw the same level of scrutiny and punishment as a loaded AR-15.

And I’m not trying to argue that schools should “lighten up” with regard to security—ignoring the problem and letting kids be kids until an incident does occur is the most irresponsible position that a school administration could take.

But it’s also a little sad that we live in a world where kids can’t be kids, that youthful indiscretions are met with adult consequences.

This article originally appeared in the May / June 2023 issue of Campus Security Today.