Social Security

Let's say you want to stage a terrorist attack on Parks College in Thornton. Unfortunately for the students inside, it wouldn't be tough to lurk around the perimeter, waiting to strike. You could conceal yourself in the dense mat of junipers planted as innocent landscaping. You could practically walk onto the roof, hang out there until dark, lower yourself over the edge and kick in a window.

"And how about creating a distraction?" asks professor Larry Sisson, who has thirty years of law enforcement and military training to his credit. "What could you do, for instance, with this fire hydrant? Back your vehicle into it -- there you go. A distraction."

"What about this dumpster?" a student asks. "Couldn't someone hide in it?"

"Well, they're usually locked at night," Sisson explains, "but you could hide there during the day."

"There's no surveillance cameras out here," someone discovers.

"Good point. What else?"

"You can see into the building from the outside, but the people inside can't see out."

"That's right. Use your imagination. Imagine this as a huge corporation. How are you going to protect it? What's your plan?"

As class members head back into the building to come up with one, they run into other students just outside the door.

"What are you guys doing?" someone asks. "What class is this?"

"Homeland Security. We're doing a risk assessment on the building."

"Wow. How is that class? To me, that sounded cool."

"It is," says a member of the Homeland Security Specialist class. "It's very cool."

Parks College, founded in 1895 as the "modern business college," has always specialized in courses designed to put people to work. Today, a not-insignificant portion of its curriculum is devoted to criminal justice, with the Homeland Security Specialist training the newest component. One of only four such programs in the country, it consists of seven month-long modules, with classes available day or night. At the end of seven months, students emerge with a diploma -- as opposed to an associate's degree -- and the tools necessary to embark on a career that became imaginable only after 9/11. Disaster mitigation. Risk planning. Homeland Security in a country where almost everyone felt secure just eighteen months ago.

"Our corporate office found that there was an increasing demand at every level of government and in the private sector," says department chair Vanessa Samuels, "and they decided there is a niche for this program." More important, the niche contained jobs, even in this lousy economy.

Since tonight is the first class of module two and some students are new, they take a moment to talk about what brought them here.

"I always wanted to be in the military," says Terry, "but I'm a single mom, and I couldn't. I guess I always thought no one would mess with us, but after 9/11, I wanted to do something."

One of the older men in the class, carefully dressed in business pants and a crisp white shirt, manages to distill his life into four sentences: "I had been in the Navy fourteen years. I got out in '94. I've been driving a truck. I'm looking for new horizons."

One man had worked on an aircraft carrier; one woman had received disaster training at United Airlines and found it exciting. The words "retail," "customer service" and "fast food" belong to the recent but already distant past; the future is full of "corporate security" and "private consulting."

"I just need to start a real career," says Tom, "and, I mean, this looks good."

Sisson agrees. "Given the federal money that's being devoted to this homeland thing, I thought, I want to work on this issue," the teacher says. "But that's not the only reason. I want a part of this! I want to do something for our country."

A central message emerges during this first day of Homeland Security, second module: An individual citizen is indeed responsible for his country's safety, and an individual with seven months of training is even more responsible.

"Just what are we protecting?" Sisson asks.

A pause, then a student guesses: "The well-being of people?"

"That's right! Human life! Assets! Communities!... Okay, current events. Look at your hot sheets. What do you hear about that NATO alliance? I want you to be aware. Who are our partners in NATO? Should we get Russkies in the mix? Do you trust 'em? Remember, Homeland Security is an ever-changing thing...Now, can anyone tell me what's going on in North Korea?"

"I was having an anxiety attack this morning about North Korea," confides Terry at the next break. "It was 3 a.m., and I couldn't sleep. I don't want my kids growing up around this, looking around every corner. Partly, I'm doing this for them."

"When he mentioned that one-third of Korea was starving? I knew that," says Sonia. "I like to know what's going on. I'm like, very nosy, and I've always been fascinated with the whole investigation thing. In high school, we dissected a frog and a lobster and a pig fetus. The whole part of finding out what happened, I loved it. I was the only girl who was holding up a dead frog, going, Look at this! Look at what I found! As far as a job, I'm trying to keep my options open, as long as it's in criminal justice."

Linda was last in a classroom 35 years ago. But even back then, she says, she might have been drawn to this program. "I was in the Civil Air Patrol when I was a teen," she recalls, "and it sparked an interest. Once, when there was a downed airplane, we got to secure the area." The spark reignited after twenty years of hospital work and Linda's current job as a Cub Foods cashier. Now, when she graduates, Linda's hoping for a bigger, better, more important job. Even if what that job might be remains vague.

"For me to just spew off what they may or may not be doing after graduation would not be right," says Kathleen Hearne, placement director for Corinthian Colleges Incorporated, Parks's parent company. "It's an intense curriculum, and the Homeland Security needs are just now developing. I can tell you that meetings with very important companies are going on right now."

Furthermore, as anyone at CCI will tell you, the program was developed with input from very important people, including a NORAD colonel, a posse of SWAT team members, retired FBI agents, police officers, deputy sheriffs and anti-terrorist consultants.

"The feds and the state are trying to put their arms around this gorilla we call Homeland Security," observes Sisson.

Esmerelda, a student who says she once worked in classified areas of the federal government (and whose name is definitely not Esmerelda), wants to be part of it. "The interesting thing is that I left the government for the corporate world because I thought it offered so much more," she says. "But after 9/11, I knew I needed to be back in the family, and they have very stringent rules about coming back. Luckily, the federal government is very interested in this program."

John is more interested in private-sector opportunities. "As a painting contractor, I already go into homes and assess a project," he points out. "I'd like to go into corporations and assess their security risk. There's also going to be a huge business in team-building around disaster prevention. People used to go out into nature and bond, but now you could integrate that with Homeland Security. You can make it to where it actually has some meaning."

John makes good money, but he's tired of brushes and rollers. "I took 9/11 personally," he says. "First I was in shock, and then I was like, let's get that guy. Now my eyes are open. I realized I didn't have to go overseas to defend my country."

Which would be nearly impossible, anyway: John has four children, a fifth on the way, and a paralegal wife who attends law school at night. Nevertheless, he serves as vice president of Parks's Homeland Security Club and is the most vocal member of the class. Defending your homeland brings it out in a man.

Sisson throws out another question:

"What do they have at Rocky Flats?"

"Weapons-grade plutonium!" someone yells.

"That, and a whole lot of secrets!" shouts Sisson. "Rocky Flats would be an excellent place to attack."

So excellent that he gives the class an assignment: Describe your initial response and containment actions for a terrorist attack on Rocky Flats. And do it in twenty minutes, after breaking into small groups.

"But we haven't worked in groups before," John says.

"Haven't worked in groups? Get over it, folks," Sisson says. "You're going to live in a group from now on."

To commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary, Robin Chotzinoff offered 25 profiles of Denver today -- ending with this column. Click here to read these stories.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff