Counterterrorism Class Collaborates With Local Law Enforcement Organizations

Students Work with Cleveland Police and a Homeland Security Agency

In the second photo above: Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia, Public Affairs Officer, Cleveland Division of Police; Harold Pretel, Deputy Chief of Homeland Special Operations, Cleveland Division of Police; Sgt. Zina Martinez, Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center; and Amber Hedrick and Sarah St. George, analysts with the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center.

Deputy Chief Pretel briefing the class on the terrorism threat profile of ClevelandExperiential learning is part of a distinctive Kent State University. Students here are getting real-world experiences in classes across campus, and they work with a variety of organizations.

For Communication Studies’ Communication and Terrorism class, the lessons are getting real very quickly.

Students last semester worked with the Cleveland Police Department and the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center, a task force that curates and disseminates threat-related information across federal, state, local and private-sector entities.

Cleveland’s highway systems, proximity to water and location within eight hours of many major U.S. cities make Cleveland susceptible to terrorist activity. For these reasons, the Cleveland police serve as an experienced, helpful client for the class.

The curriculum for the class looks at terrorism as an act of communication.

"The Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center is a homeland security center where threat information comes in for assessment and sharing with regional law enforcement and public safety organizations. They work closely with the Cleveland Division of Police,” said Stephanie Smith, co-professor of the Communication and Terrorism course. "Both clients challenged our students to develop multimedia public education campaigns to help ordinary people in Cleveland understand what suspicious activity looks like, how to focus on the activity and not necessarily the individual and how to report that threat, especially using the Safer Ohio app."

Ms. Smith is an assistant professor of undergraduate and graduate classes in both the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Communication Studies at Kent State. She retired in 2011 from the U.S. federal government after 27 years of service, with 25 of them with the CIA. She also had executive experience in the U.S. Navy and Department of State.

"We looked at some of the ways terrorists communicate, the way the government restrains their communication, and how terrorist organizations use a full range of communication tactics to brand themselves,” Ms. Smith said. “We looked at the multinational appeal of these groups and their recruitment and marketing processes."

Paul Haridakis, Ph.D., professor of communication studies at Kent State, was the other co-teacher of the class. Dr. Haridakis conducts research on media uses and effects, law, public policy, new communication technologies, sports communication, freedom of speech and the history of communication studies.

Dr. Haridakis said he found this class helped challenge students to think more about this topic.

“Students are challenged to understand basic definitions of terrorism and think beyond conventional assumptions about radicalism, root causes and terrorist organizations, especially assumptions derived from mass media, popular culture and Western biases,” Dr. Haridakis said. “The centrality of communication in understanding terrorism, the recruitment and the radicalization process and in counterterrorism efforts is emphasized. It is important to understand how central communication is to understanding issues surrounding terrorism.”

Dr. Haridakis encouraged the students to take a deeper look at terrorism and the messages it generates.

“We expect students to think deeply, critically and objectively about the narratives, messages, images and symbolism used by past and present-day terrorist movements,” he said. “We also examined many facets of terrorism, including its historic roots and its social, political, ethnic, geographic, moral and spiritual causes.”

Dr. Haridakis found this class to be a rewarding experience for himself and the students.  

“I think what is particularly gratifying when teaching the course is seeing the students apply their understanding of history, communication theory and present-day terrorist tactics gleaned in the course to a messaging strategy to counter an actual terrorism-related challenge,” Dr. Haridakis said. “I am always impressed with their work.”

Ms. Smith further conveys the importance of understanding terrorism and how communication applies to these radical groups.

“If you go on and have children and grandchildren, your grandchildren will be talking about terrorism, and it will look different, but it is a really wicked problem in society that is also terribly misunderstood,” she said. “But it is also a communicative act, and as consumers of media, we are part of the audience.

“We think it is important that people who are working in storytelling or who are consumers of those stories come to understand the dynamic and what is really going on in terrorism,” Ms. Smith continued.

Joseph Smith, a communication studies major, was a student in the class and has since learned about terrorism with respect to communication.

“The class helped me realize that terrorism, at its essence, is an act of communication,” Mr. Smith said. “I never thought of it that way before, but terrorists are seeking the largest audience and the greatest reach for the group's message. Helping to unwind the stories behind the headlines, being able to learn what critical thinkers are saying, helps us to see that this conflict will not be resolved by guns, guided missiles and attacks on American icons such as the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.”  

Students in the class got a lot of real-world experience and got to make an immediate contribution to the Greater Cleveland community through learning in the classroom at Kent State.

“The project with the Cleveland Police Department was fascinating because it provided us with hands-on experience that the communication strategy we learn in the classroom can be applied in the real world, and in this specific case, it demonstrates that communication helps save lives,” Mr. Smith said. “It also gave us a glimpse of what it's like to work with clients. All of this will transfer to real-life work experience as we move beyond the classroom.”

Ms. Smith said the students gained valuable experience and the understanding that they made a difference.

“This real-life experience is relevant, it is here,” she said. “They walk away with portfolio content, with a solid project that they can point to that has social value. Some of these ideas may be implemented, and students can see the value of the work being done. We are doing something of value beyond the classroom to help our community.”

“What we always hope students take away from this is that there is no simplicity to terrorism,” Ms. Smith said. “We all hold radical ideas, we just may not hold the same set of radical ideas.”

To learn more about Communication Studies at Kent State University, visit

For more about the Cleveland Division of Police, visit

For more information about the NE Ohio Regional Fusion Center, visit

POSTED: Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - 11:13am
UPDATED: Wednesday, November 27, 2019 - 10:04am
Audra Gormley