By the end of the Uvalde attack, 376 law enforcement officials were at the scene. Does it not seem quixotic to expect a more effective response from the art department?
If arming, training and insuring 3.7 million teachers is a rhetorical decoy, “hardening” schools into defensive fortresses is a daily reality — enabled by an expanding universe of suppliers for whom education is often just another sales vertical alongside law enforcement, emergency medicine, prisons and the military.
This is not to condemn companies clinging to the wreck of public policy and filling the void left by generations of politicians and lobbyists.
But the profusion of products and services used to harden schools nonetheless offers an illustration of just how much money and time America’s educational establishment is now spending, to apparently little effect. By one reckoning, the number of incidents of gunfire on school grounds over the last five years (628 from 2018 through 2022) was nearly double those from the previous five years (315 from 2013 through 2017). The number of fatalities rose from 141 to 207 — and keep in mind that this was when many schools were shut over Covid-19, and that 2022 is barely half over.
Active Shooter Response Training
Perhaps the highest profile school-hardening tactic is “active shooter response training.” Of all the companies selling this service, the most prominent is ALICE Training — whose acronymic name derives from its proactive “response protocol”: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.
Other options include AVERT (Active Violence Emergency Response Training), which “goes beyond active shooter response training by also teaching how to control life-threatening bleeding.”
Active shooter response training is inevitably controversial — especially when it involves the deployment of blank ammunition and replica firearms inside schools. But setting aside the psychological trauma (and financial cost) of such drills, it may have a deadlier toll.
Days after the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Michael Daly reported for The Daily Beast the terrifying tactical acumen of the 19-year-old killer, Nikolas Cruz:
“Cruz quite literally knew the drill when it came to active shooters and understood that the lockdown procedure would go into effect the moment gunshots were heard. He certainly did not want to find himself wandering suddenly deserted hallways, trying to force his way through locked doors.
So Cruz seems to have hatched a two-part scheme to thwart the well-rehearsed lockdown plan. He began by waiting until just five minutes before the 2:35 p.m. dismissal time. He then pulled a fire alarm.
The timing likely made it more difficult for the school to order and maintain a complete lockdown. He was able to kill 12 inside the school, along with another two just outside and one on the street. Three more died in the hospital.”
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention nonprofit supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, at least 40 states require lockdown or active shooter drills; and according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of 318 school shootings between 2009 and 2019, 49% were perpetrated by current or former students of the location attacked.
And so, schools across America may be paying private companies to coach the next generation of killers in counterinsurgency. Or, as ALICE Training admits in its FAQ:
“Could we be training our future enemy?
Yes, but knowing what to expect and then dealing with the ALICE Training strategies are much different. Because each area will be making different choices, the shooter cannot predict what those under attack will do.”
Setting aside perimeter fencing, a feature of schools worldwide, hardening American schools now involves airport-style security. Specifically, X-ray machines and metal detectors, such as those supplied by Protective Technologies International, which notes:
“Recent years have seen a marked rise in attacks at schools. The perpetrators of these crimes didn’t have an ideological motivation, but rather suffered from extreme psychological disorders. Everyone agrees education remains a top priority for our nation, and therefore we must make every effort to protect our students. If students feel at risk when they come to school, they cannot perform to their highest level, and the country will suffer as a result.”
It’s ironic that Republican members of Congress fumed against the introduction of metal detectors and pat-downs at the Capitol in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. Many refused to pass through the new security lanes, and Congresswoman Debbie Lesko tweeted:
Once a gunman has breached a school’s perimeter, lives hinge on the resilience of individual interior doors.
For schools that can’t afford $5,700 for a bullet-resistant classroom door from Covenant Security Equipment …
… cheaper options include:
· The $299 Teacherlock II from School Safety Solution (“Lockdown is achieved in less than 3 seconds!”)
· The $85 Sleeve from Fighting Chance Solutions, which “overcomes the challenge of securing outward-swinging classroom doors in a matter of seconds.”
· And the $75 Lockdown 1 from Nightlock.
When it comes to securing school windows, one option is to install some form of bullet-resistant glazing, such as that supplied by Riot Glass:
“Riot Glass offers bullet-resistant glazing shields that are designed specifically with schools in mind. These glazing shields look and function just like standard window glass, but they can withstand ballistic attacks and prevent active threats from gaining entry to the building.”
A less expensive alternative involves obscuring a gunman’s line of sight, for example with the Blackout EZ Classroom Door Lockdown Shade, which is “all about safety for school lockdown emergencies” but “also great for Kindergarten nap time.”
For ultimate protection, there’s the ProtectED ballistic barrier shelving system which “can be rolled over a classroom door or window and quickly latched in place by children or adults,” and offers “protection,” “de-escalation” and “every-day storage” at an “average cost of $25 per student per year.”
Because even the toughest locks and blinds may not prove sufficient, the next step is to harden classroom interiors.
Several companies have developed bullet-resistant desks, including First Line Furniture, which boasts: “With some practice, our tables can be flipped up, inter-linked and the entire classroom filed in and sheltered behind the tables in under 30 seconds.”
A slightly different approach is taken by the “school safety non-profit” Defend Our Children which sells individual “safe space security devices” that each cost between $7,000 and $9,000.
A range of companies offer bulletproof whiteboards, such as this $4,200 model from Security Pro USA:
And some sell hand-held shields, such as the $129 Level 3A Bulletproof Clipboard from Hardwire which in four designs: Starry Night, Palm Leaves, Carbon and (counterintuitively) Skull and Stripes.
But for ultimate peace of mind, classrooms can be fitted with a bulletproof panic room. For around $1,000 per student or teacher, Shelter-In-Place will anchor into the floor a room within a room (complete with air filtration, security cameras and backup power) that is capable of withstanding attacks from “every gun that has ever been used in a school shooting, and then some.”
Should so much “hardened ballistic steel” seem unnerving, shelters can be vinyl-wrapped “to match school colors, mascots, mantras, etc.” which “makes them a more inviting space for students.” Indeed, “many teachers actually reward students with time in the ‘kid cave’ for reading, or other school work.”
According to an FBI analysis of 63 active shootings between 2000-2013, 70% ended in five minutes or less, and 14% ended in two minutes or less. But given the potential for any shooting to become a prolonged hostage situation, various companies sell school siege supplies, including the $44.95 “Classroom Lockdown Kit” from SOS Survival Products which contains:
• 1 × Portable toilet in a 5-gallon bucket
• 1 × Toilet paper roll
• 10 pairs × Vinyl gloves
• 1 × Bucket of absorbent cat litter
“Having this emergency kit for schools will help your teachers and students remain calm during very traumatic situations. In the end, it’s an item no school should be without. Get yours today.”
School tip lines encompass a range of phone, app and web-based systems designed to act upon public concern. And although they address a panoply of dangers (including vandalism, bullying, drug abuse and suicide), tip lines increasingly focus on preventing school shootings. One of America’s earliest school tip lines — Colorado’s Safe2Tell — was established in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. And, according to the National Institute of Justice, by the end of the 2018-2019 school year, 51% of U.S. public middle and high schools had a tip line, of which 60% had been installed in the previous three years.
Of those schools with tip lines, 43% were purchased from a private vendor or contractor. One such contractor is Security Voice Incorporated which, in addition to running hotlines for business ethics and Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblowers, offers the Safe School Hotline tag-lined: “Listen to the secrets in your schools.”
Augmenting such tip lines are products designed to monitor student communications and predict acts of violence. Social Sentinel by Navigate 360 provides schools with “social media and email scanning technology” and “behavior threat assessment” to “address issues of concern with speed, efficiency and compassion — before they escalate.”
Days after the Uvalde shooting, the Dallas Morning News reported that the Uvalde School District (along with “at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas”) had previously commissioned Social Sentinel “to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district.” Whether this contract was active at the time of the attack is unclear.
Schools can now select from a range of high-tech hardening solutions.
Perhaps the most startling was that suggested by the CEO of Taser manufacturer Axon who, shortly after Uvalde, proposed “the development of a TASER Drone System as part of a long-term plan to address mass shootings.”
Although this project was quickly shelved, drones are already part of the school hardening repertoire. In April, for instance, the Texas company SkyeBrowse split a $10 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to develop drone responses to school shootings. The company’s CEO told Drone Life:
“As [officers are] moving through the different halls and wings of the school, that area of the 3D model will turn green. That means the area’s cleared. The [artificial intelligence] will automatically determine the best path for clearing the building and determine the best path for evacuating the students and teachers.”
In addition to various camera surveillance systems, schools can also purchase gun-shot alert technology, such as that offered by Shooter Detection Systems:
“Would you send your children to a school without fire alarms? The time has come to look at gunshot detection the same way.”
Even if the oft-quoted assertion that “the same people who design America’s prisons design its schools” is not literally true, many scholastic facilities incorporate carceral design (and budgets) by threading cell-like classrooms off long, low corridors starved of natural light. And this is before the ubiquity of metal detectors, surveillance systems, barbed wire and armed guards.
The failure of institutional architects to foresee the risk of violence means that many schools are now retrofitting defenses. For example, after the 2018 Parkland massacre, Broward County pledged that each of its 20,000 classrooms would be fitted with “hard corners” — marked-off areas of the floor where students can cower out of the immediate sight-lines from windows and doors.
A more aggressive approach was taken by Southwestern High School in Indiana (“America’s safest school”) which, in addition to the now-standard panic buttons, cameras and ballistic doors, installed NetTalon’s “hot zone” system of exploding smoke cannons hidden in the ceilings:
So embedded is the threat of active shootings that new schools are now constructed with structural countermeasures. In 2019, the $48 million redevelopment of Michigan’s Fruitport High School deployed curved walls, to hinder a shooter’s sightlines, and jutting “wing walls” to offer students ballistic protection — features familiar to trench diggers in World War One.
The softest way to harden schools is to armor every child.
This involves parents buying their offspring bulletproof bookbags — such as the $147 TuffyPacks transparent backpack, which includes a 12×16 inch “ballistic insert” (“black, camo, school or patriotic”) and comes with this advice:
“IMPORTANT NOTE: Parents, if your child has a ballistic shield in his or her backpack, please instruct your child to NOT disclose this to the other children in their classroom or at school. In the event of an imminent shooting threat, your child’s backpack could be taken by another student.”
If there’s cash aplenty for school hardening, there’s little appetite for a softer approach. According to “Cops and No Counselors,” a report by the American Civil Liberties Union:
• 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
• 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
• 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
• 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
• 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.
Problematically, K-12 cops seem as inclined to prosecute as to protect those they are ostensibly serving. ACLU analysis shows that schools with a police presence reported 3.5 times as many student arrests as schools without police — including for “crimes” such as spraying perfume, fake burping, fake fart spray, not following instructions, arguing, documenting bullying, kicking a trashcan, cursing, refusing to leave the lunchroom, throwing a paper airplane, criticizing a police officer and wearing saggy pants.
And so, as the arrests stack up, classrooms become bunkers and the death toll mounts, the school safety debate circles the same talking points. It’s a zero-sum game exemplified by the National Rifle Association, which runs a “School Shield” program to protect children from the very gun violence it enables. In 2018 the NRA’s then-president, Oliver North, said:
“When it comes to our most precious resource — not gold, or oil or precious jewels — our children, we utterly fail to protect them at school, every single day. Each day that goes by, our banks and business are better protected than our children. That’s a national outrage.”
If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, there is an escalating opportunity cost to bad-faith debate. Every dollar spent on “hardening” schools is a dollar diverted from teachers and children. It’s also a diversion from the only plausible cures for America’s school shooting epidemic: effective gun control and a sustained national effort to tackle the root causes of social disadvantage and mental ill-health.
Those who dismiss the former and defund the latter may wish to explore cheaper alternatives.
After the 2018 Parkland massacre, Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain School District equipped each of its 200 classrooms with a novel “last line of defense” — “go buckets” filled with throwable rocks.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• An Executive Order That Might Stop Gun Violence: Timothy O’Brien
• The Flaw in the Progressive Stance on Guns: Matthew Yglesias
• Why Do Some States Have More Gun Violence Than Others?: Francis Wilkinson
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion