Bulletproof backpacks, reinforced glass doors, metal detectors: these are all part of an industry centred on averting and negating school shootings. The climate of fear around the possibility of future attacks occurring —discussed in the blog ‘15 Years Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear,’ published on the 15th April 2014 — creates demand for these products. This is even more likely with knowledge that outside perpetrators (those who are not current or former students or staff) were able to enter schools through the front door: the 2006 Platte Canyon High hostage situation (Bailey, Colorado) involved an outsider entering the school and holding a number of female students at gunpoint for hours and eventually killing one of the young girls and himself; the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting (Newtown, Connecticut), where an external attacker shot his way through the front door and killed twenty children and six members of staff.
The most immediate response is to ‘target-harden’ educational institutions through renovation or reinforcement of the property’s infrastructure in an attempt to secure it from external attackers and prevent insiders from bringing weapons into the school. When it comes to external attackers, responses tend to centre on obtaining bullet-proof glass doors or adding additional locks and alarms to entrances and classrooms. At the ‘Briefings’ event in summer 2013, a stall had been set up for a company selling reinforced glass and a demonstrator video was shown of multiple rounds being fired into a glass door, until eventually a baseball bat and sledgehammer were used to break through. Something like a door which takes multiple bullets, a baseball and a sledgehammer to enter is an axiomatic choice for target-hardening: it would slow down the attacker and alert people inside to the intrusion. The problem lies in the fact that most school shootings are perpetrated by students or staff. In terms of more school homicides more generally, as explained by the director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at ‘The Briefings’ event, fewer than one in five deaths occurred inside the building, with the majority taking place in the school parking lot.
In relation to stopping students and staff bringing weapons into schools, metal detectors and handheld wands and x-ray baggage machines are the obvious security choices. The usefulness of such security devices, however, in reducing school violence in general, never mind school shootings, is unclear. There is, firstly, the issue of such expensive equipment only being as effective as the people operating them. Furthermore, experts presenting at a school safety event in 2006, ordered by then-president, George W. Bush, concluded that students would always find a way to circumvent metal detectors. More worryingly, there is the possibility that metal detectors might aid an attack: any internal attacker would know about this daily routine and be able to use it to their advantage to gun down a large number of victims. Risk management must always consider how security mechanisms could go awry or be used to the advantage of attackers.
The final option is perhaps the most disquieting one, for it has a direct link to the danger children will face from gunfire. The Sandy Hook school shooting provoked a 300-400% increase in sales for ‘Bullet Blocker,’ a site which sells bulletproof backpacks and inserts to go in existing backpacks to act as shields for schoolchildren. This business was founded after the Columbine shooting in 1999, when the creator sought a way to protect his own children. The fact that a market exists for these types of products speaks volumes about the legacy of fear originating in the 1999 Columbine attack and further exacerbated by later horrendous shootings at schools. The fact that students themselves are feeling vulnerable (see earlier blog ‘15 Years Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear’) means that commerical products like bulletproof backpacks are likely to become another commonplace strategy to deal with the threat of potential school shootings.
[Findings for this blog come from presentations at ‘The Briefings,’ literature reviewed and other studies. Special thanks go to my friend, BL, for giving me the idea for this blog and the organisers and presenters of ‘The Briefings.’]