School shooting spurs a predictable series of responses that begins with public outrage and continues with a brief period of a grieving that lasts about three weeks. These reactions are immediately followed by local and national politicians’ promises to stop the carnage - to protect our vulnerable children - as the illusion of “school safety” gradually evaporates.
A Backward System
Effective protection against mass shooters is, for all practical reasons, unobtainable and will remain obscure because physical security remedies have been limited to recommendations made by a small group of inventive alarm salesperson pitching to the school principal on solutions. For most of my five decades in the security technology and consulting industry, I have found schools are the most difficult public facility to protect, even with the $1 billion allocated under the recently enacted STOP School Violence Act for schools and local municipalities. This government intervention will not solve the problem any more than past FEMA actions protected Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. In fact, eliminating hurricanes may be easier that stopping active shooters.
The situation was far different 50 years ago when school security was of little concern to municipal officials since they were only focused on surveilling the district’s schools at night. During the 1970s, security systems protected buildings and newly developed motion detectors were installed to prevent theft of typewriters, duplicating machines and visual aid projectors since the threats were mainly thievery or destructive vandalism.
Schools districts traditionally reconciled purchases of security hardware after a disaster — never as a preventative measure, and maintenance was rarely anticipated or provided. As a result, most systems became obsolete within a few years and were never replaced. By the mid-1980s, technology for protecting students languished as a non-justifiable expense and rarely became part of the school budget.
Between 1980 and 1984, Newark, the nation’s 20th largest municipality, became the first school district to attempt to install a security solution specifically designed for the school environment and not rely on the cookie-cutter approach always recommended by salesmen. The school district awarded a four-year consultant contract that resulted in a system that was used to protect all 100 city schools with the focus on stopping building vandalism and the cost justified by offsetting savings. This project was so successful that it became a landmark building protection system and school officials from all over the country visited Newark to study the security technology used. This concern about protecting only property and equipment ended in 1999, the year Columbine entered the national consciousness.
Security Industry Growth after Columbine
The Columbine school massacre changed the focus of school officials to be more concerned about shielding students and staff during school hours. Since that deadly incident, all resulting defensive tactics have been no more effective than a placebo, simply because no security device can stop a motivated killer willing to die during an attack. Schools would need to become armed fortresses before something approaching effective protection is possible and many of the solutions being applied to the problem today are alienating the people the building was built to serve. Adding armed police in the hallway doesn’t make students feel safer; it makes them think that they are a war zone.
Challengers and Locking Arrangements
Before the outside-shooter loomed in our nation’s conscious, school anti-violence efforts were mainly concerned with single student-on-student bullying episodes. To counter fighting and truancy and unwanted intruders, the dangerous tactic of padlocking and chaining fire doors steered foot traffic back to better supervised front door entrances. Fire marshals were kept busy clipping locks and chains off secondary fire exit doors to find the same doors re-chained on their next visit.
One adverse reaction to locking exit doors was when students began to pull alarms on Fridays to release the locking arrangement and escape for an early weekend. Eventually, a modified panic bar both activated the alarm and opened the doors after a brief delay of two minutes to allow staff time to intervene before the alarm sounded. The Santa Fe, Texas, high school shooting prompted renewed calls by that state’s governor to limit and control secondary school entrances and evidently did not realize that such a system has been available for decades.
Architects rarely employ this locking arrangement or other advanced security measures because they lack the requisite background and rarely emphasis building security in their designs stage. Unfortunately, proper hardening of a building begins at the design stage since it is far more expensive to add security controls after the building is occupied. It’s the same old story; late recognition of security problems followed by calls for immediate solutions after a mass shooting occurs. Unfortunately, and in desperation, some schools in high crime areas like Detroit are chaining their exit doors again.
In 1983, two Bronx, New York, schools became the first school in the nation to employ a personal alarm system for the teaching staff who carried small transmitter on pendants, or in pockets that remotely notify the principal office that aid was immediately required at their classroom location. This early brush with technological oversight invoked a comparison to Big Brother and the teachers’ union rejected the strategy soon after installation and the system was removed. Ten years later, the same schools purchased a student ID badge system and card readers to swipe visitors’ driver’s licenses for hits in a national felony database. A decade afterward uniformed guards or armed police officers walked the hallways. By this time, teachers in that school no longer protested. An important lesson learned from this misadventure was that the nation’s schools are often used as the testing grounds for untried technology.
- The first school was a pilot program that used a hand-held cigar shape transmitter that sent a hi-pitched sound wave (above hearing range) to a wall mounted receiver – hard wired to the principal’s office. While the sound wave remained within the confines of the classroom, the transmitter had to be pointed directly at the receiver which in emergencies was a serious shortcoming.
- The second school tried to solve the problem using a similar shaped transmitter that used a radio frequency signal instead of sound. This allowed the teacher to activate the transmitter while it remained in their pocket or pocketbook – no aiming required. But since RF signals (like all radio waves) was not confined to the room and was detected on surrounding receivers in adjacent and above and below rooms. In other words, the both systems did not work and would have been discarded even without the faculty protest.
Armed guards, along with police intervention, have proven to be a mixed bag of confusion. Government-initiated and police-run active shooter drills have recommended that students block classroom doors and hide in clothes closet. In the recent Santa Fe incident, students followed instruction and sought shelter in the closet, but their ringing cell phones gave them away. The shooter’s terrifying response was, “Is that your cell ringing...you want to get that?” before shooting into the closed door and killing two. Even under deadly threat, teenagers are reluctant to abandon their security blanket (cell phones).
As many as 15 million assault rifles are responsible for just a fraction of all gun deaths each year, but security considerations, however, must anticipate penetrating, high-powered rifle rounds that make no place safe. Concealment and evasion are still the only available defenses in an armed attack, and physical security devices are useless regardless of the promises offered by their manufacturers.
Schools began to adopt bulletproof backpack inserts, because 90 percent of fatalities are from abdomen and chest wounds. The hardened backpacks are then worn as impromptu body armor. Kevlar inserts have given way to lighter, cheaper, and more effective carbon nanotube and high-density polyethylene models. Some brands can stop all but the most powerful ammunition. Still, bulletproofing doesn’t translate to real security because attackers can defeat the armor with bladed weapons, or simply pivot to toxic gases and explosives, to name just a few deadly alternatives. Some schools required packs be constructed of see-through plastic, which raised privacy concerns. Many have now banned backpacks entirely.
Non-Existent Security Codes
The number of fatalities caused by active shooters in K-12 schools since 2000 is 134, and little has been done to add better locking arrangements and stronger barricades to prevent the next slaughter of innocent students and staff. While there are hundreds of fire and safety codes strictly enforced by authorities having jurisdiction over school buildings, there are no codes or code writing organizations that are even remotely associated with security issues. In the almost two decades since the Columbine shooting, there are no active shooter barricades on K-12 classroom doors. Ironically, there have been zero reported deaths by smoke or fire in K-12 schools since 1998 yet there are individuals still selling fire insurance to schools that are practically fireproof.
Adding effective barriers is a deterrent, but it would require planning in the architectural design stage, but that profession rarely considers security in the design stage since they have little background in security controls, and never anticipate mass shootings in their designs. This leaves security planning to the end-user, the local school administrator and their consultants. The results have been haphazard at best. Effective security is contextual and usually requires a customized solution for each location’s unique challenges. Compounding the problem is that all states have hundreds of different school districts with different policies concerning security and getting them to agree on a single solution has been practically impossible.
Physical Design Alternatives
- MAYBE. Bullet resistant window film was a solution that some schools pasted to the windows on the first and second floor windows. Obviously, the school officials believed that the Spiderman could become an active shooter and leap to the second floor and break into the classroom. This plastic shield should only be installed on the windows on the first floor around the main entrance lobby. Classroom windows may be the last recourse for students and the glass must be breakable to allow escape if trapped in the room.
- NO. Fog machines have been tested to allow police to remotely trigger them, so students might escape in the obfuscating cloud. Unfortunately, fog triggers fire alarms, potentially sending unprepared firefighters into a gun battle. Also, the shooter can escape or move on to new targets in the resulting confusion.
- NO. One Midwestern school district briefly considered providing buckets of stones as defensive weapons. The absurd solution of literally bringing rocks to a gun fight was rejected under the sound reasoning that students would either draw a shooter’s wrath or repel him toward other fleeing targets.
- NO. Designing round school buildings to provide sun in classrooms throughout the day has won design awards but has also proven to be a disaster. Arriving SWAT teams can’t see more than 50 feet along the hallway since the curvature blocks their view. Schools must be rectangle to allow proper surveillance.
- YES. Adding side doors in each classroom is a viable solution for trapped students since it allows escape when the entrance doors is under attacked by an active shooter.
- YES. A simple redesign of the standard classroom door will prevent the active shooter from breaking the glass window traditionally mounted on the side next to the door knob and reaching through the broken glass to turn the inner door lock mechanism. This vulnerability can be eliminated by placing the glass on the hinge side of the door which should have become standard after the Columbine incident. Why this change wasn’t automatically done because architects want to win awards for their design features – they do not traditionally design to improve school safety.
Armed Teachers, Armed Guards
A growing number of politicians have recommended that school staff carry a gun since the Sandy Hook killings in 2014. The motivated shooter doesn’t care — either about dying or being caught — and often seeks his 15 minutes of fame provided by the ever-present closed-circuit camera. Responding police are also prone to shooting anyone holding a weapon and statistics indicate they miss their target almost half the time. President Trump advocates spending 250 million dollars to arm 718,000 teachers. By this logic, waiters and movie ushers would also need guns. Arming guards might carry a modicum of protective value but can never offer true safety.
Policing the School
Gunfire on school grounds causes a panic and the resulting chaos potentially puts crowds of fleeing innocents between maniac and defender. Seasoned police officers might handle the challenge, but moderately trained or untrained guards and teachers aren’t likely to fare well. Adding the presence of zero tolerance trained police officers in school building also brings its own set of problems. All too common in-school arrests essentially criminalize student behavior that was once corrected by staff intervention.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the policeman or women assigned to a school are not the most capable or devoted or considered to be elite members of their department. Law enforcement professionals attract people who want to fight crime on the streets — not in a school cafeteria — and those assigned to a school are usually older and ready to retire. Their presence adds little or no protection value. Take, for example, the action of the policeman in the Parkland incident where the assigned officer hid outside the school until the shooting stopped.
Special Needs Students
With all the planning and government intervention and mandated regulations for keeping the nation’s 100,000+ schools safe, there is very little consideration to the hundreds of schools with special needs or extremely disabled children who cannot be expected to follow any rehearsed evacuation procedure for unthinkable events. These students have problems like autism, Down syndrome and seizure disorders, and other severe behavior limitations and are terrified by loud sirens, changes in their routine, or something as simple as using a different doorway than usual. The emergency plans for these children are often overlooked and they may need meditation or a helmet or a wheelchair and special soothing items when the schools is evacuated. It must be understood that these students are never going to be able to run in an any emergency.
No Happy Ending
Technical measures can’t fully secure schools from suicidal attacks, but that isn’t to say that technology doesn’t have a deterrent role. It’s important to balance expectations with reality because the security industry has offered no easy solutions. Designing and installing security technology doesn’t require a specific license or standard of performance. Year by year, some version of the ineffective devices and tactics described herein continue to be naively reinvented and installed because members of the school board are under great pressure to add some form of security. It is important to note that protecting one school only encourages the killer to seek a less protected nearby school. In other words, security does not eliminate crime, it only relocates it.
And that location can be the thousands of school buses that have no electronics and the only adult is the sleepy elderly driver. The bus is an unprotected confined space with little or no sophisticated communication network and far from any police presence. More attention must be placed on these traveling targets before it become the next location for a disaster.
Lastly, what if the school is protected by guards and teachers who carry guns and then the teacher goes postal and starts shooting the students with a gun he or she was authorized to carry. An outrageous thought. But flying a plane into the Towers on 9/11, or a military doctor shooting his staff at a Texas Army post and a shooter in Las Vegas killing 50 people watching a concert (the nation’s largest mass shooting) are situations that were just as outrageous and unthinkable — yet they happened!
As long as guns are easily accessible the nation will have to anticipate mass shootings while maintain a normal routine just as home owners continue to build houses on the coastal areas along the eastern seaboard ignoring the fact that hurricanes are inevitable, and the nation will go to war knowing that soldiers will die in a war. It seems that mass murderers are somehow protected under the Second Amendment as are gun owners.
Background Checks and Insurance Policies
According to a 2018 study published by the U.S. Department of Justice, 25 percent of mass shooters between 2000 and 2013 had been diagnosed with mental illness and only three were diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. Most mass shooters could have passed the strictest background checks so trying to keep guns out of the hands of maniacs will always be an impossible task.
The FBI had conducted interviews in 2018 with perpetrators of mass killings to find commonalities in what motivates their attacks and to look for patterns in their behavior. (The seemingly randomness of the attacks often baffles authorities). The study found that only one-quarter had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and just 5 percent had been convicted of a violent felony.
It also found that shooters spent a week or more planning the attack and usually let someone know about their intent beforehand. In other word, there is no way to determine who the next active shooter will be, and metal detectors and ID badgers will do little to keep the shooter off the school campus since most shooters were students or school staff members. Another problem arises when the shooter realizes that the school building is impregnable and forces him to find another student gathering site for his maniacal actions.
School officials have begun to realize the futility of all the efforts to make their institution safe from mass killings with security hardware and armed guards and are beginning to use the money originally set aside for ineffective protection systems into buying Shooter Insurance, known as “active-assailant.” The insurance policies are used to offset the cost of litigation following a mass shooting when parents sue the district for not providing adequate security. The insurance disbursement goes for the cost for counseling services, crisis management and benefits to surviving parents following the almost enviable mass shooting.
Annual premiums range from $1,800 for $1 million in coverage to about $175,000 for $20 million for the larger school districts. The policies will pay out $250,000 per person death or injury benefit after a violent act. Experts believe the premiums are too high considering it covers incidents that have a low chance of occurring. The odds of a student in K-12 public school getting killed or injured is about one in 4.8 million a year, compared with one in 700,000 a year of getting hit by lightning. Regardless of the debate on the amount of the premium it is amazing that the nation is now accepting the reality that guns will never be banned, and mass shootings has become part of the American way of life.
Publicizing the installation of an elaborate security systems may satisfy the PTA but it also gives the shooter some idea where less protected victims are gathered. That comment sounds bizarre but, in a confidential study conducted by the Port Authority in 1985 to determine what properties are vulnerable to a terrorist attack, predicted that a plane hitting the Towers was a most likely event. Somehow the report was leaked and a think-tank published this prediction for its subscribers. A year after the 9/11 event, a lecturer at a security symposium told the audience of government officials that the above mention report probable gave the 12 terrorists the idea to commandeer planes and fly them into the towers.
I wrote that 1985 report and its leakage to the press should force officials to keep their security plans and the number of security officers on the premises confidential.
Defensive Measures are Questionable
A major motion picture was released in 2018 called “8th Grade” which contains a scene where elementary school seniors are lined up in a hallway while an instructor, carrying a replica of a rifle and simulates the action of an active shooter. The next scene has the students hiding under their desks as if that would be a safe place. Of course, the students think it’s a joke and are busy texting each. It probably reminded older officials of the late 1940s when the same tactic was used in schools in the event of a Russians attack during the cold war. The one benefit from active shooter drills is that this exercise may finally get rid of the outdated and useless fire drills.
Lastly, schools are considering replacing the armed guards and teachers with trained attack dogs. Employing a dog trainer with two dogs in the school lobby is inexpensive and is a more comforting image than the armed guard. If that expense is still too high, the school should consider placing the sign BEWARE OF DOG at the front entrance. Thousands of homes have been adequately protected by the same fake sign for many decades.
Words Change Nothing
Funeral conventions of prayer along with a moment of silence will not prevent the next massacre. A U.S. Senator recently spoke at a Texas NRA convention and in trying to unite both sides of the gun debate; he motivated the attendees when he said, “the Second Amendment protects my liberty and the liberty of my kids.” He should have added,
“... until somebody shoots them.”
Until purchasing guns becomes more controlled and regulated, there is no system or barrier or locking arrangement or evacuation plans that will keep shooters, especially those of school age, off school premises.
Charles. Schnabolk (email@example.com) is a consulting engineer, inventor, author, university professor, and security technology pioneer. He has designed security systems for hundreds of schools since 1970, the year he was hired by the Port Authority to design the security system for the original World Trade Center. His book, School Insecurity: What Works, What Doesn't and Why, was published this year.