Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Groups are pushing for funding to bolster security infrastructure; some researchers say there are better preemptive measures.
Lisa Hamp is a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which 32 people died at the hands of student Seung-Hui Cho. Hamp and her classmates lived because they barricaded their classroom door. “The door did not have a lock,” Hamp says. “We used a desk and table to keep the shooter from entering.”
Hamp recently joined a group in Washington, D.C., lobbying for funding to make U.S. public schools safer from such assaults. She joined representatives from organizations such as the Secure Schools Alliance and Safe and Sound Schools, as well as the security firm Allegion. These organizations have allies in Congress: Representatives Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington, head the Congressional School Safety Caucus.
School safety is a big business. Allegion, which specializes in “security around the doorway” (meaning locks, steel doors and frames, and the like), reported $2.2 billion in net revenues last year. Tim Eckersley, the president of the Americas region for Allegion, points to the new, rebuilt Sandy Hook elementary school, in which 26 students and staff were killed in 2012, as a current “model school for safety and security.” It features such elements as a series of checkpoints along the road that approaches the school, impact-resistant windows, and a high-tech surveillance system. Other school safety paraphernalia on the market include gear like bulletproof whiteboards and backpacks, fingerprint recognition systems, and gunshot detection systems.
Much of the advocates’ conversation with lawmakers centers around establishing nationwide provisions for school security, including emergency drills and monitored entrances for visitors. One low-tech fix is emphasized: a requirement to provide locks on classroom doors. “We hear about the need to lock a door time and again when there is violence in a school building,” says Michele Gay, who co-founded Safe and Sound Schools after she lost her daughter in the Sandy Hook shootings.
In Hamp’s case, an ad-hoc barricade worked, but that’s usually not advised. The manufactured barricades that some schools purchase aren’t fire code compliant—and while they keep a perpetrator out, they also bar those who would help from coming in. Instead, locks easily engaged and disengaged from the inside of a classroom are recommended.
Allegion and other security companies would likely get a lot of new business if such locks were mandated on all classrooms nationwide. Robert Boyd, the executive director of the Secure Schools Alliance, says it takes about $100,000 to give a school a basic level of security. With, for instance, around 98,000 K-12 public schools in the U.S., each a candidate for outfitting or upgrading, there’s a vast amount of money at stake. But Eckersley says that the firm’s interest in such legislation has a higher purpose. “We aim to make places safer so that people can thrive,” he says. “In this case, that’s about learning and teaching.”
Boyd and his colleagues aren’t asking for funding from the beleaguered Department of Education (which, in President Trump’s proposed budget, would see its funding slashed 13.5 percent). Rather, they envision resources for a school security makeover coming out of the president’s fabled $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which the Department of Homeland Security would then mete out to states. And the feds wouldn’t be footing the whole bill: Boyd advocates for a system in which one-third of each $100,000 would come from the federal government, while states and municipalities would split the rest.
But some researchers caution that a focus on hardware solutions risks taking attention and resources away from more effective methods of preventing shootings and other school violence. The majority of school violence does not involve mass shootings and random victims: They’re single incidents between two people—usually students—that are personal in nature. Shootings like those at Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook are shocking, horrific, and exceptionally uncommon. “Even in the deadliest years, the chance of a student or adult being killed at school is roughly one in a million,” writes Sasha Abramsky in a critical report on the school security industry in The Nation.
William Woodward, the director of training and technical assistance at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder, says it’s important to keep this infrequency in mind when planning for school safety. “You have to be careful that you’re not preparing for the least-probable attack,” he says.
Woodward has studied school shootings in depth, and his research shows that reaching the students who would do harm to others early is the key to preventing the violence. He emphasizes that one of the most important things a school can do is to create a “safe school climate”—one where students view teachers as fair, feel welcome and engaged in activities, and know a teacher they feel they can trust and talk to. It’s also a climate where rules are consistently enforced.
In such a climate, students with mental health problems and anger issues are more easily detected and treated. “This is really about identifying those kids early and getting them the resources they need so we don’t have to rely on locks,” Woodward says. It’s also crucial for a school’s different communities to coordinate. “Teachers, the police, the PTA, parents, students, school administrators—they all have to be working with each other, or you can end up with a shooting,” Woodward says.
Last year, he and a co-author published recommendations on how schools can promote intervention, such as diligently documenting student behavior concerns and conducting formal trainings for students and staff on the signs of violence to look out for.
But such training and staffing costs money, and school counselors tend to be frequent targets of budget cuts. (One new concern: School-based mental health services are funded in part by Medicaid, which is threatened by repeal of the Affordable Care Act.) “I’m always astounded as we are cutting [school] mental health staff…and then we’re going to spend money on hard-wired security,” Amanda Nickerson, an expert on school crisis prevention at the University at Buffalo, told The Buffalo News. “I’m not saying that those things aren’t important, but at the end of the day, if we look at the thwarted school shootings, that’s almost always that somebody identified that there was a threat that was made, and they got the help that was needed.”
Such programs are also competing for funding with schools’ many infrastructure needs. A 2014 study from the Department of Education found that more than half of all K-12 public schools “need to spend money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to put the school’s onsite buildings in good overall condition.” The areas in most need of improvement for permanent buildings were windows, plumbing, and heating/air conditioning. (Security systems and lighting also made the list, but trailed these areas.)
House Democrats have floated a school infrastructure spending plan that would put $100 billion toward construction and high-speed internet in schools across the country, particularly high-poverty schools that serve children of color. As the bill’s fact sheet notes, “[s]chools predominately serving white students spend 50 percent more on capital construction than those serving minority students, and wealthy districts spend nearly triple their high-poverty counterparts.” Current security costs are already markedly higher in low-income urban school districts, according to research from the education news site The 74, compared to wealthier, whiter suburban districts.
It’s doubtful the school infrastructure plan will pass Congress. But some states are passing legislation mandating that their public schools have a certain level of security. Last year, then Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a bill into law that gives the state’s Department of Homeland Security the authority to set school safety standards, and New Jersey approved a bill that requires security measures to be incorporated into the design of new schools and implemented as upgrades in existing schools.
Expect more legislation like this in the future, as parents, teachers, administrators, and lawmakers all look for something to make them feel safer—quickly. But Woodward cautions that locked doors can’t do the job on their own. “This may have its place,” he says, “but it needs to be part of a comprehensive plan.”