Security companies spent years pushing schools to buy more products — from “ballistic attack-resistant” doors to smoke cannons that spew haze from ceilings to confuse a shooter. But sales were slow, and industry’s campaign to free up taxpayer money for upgrades had stalled.
That changed last February, when a former student shot and killed 17 people at a Florida high school. Publicly, the rampage reignited the U.S. gun-control debate. Privately, it propelled industry efforts to sell school fortification as the answer to the mass killing of American kids.
Since that attack, security firms and nonprofit groups linked to the industry have persuaded lawmakers to elevate the often-costly “hardening” of schools over other measures that researchers and educators say are proven to reduce violence, an Associated Press investigation shows.
The industry helped Congress draft a law that committed $350 million to equipment and other school security over the next decade. Nearly 20 states have come up with another $450 million, and local school districts are reworking budgets to find more money.
Most everyone agrees that schools can be more secure with layers of protection, such as perimeter fencing, limited entrances and hiding spaces inside classrooms.
But there’s no independent research supporting claims that much of the high-tech hardware and gadgets schools are buying will save lives, according to two 2016 reports prepared for the U.S. Justice Department. As with high-profile shootings in the past, that has not stopped industry representatives from rushing in, some misusing statistics on school violence to stoke fears that “soft target” schools could be victims of terrorist attacks or negligence lawsuits.
“School safety is the Wild, Wild West,” said Mason Wooldridge, a security consultant who helps school districts assess their vulnerabilities. “Any company can claim anything they want.”
Wooldridge knows from experience. Several years ago, he helped outfit an Indiana high school with a $500,000 security system that includes smoke cannons. Now out of sales, he says a school that wanted a system with the same level of security could get it for about $100,000, using less expensive but equally effective equipment.
Many proponents of hardening a school like an airport or police station have backgrounds in law enforcement or the military. Some have little experience or qualification. The Ohio man dubbed “Joe the Plumber” during the 2008 presidential campaign has been appearing on school safety conference panels to hawk a cheaper lockdown alternative.
Educators worry that hardening will siphon focus and money from programs that prevent bullying and counsel at-risk kids. Students have reported in government surveys that visible security measures like metal detectors and armed officers make them feel less safe.
Industry representatives say they support other solutions to preventing school gun deaths, but insist hardening hasn’t gotten the chance it deserves.
“There really needs to be a change in thinking that recognizes security is a primary need in schools,” said Jake Parker, director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, which has been central to the hardening effort. Also, he acknowledged, “The more schools protect themselves, the better it is for industry.”
Revenue for school security companies would grow even more than analysts project if the industry succeeds in plans to craft state legislation that would set minimum standards for campus equipment purchases.
There are no widely accepted, independent standards for school building security, as there are for the plumbing, fire protection systems and even athletic bleachers on campus. To fill that void, security companies have promoted their own takes on what “best practices” for school security should be. At least one state has turned such standards into law.
Industry-written guidelines set a steep price for cash-strapped districts. According to a nonprofit group formed by a major lock manufacturer, for example, upgrading an elementary school with basic security equipment costs at least $94,000 and a high school at least $170,000. If all the nation’s public schools were to follow those guidelines, the cost would total at least $11 billion, according to industry calculations.
Hardening advocates acknowledge that mass upgrades would not eliminate shootings. Many shooters are students whose familiarity with a school’s layout and security could help them outsmart even elaborate safeguards.
Low-tech solutions may also work just as well. Leaders at one school district in New Jersey heard a vendor’s pitch for classroom doors that lock automatically and simply mandated that teachers lock their doors during class, saving several hundred thousand dollars.
“If we’re just expecting technology to solve all these problems, I think we’re going to fall short,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center, created originally as a federal program under the Reagan administration. “And we may not like the climate we create.”