“Security was the number-one factor for me in choosing a school,” explained one of the mothers I met late last winter at a Montessori preschool in an affluent suburb of Salt Lake City. A quality-control expert at a dietary-supplement company, the woman said she vividly remembers the jolt of horror she felt when she first learned of the Columbine massacre in 1999. So when the time came to send her child to preschool, she selected one that markets itself not only as creative, caring, and nurturing, but also as particularly security-conscious.
To get the front door of the school to open, visitors had to be positively ID’d by a fingerprint-recognition system. In the foyer, a bank of monitors showed a live feed of the activity in every classroom. After drop-off, many parents would spend 15 minutes to half an hour staring at the screens, making sure their children were being treated well by their teachers and classmates. Many of the moms and dads had requested Internet access to the images, but the school had balked, fearing that online sexual predators would be able to hack into the video stream. All of the classroom doors had state-of-the-art lockdown features, and all of the teachers had access to long-distance bee spray—which, in the case of an emergency, they were instructed to fire off at the eyes of intruders. The playground was surrounded by a high concrete wall, which crimped the kids’ views of the majestic Wasatch Mountains. The imposing front walls, facing out onto a busy road, were similarly designed to stop predators from peering into the classrooms.
“I fear a gunman walking into my child’s school and gunning up the place,” the mother continued. (I have withheld her name, and that of the school, upon request.) “And I fear someone walking onto the playground and swiping a kid. And I fear an employee of the school damaging my child. These things happen more commonly than people expect.”
Actually, they don’t. Despite the excruciating angst suffered by this woman and so many other parents, school violence is a rarity in America. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34 children in the United States were murdered while in school during the 1992–93 school year. From 2008 to 2013, the most recent years for which the NCES provides data, the average annual figure was 19. In recent decades, the numbers have waxed and waned, hitting 34 again in 1997–98 and going as low as 11 in 2010–11. Generally, the trend has been downward.
If one adds the deaths of teachers and other staff, as well as suicides by students during the school day, the numbers go up, of course. In the 20-year period covered by the NCES data, 2006–7 was the deadliest, with 63 violent deaths occurring in America’s schools. That is unquestionably 63 too many violent deaths, and for the families directly affected by the killings, it represents unfathomable—and inextinguishable—anguish.
But it isn’t quite the national epidemic that one might picture based on the vast media coverage these killings receive. In fact, far more children and young adults are killed on the impoverished streets of America’s large cities every year. By several orders of magnitude, far more kids die each year in car crashes or drowning accidents—or from asthma. And far more young lives are lost to a host of other diseases closely correlated with poverty.
There are approximately 55 million K–12 students in America and roughly 3.5 million adults employed as teachers. There are, in addition, millions of support staff—janitors, nurses, cooks, after-school-program providers, and so on. Even in the deadliest years, the chance of a student or adult being killed at school is roughly one in a million. By contrast, roughly five out of every 100,000 American residents are murdered each year. Extrapolating from this, schools are somewhere in the region of 50 times safer than society overall.
And yet you’d never know that from the level of fear that exists around schools—or from the vast amount of money we spend attempting to make them more secure. The research company IHS Technology recently estimated that schools and universities spent about $768 million on security measures in 2014—a sum that it predicted would rise to roughly $907 million for 2016. That’s an awful lot of money to spend at a time when state and local budget cuts are limiting educational opportunities for students across the country.
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The spike in spending on school security began in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration, seeking to co-opt the prevailing tough-on-crime, zero-tolerance message, pushed an array of measures that led to the hiring of several thousand new “school resource officers.” Thousands more police officers were funded by state and city grants, making the presence of armed police a daily reality in schools around the country. At the same time, one school after another, especially in inner cities, brought in airport-style metal detectors and introduced “clear bag” policies so that school officials could easily check everything students brought into the building.
As schools came to resemble prisons—which, perhaps not coincidentally, were also expanding during these years—an increasing number of students ended up being arrested on school grounds. In cities like Stockton, California, where even nonpolice “resource officers” are granted arrest powers, thousands of kids have acquired criminal records for minor offenses. Students in these districts are arrested at rates far higher than those reported in places where resource officers aren’t given such powers. The construction of this “school-to-prison pipeline” has disproportionately affected minority students—who, in turn, face harsher penalties once they come into contact with the criminal-justice system. Sometimes the confrontations with security officers can be horrendous. Last October, for example, students in a South Carolina school filmed an officer violently dumping a teenage girl out of her chair and dragging her across the floor before arresting her—all because she used her cell phone during math class.
In recent years, the school-security industry has expanded to include high-tech surveillance among its offerings. The school district in Las Vegas has been installing surveillance cameras in schools since 2000, and they are now standard in new schools. All told, according to a 2014 article in the Las Vegas Sun, more than 12,000 surveillance cameras are recording in Sin City’s schools, complementing the hundreds of cameras in school buses and on major thoroughfares, and the tens of thousands of cameras in the city’s giant casinos. The Sun didn’t report on how much this system cost, but a much smaller project at St. Mary’s High School in St. Louis reportedly cost the school $500 a month to lease two cameras, or $15,000 to buy them outright.
Newark Memorial High School, in the San Francisco Bay Area, has embedded ShotSpotter technology, an advanced sound-recognition sensor system deployed by police departments in many urban neighborhoods to identify when and where gunshots are occurring. Although the school hasn’t had to pay ShotSpotter for the technology—the company views it as a testing ground for how such a system could be used in a school setting—police departments around the country pay anywhere from $65,000 to $90,000 per year for each square mile covered by the sensors.
And then there’s the Indianapolis suburb of Shelbyville, where school superintendent Paula Maurer recently became so worried about the possibility of a shooting that she installed a $400,000 security system in the town’s high school. The entire campus, located in open countryside just outside of town, is now saturated with cameras linked into the nearest police station. Every teacher wears a panic button around his or her neck, and pressing it sends the entire campus into instant lockdown. For good measure, police officers watching from miles away can set off blinding smoke cannons and ear-splitting sirens at a moment’s notice.
Much as anticrime advocates convinced government agencies in the 1990s and 2000s to fund an increasing array of punitive programs, today school-security companies and trade associations are lobbying legislators in several states to change building codes so that schools will be mandated to spend more on their security systems. If they get their way, the Shelbyville experiment could well be a harbinger of things to come.
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Lately, America’s school-security fetish has reached a whole new level of bizarre. In the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, one company after another has rushed to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the epidemic of fear that emerged in response to school violence, and to exploit the emotional vulnerabilities of terrified parents. As a result, a huge number of utterly inane products have entered the market.
School-security specialist Kenneth Trump, longtime president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, likens the surge of “overnight experts, gadgets, and gurus who have popped up out of the blue” to a feeding frenzy. “Every time we have a high-profile shooting, we see another business or product, well intended but not well thought out,” he says. After the Columbine massacre, Trump recalls, there was a “fairly reasonable conversation” about security. By contrast, in the years since the slaughter at Sandy Hook, “it’s been the worst I’ve seen in 30-plus years, in terms of people responding emotionally and businesses preying on the emotions of people who are afraid.”
Take, for example, Bullet Blockers, a company working out of Lowell, Massachusetts, that manufactures bulletproof backpacks for elementary-school children. The ones for young girls come in raspberry pink or red plaid; the ones for boys come in red, black, navy blue, and more. The company also markets bulletproof jackets, bulletproof iPad cases, and bulletproof whiteboards for use in classrooms. It even sells a “survival pack and safety kit,” complete with fire starters, first-aid guides, cold compresses, and other items that would allow a child to survive a prolonged school lockdown.
Bullet Blockers CEO Ed Burke won’t divulge how many items his company has sold, but he does say that “since the Paris attacks [of November 13, 2015], our business has grown 80 percent and continues to grow.” Have his products actually saved lives? “Thank God, none as yet,” he answers—meaning that none of his products have thus far been used to foil an attacker in a school shooting. But “they’ve been tested randomly, to test ballistic capabilities.”
None of Burke’s clients would agree to talk for this article, but Burke does aver that his company sold products to “a grandmother who lives in Sandy Hook, who got her grandchildren a couple of backpacks.” He adds, “I got a phone call from a gentleman in California whose wife was involved in the massacre in San Bernardino. She was in the building. He wanted to get her a backpack.” Burke also cited a family that ordered a man’s farm coat, a woman’s leather coat, a child’s nylon jacket, and three backpacks, all bulletproof as well.
In Hauppauge, New York, Derek Peterson runs a tech start-up called Digital Fly, which enables school officials to monitor all social-media postings within a radius chosen by the school. The intent, which would be eerily familiar to government spy agencies the world over, is to drill down into communications used near schools as a way to identify potential shooters, bombers, bullies, or would-be suicides. The postings of everyone within that catchment area—whether they’re students, local residents, or simply people passing through—are monitored. “My software will identify it,” Peterson enthuses, seemingly oblivious of (or indifferent to) the extraordinary privacy implications of his work. “The school administrator will get e-mails. At that point, every school has a different policy—they get the parents, the police involved. I provide you with a hammer: Here’s the tools to build the house.”
Peterson claims that his system is being used in more than 50 schools around the country, as well as some in Ireland and South Africa. His ambitions are large. “It could go global,” he says. “We’re hoping it does. I’m a serial entrepreneur; this is right in my sweet spot. How do you put a price on protecting little ones? Unfortunately, we live in a crazy world where kids are targeted. So any way we can protect children, I’m all for it.”
Much like Burke, Peterson acknowledges that he has no real way of knowing if Digital Fly is working—although he does claim that it helped prevent two suicides in New York City schools. But since he charges only $1.50 to $2.75 per student, Peterson hopes that schools will decide it’s worth adding to their tool kit just on the off chance it works. He tells parents at PTA meetings that his service costs the equivalent of one can of soda per year for each kid, and then adds a spiel about how, if even one bloody nose is avoided, it will be money well spent. “Right now, there are 50 million K–12 matriculating students just in the US,” Peterson says as he ponders his company’s future. “The sky is the limit.”
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Many experts worry that the new school-security measures can endanger the people they’re supposed to protect. Anti-intruder doors were installed in some schools in Ohio without overrides built in, making it hard for first responders to reach stranded kids in the event of a crisis. There is some anecdotal evidence that lockdown drills injure teachers; they have reputedly resulted in a flurry of workers’-compensation claims across the country. And at the Kaimuki Middle School in Honolulu, a lockdown drill in which a teacher ran through the school wielding a hammer and playing an attacker drew criticism after several young children were traumatized by the sight of their seemingly crazed teacher on a rampage.
The increasing cost of high-tech safety measures has become a concern, too. At a time when many schools can’t rustle up enough money to keep art and music classes running, and when parents are often asked to purchase such necessities as notebooks, pencils, and even toilet paper, all of this militarization and surveillance represents a scandalous diversion of education funds.
Shelbyville’s $400,000 security system, for example, could have been used to pay the salaries and benefits of roughly eight full-time teachers for a year (the average salary for a teacher in the town is $43,000). That’s not an insignificant fact in a city that shed five teachers in April 2010 as a way of saving $250,000 during the dog days of the recession. All told, according to the Indiana Economic Digest, Shelbyville schools lost access to over $1 million that year. Three years later, the school district cut the hours for scores of teaching aides, bus drivers, and other staff to avoid the cost of covering their health insurance under the terms of the Affordable Care Act.
Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center, who teaches a graduate course on school-safety issues at Pepperdine University, recalls talking with the superintendent of a school near his home in Oak Park, one of Los Angeles’s many affluent suburbs. The superintendent explained that he was under tremendous public pressure to put security fences around the district’s schools, at a cost of $1.6 million. He was resisting it because he believed the schools had bigger needs: The teachers hadn’t received a pay raise in five years.
Back at the Montessori school in Utah, I met a father in his mid-40s who bemoaned the fact that kids could no longer roam freely, walking to and from school alone, playing unsupervised outdoors for hours with their friends, as he’d done growing up in the Bay Area. “Times are different now,” he explained sadly. “There are more crazy people in the world.”
The man, who worked for a large plumbing and air-conditioning company, had a bachelor’s degree in criminal-justice studies. Intellectually, he knew the statistics. He knew that violent-crime rates were higher when he was growing up than they are today. So I asked him if he was sure that the environment was less safe for his 17-year-old daughter than it had been for him. “Probably not,” he said after a long pause. “It’s hard. She is way too sheltered. I’d love to let her spread her wings a little bit more. But we do keep our thumbs on her. There’s always the fear of a kidnap, a traffic accident. Turn on the news at night—we watch the news while we eat dinner. The media loves to create a sense of panic. They love bad news.”
On one level, he knew that the media were selling him a bill of goods. But he couldn’t bring himself to turn away—and the more he watched, the more fearful he became. The man told me that he’s had nightmares about mass shootings and kidnappings; his face got beet red with tension even while discussing it.
Unfortunately, this is the sort of circular reasoning that our society is increasingly trapped in when it comes to raising and educating our children. Television, newspapers, and social media focus on sensational but statistically anomalous horror stories about school violence. Parents and the broader community work themselves into a panic, prompting politicians to vow that they will do “whatever it takes” to make everyone safer. Security technologies emerge to fill the perceived need for stronger safety measures, and schools end up spending money they don’t necessarily have to implement solutions they almost certainly will never need. The presence and the media coverage of these heightened security measures increase the public’s sense of fear, and the spiral descends even further.
“We’re preparing for the 1,000-year flood,” says Ronald Stephens. “Children are safer at school than anywhere else.”