More than $2.7B spent on school security
But little research done on whether it has kept kids safer
ORLANDO — The expo had finally begun, and now hundreds of school administrators streamed into a sprawling, chandeliered ballroom where entrepreneurs awaited, each eager to explain why their product, above all others, was the one worth buying.
Waiters in white buttondowns poured glasses of chardonnay and served
meatballs wrapped with bacon. In one corner, guests posed with colorful boas and silly hats at a photo booth as a band played Jimmy Buffett covers to the rhythm of a steel drum. For a moment, the festive summer scene, in a hotel 10 miles from Walt Disney World, masked what had brought them all there.
This was the thriving business of campus safety, an industry fueled by an overwhelmingly American form of violence: school shootings.
At one booth, two grayhaired men were selling a 300-pound ballistic whiteboard — adorned with adorable animal illustrations and pocked with five bullet holes — that cost more than $2,900.
“What we want to do is just to give the kids, the teachers, a chance,” one of them said.
“So they can buy a few minutes,” the other added.
Elsewhere at the July conference, vendors peddled tourniquets and pepper-ball guns, facial-recognition software and a security proposal that would turn former Special Operations officers into undercover teachers. Threaded into every pitch, just five months after a Parkland massacre, was the implica- tion that their product or service would make students safer - that, if purchased, it might save a life.
What few of the salespeople could offer, however, was proof.
Although school security has grown into a $2.7 billion market — an estimate that does not account for the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — little research has been done on which safety measures do and do not protect students from gun violence. Earlier this fall, The Washington Post sent surveys to every school in its database that had endured a shooting of some kind since the 2012 killings of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, which prompted a surge of security spending by districts across the country.
Of the 79 schools contacted, 34 provided answers, including Sandy Hook Elementary. Their responses to questions about what they learned - some brief but many rich in detail - provide valuable insight from administrators in urban, suburban and rural districts who, as a group, have faced the full spectrum of campus gun violence.
When asked what, if anything, could have prevented the shootings at their schools, nearly half replied that there was nothing they could have done. Several, however, emphasized the critical importance of their staffs developing deep, trusting relationships with students.
Only one school suggested that any kind of safety technology might have made a difference. Many had robust security plans already in place but still couldn’t stop the incidents.
In 2016, Utah’s Union Middle School had a sur- veillance system, external doors that could be accessed only with IDs and an armed policewoman, known as a resource officer, when a 14-year-old boy shot another student twice in the head during a confrontation outside the building just after classes ended.
“Even if we would have had metal detectors, it would not have mattered,” wrote Jeffrey Haney, district spokesman. “If we would have had armed guards at the entrance of the school, it would not have mattered. If we would have required students to have see-through backpacks and bags, it would not have mattered.”
The survey responses are consistent with a federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University that concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”
The schools that have experienced gun violence consistently cited simple, well- established safety measures as most effective at minimizing harm: drills that teach rapid lockdown and evacuation strategies, doors that can be secured in seconds and resource officers, or other adults, who act quickly.
But fear has long dictated what schools invest in, and although campus shootings remain extremely rare, many superintendents are under intense pressure from parents to do something - anything - to make their kids safer. It was the nation’s renewed anxiety, after 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in February, that had drawn so many administrators to the National School Safety Conference at the Florida hotel, 200 miles north of Parkland.
Also there, hoping to capture some piece of the new spending, were 105 vendors, an all-time high for the expo and a 75 percent increase over the previous year.
“This is brand new. ...
Superintendent Randy Russell checks camera feeds at Freeman High School in Rockford, Wash.