RENO, Nevada — Marilyn Lewis had never held a gun. But on one dry desert afternoon in June, the Alabama education official aimed a 9 mm pistol at an armed teenager in a high school classroom during a shooting rampage. Students screamed. Lewis pulled the trigger. After the third round, the gunman fell to the ground.
Everyone applauded. “He’s wounded in the chest, he’s down,” said one of the Laser Shot sales reps as he looked at the results on a computer tablet.
Lewis wasn’t responding to a real school shooting, and she wasn’t holding a real gun. She was testing out a laser firearms training simulator at the annual National School Safety Conference in Reno. Laser Shot, the company that makes the program, recently added school shooting scenarios to its virtual library. Lewis was testing it to see if it would help school cops in the state better prepare for the unthinkable.
“A lot of schools are hearing from parents, ‘What are you doing to keep my child safe?’” said Lewis, a prevention and support services coordinator for the Alabama State Department of Education, as we walked through the exhibit hall at the conference.
More than 1,000 school police officers and educators attended the annual conference this year, and many were wrestling with that same question in the wake of two of the deadliest school shootings in modern US history. In February, a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In May, a student opened fire at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, killing 10.
The incidents have galvanized the gun control movement and revived calls for new restrictions on firearms. Activists and some Democrats wanted Congress to ban the sale of semiautomatic rifles. They wanted universal background checks on all gun buyers. They wanted the government to remove guns from people who are experiencing a crisis and at risk of harming someone.
But Congress has mostly ignored the pressure, choosing instead to stop funding all school safety research. They are now throwing that money at schools to come up with any other solution — anything except the solution that the public seems to demand. In March, Congress passed the STOP School Violence Act, which included $100 million each year for school safety grants over the next 10 years.
So a lack of money isn’t the problem. What to do with that money, however, is a different matter.
At the conference in Reno, more than 70 vendors had gathered to sell their wares to school districts that are scrambling for a solution. The sheer number of products on display — from bullet-resistant backpacks to barricade locks to door shields — underscored a certain desperation.
Here, at one of the largest school safety conferences in the country, the people charged with keeping our kids safe seemed lost about what to do. The federal government had failed to protect school children — and instead of restricting gun sales, they simply handed the problem to schools to figure out.
But there was no consensus on a solution among those who traveled to Reno. Almost everyone seemed resigned to the fact that mass shootings will happen and there is little we can do about them. And when I brought up the most obvious solution — to pass gun control laws that make it harder for people to buy guns — the idea was brushed off as a pipe dream, or simply taboo.
“There is no best solution,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which hosts the annual conference. He believes that having a well-trained officer in each school can minimize harm, but even they can’t prevent a school massacre.
“I don’t know how to solve the problem.”
People thought the Parkland shooting might shift views on gun control
Many Americans thought that the political aftermath of the Parkland shooting might be the breaking point for a fed-up public.
In 1999, the Columbine school shooting in Colorado killed 12 high schoolers; in 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut took the lives of 20 elementary school children. Both shootings triggered large protests and heated calls for gun reform. Both led to some reforms at the state level — but Congress refused to follow suit. Instead, lawmakers in Washington provided money for community grief counseling and for schools to hire more cops.
After Parkland, the loudest, most compelling voices in favor of gun control came from the students who survived the shooting. They publicly shamed American politicians for caving to pressure from powerful pro-gun lobby groups. They gave scathing, heart-wrenching speeches and organized the largest national protest of government inaction on gun control.
The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School promised that no other student would have to experience such a massacre.
But policymakers didn’t help them keep that promise.
The students scored some smaller victories, for sure. In Florida, they pressured lawmakers and the state’s Republican governor to ban all gun sales to people under the age of 21, and to make all buyers wait three days to get their guns. But Florida was the exception. The most common response across the country was not to restrict gun sales. State lawmakers and Republicans in Congress did what they normally do: They gave more money to schools to hire police and develop emergency plans. Some did include funding for mental health services.
It wasn’t long before policymakers had broken the promise Parkland students made. Three months later, in May, a 17-year-old boy gunned down eight students and two teachers at his high school in Santa Fe, Texas. He used a shotgun and revolver belonging to his father, which were purchased legally.
Some critics of gun control measures argue that school shootings aren’t such a big problem — that the flood of media attention given to each incident makes them seem more common than they are. There is some truth to that. School shootings are rare; the vast majority of American students won’t experience a shooting during the school year.
Even though school shootings are still relatively uncommon, 2018 has already recorded the highest number of school shootings since Columbine — a total of 17 — according to an analysis by the Washington Post. (The analysis only includes shootings that happened when children were present on school grounds immediately before class, during class, or immediately after class.)
Children in other parts of the developed world don’t have to worry about the chance they will come face to face with a gunman on campus. School shootings are much more likely to happen in the United States than anywhere else in the developed world.
Gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association have stuck with their position that what we face is a mental health problem, not a gun problem. That’s not true — as Vox’s German Lopez points out, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of gun violence, not the perpetrators of it.
The underlying problem is pretty easy to explain: The United States, by far, has the largest concentration of privately owned guns in the world, and the highest rate of gun homicides in the world. Research has consistently shown that more guns lead to more gun violence. The most logical policy to prevent gun deaths, which has worked in countries like Australia, is to make guns less accessible. But that’s the one thing Republican lawmakers in Washington refuse to do.
Congress’s solution: throw money at the problem
Since the Parkland shooting, the government has shoveled millions of dollars to schools to beef up security. But Republicans in Congress wouldn’t even bring up for a vote the gun control bill Democrats introduced, called the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018.
Instead, Congress has set aside a modest $100 million a year, over 10 years, in school safety grants as part of the STOP School Violence Act. That’s not much compared to how much some states are spending, and each federal grant requires applicants to match 25 percent of the cost. Pennsylvania lawmakers earmarked $60 million in new funding for school security, while Wisconsin set aside $100 million. Florida added an eye-popping $400 million to school safety spending, which includes money to help hire an armed security officer in every public school. So much state money is available that some schools can’t even spend it all.
Some of the money governments have allocated is limited to pay for specific security measures, such as shooting drills and student mental health counseling. But much of it can be used for almost any type of security upgrade. The new federal grants will also pay for “metal detectors, locks, lighting,” and any other effort “that may provide a significant improvement in security.”
Lewis said the state of Alabama had just applied for the first two grants offered through the STOP School Violence Act. One will help schools hire psychologists who can meet with students on campus, and the other will help develop an anonymous tip line to report concerning student behavior.
Lewis also wants to place a school resource officer in every school in the state — about a quarter of Alabama’s schools don’t have one, she said. She has no doubt that state lawmakers will be able to find the money for it.
“We need to do something now,” Lewis said, after testing out the Laser Shot training simulator. It was one of the few products on sale at the conference that she thought would actually be worth the money.
Safety companies see schools as a profitable market
All the new money available for school safety is one reason the exhibit hall at the conference was packed this year. Businesses and nonprofit groups bought a record number of booths this year — 77, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. The conference also drew the highest number of attendees since 2008. Most of them were school cops, but about 10 percent were educators in charge of school safety, like Lewis.
The association hosting the conference represents more than 4,000 school police officers, most of whom are armed, sworn cops in a local police force who are posted at schools. Before Columbine, it was uncommon for schools to have cops. Back then, only about 10 percent of schools had them; now about 47 percent do.
These school police officers often make recommendations for security measures schools should take — and vendors tried to get their attention.
Vendors waved handheld metal detectors and displayed 3D surveillance cameras. One vendor insisted that instead of carrying guns, teachers should carry a flashlight that shoots pepper spray bullets. Two companies that make tactical gear for military and law enforcement officers had bullet-resistant backpacks for sale.
“I never intended to sell these to children,” said Ron Weaver, CEO of Eastern Beacon Industries, showing off his line of backpacks and laptop cases designed to stop the bullet of an AR-15. Parents have been asking if he sells backpacks that fit their kids, says Weaver, and now he is rushing to make them before the school year begins.
The vendor at a booth selling a steel barricade lock for classrooms said sales are so high that the item is on back order. “We just started making more,” he said.
As Lewis and I walked through the exhibit hall, she seemed skeptical about many of the products on sale. “Our schools just jam PVC pipes over [door hinges] to barricade classrooms; that’s basically free,” she said after looking at the $60 barricade locks.
At one booth, Georg Olsen, sales director for US Armor, showed Lewis the bullet-resistant classroom door cover he invented, called Door Shield. “It’s really easy; you just mount it over the classroom door and keep it there,” he said, pointing to a thick, 4-by-6-foot canvas Kevlar panel rolled up and nailed to a wooden panel.
During a shooting, he said, a teacher would lock her door and tug hard on the red strap, unfurling the bullet-resistant panel over the classroom door. Olsen was excited about his new product, which he had made just in time for the conference. He is selling them for $1,995 each. Olsen seemed certain that sales would take off once schools start getting the safety grants.
“There’s an ocean of money available,” he said.
Lewis pointed out that the money isn’t free, that state and local governments have to match part of the grant funding.
“Get a business to donate them,” Olsen said.
The growing market for school safety products
Olsen was right about one thing: Schools are a growing market for businesses that make safety products. The normalizing of mass shootings in US schools, starting with Columbine, has led companies to start marketing their military and police gear to local school districts.
“It’s disturbing but rewarding,” said Olsen, whose company, US Armor, specializes in making body armor for police and military officers. This was the first year his company rented a booth at the school safety conference.
The market for security equipment and services in schools was expected to reach $2.7 billion in 2017 and is expected to keep growing, according to IHS Markit, a market research firm.
Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, most schools have installed video surveillance cameras and keyless entry systems, according to the research firm, so the new market growth will be for schools to fortify buildings, install metal detectors, and develop systems to keep track of students, staff, and visitors.
Raptor Technologies, the main sponsor of the National School Safety Conference this year, has seen a lot of that demand. The company, which is best known for its school visitor screening system, said demand for its emergency management system has taken off.
The system is a mobile app that connects school administrators, teachers, and security staff in emergencies like school shootings. Administrators can use it to send out a lockdown alert from their cellphones, and it allows teachers to account for each of their students during an emergency, letting administrators know which students are missing.
“They can let staff know who is injured and where they are,” said Eileen Shihadeh, vice president of Raptor, showing me how the system works on an iPad.
The app also helps streamline the process of reuniting students with their parents off campus.
Shihadeh said demand is higher for the emergency app than it ever was for the company’s signature visitor screening system. Since the product launched in the fall of 2017, Raptor has sold the system to about 600 school districts.
“Everyone is feeling the pressure and they are fearful,” Shihadeh said, adding that one client, a school superintendent, was basically handed $100,000 from the local school board to do anything to make schools safer.
The problem with all the proposed ideas is that no one knows how effective they are — if they will save someone’s life if a shooter comes to their school.
An even bigger issue is the fact that these are the only options available because state and federal lawmakers refuse to do the hard work of finding a policy answer to the problem of gun violence and mass shootings. Instead, politicians think turning schools into military fortresses will somehow resolve the issue. So schools cops and educators have to drift through a bazaar of school safety products, testing out strange contraptions that maybe, possibly, could keep a student alive.
There is hardly any research on school safety, and Congress just stopped funding it
One of the main problems schools are dealing with is that they don’t know what security measures will work. There is very little independent research on what methods and strategies will keep students safe. What research is clear about is that a higher rate of gun ownership is linked to a higher rate of gun homicides, and that reducing the number of guns on the street has been pretty effective in reducing gun deaths.
After the 1999 Columbine shooting, schools across the country got a boost in federal and state funds for school safety. The most common solutions for schools were to hire armed guards and to install keyless entry systems and video cameras on campus. But no one seems to know whether they’ve actually kept students safe from gun violence.
Lynn Addington, a criminal justice professor at American University, took a look at the evidence available in 2009 and came up with this conclusion in her research paper:
Measures such as security cameras and [school resource officers] were appealing choices given financial support from the government and marketing efforts by companies. The outstanding question, however, concerns the effectiveness of these policy decisions. It is unclear whether these security measures work and to what extent they might generate negative consequences for students and schools.
There is so little research on the effectiveness of school safety measures that the Department of Justice began offering research grants after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012.
Ironically, the first round of research has just started to get published, and Congress just eliminated federal funding for future studies. The $75 million that the Department of Justice spent each year on school safety research is now being spent to fortify schools as part of the STOP School Violence Act.
One of the first studies, by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, concluded that it’s nearly impossible to know which technologies and safety systems work best. That’s mainly because of three things: Campus shootings are still relatively uncommon, schools don’t have to report what security technology they are using or why they chose it, and schools don’t have to track instances in which their systems failed or succeeded in preventing harm.
Another report funded by the grant, published by the RAND Corporation, also found that “no rigorous research was found” on the effectiveness of nearly every technology currently used at American schools.
Mo Canady, the head of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said the lack of federal standards and oversight is a problem. Even if every school in the country hires a school cop, there is no federal standard for what training they should get or what is most effective. Which means that school officials are expected to figure it all out on their own.
No one wanted to talk about the obvious solution to school shootings
If there was one thing that people at the school safety conference seemed to agree on, it’s that giving teachers guns is a very bad idea. That idea gained some traction after Parkland when President Trump suggested it, and some states (like Colorado and Texas) already allow it. But the extreme move has prompted outcry from teachers unions and parents, and only a few districts seem to be going that route post-Parkland. (Florida did pass a law that allows certain trained school employees to carry guns, but not teachers.) Proponents of the idea say armed teachers will be able to protect students, though there is no evidence to back up that claim.
“I have a lot of concerns about that,” Canady said. The main concern is that police officers who respond to a shooting won’t know who the perpetrator is and may mistakenly believe that it’s a teacher. Even having an armed school cop on campus doesn’t guarantee safety for everyone. There were armed resource officers at the schools in Parkland and Santa Fe when the shootings happened. In Parkland, the cop did nothing; in Santa Fe, at least two school cops confronted and disarmed the shooter, but he had already killed 10 people.
Both shootings were carried out by teens with legally purchased guns. In Parkland, it was a semiautomatic rifle. In Santa Fe, the shooter used a revolver and a manual shotgun.
Making it harder to purchase guns seems like an obvious solution. But at the conference, talk about gun control was practically taboo. When I asked Canady about it, he didn’t want to go there.
“We don’t get involved in politics — that’s toxic,” he said. Instead, the association is focused on making sure school cops are prepared to face a teenager with an AR-15 who is ready to commit mass murder, he said.
When I asked Lewis about passing laws to restrict gun sales, she just shook her head. “I don’t know if that would work,” she said.
As I walked through the conference exhibit hall on the last day, none of the vendors I spoke to wanted to talk about gun control either. It wasn’t that they thought people should be able to buy guns freely. Their responses came more from a sense of resignation, even cynicism, about the possibility that lawmakers would ever restrict gun ownership in the United States.
The fact that gun control wasn’t even considered an option just compounded the sense of helplessness at the conference. Not one person I spoke to believed there was a way to prevent school shootings.
“If you find out how, let me know,” Shihadeh, the VP of Raptor Technologies, told me.
Even the vendors hawking their high-tech devices didn’t promise to stop the shootings.
Erik Leslie, who was selling a flashlight that shoots pepper spray bullets, was adamant about that.
“This is no match for an AR-15. All it will do is buy a teacher a few more minutes until the cops get there. Maybe that might save someone’s life,” he said.
Canady didn’t think it was possible to prevent another Parkland from happening.
“When someone has made up their mind to [commit mass murder], they are going to do it,” he said.