US schools take hard-line approach to shootings

Tough measures adopted to safeguard students and teachers

A man and a boy visit a memorial to victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 29. (JAE C. HONG / AP)

As schools reopen across the United States after the summer vacation, the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, is fresh in the minds of parents, students, teachers, administrators and first responders.

The rampage on May 24 at Robb Elementary School, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, was the deadliest school shooting in the US since the attack at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012.

The Uvalde shooting led to public school districts nationwide "hardening" security to protect the nation's more than 50 million students. "Hardening" is an industry term referring to adding layers of security to schools.

This move has resulted in more armed guards and teachers at schools, a boom for manufacturers and sellers of security systems, and opposition from many communities, teachers' unions and gun control advocates.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, said, "Bringing more guns into schools makes schools more dangerous and does nothing to shield our students and educators from gun violence.

"We need common-sense solutions now. Schools need more mental health professionals, not pistols; teachers need more resources, not revolvers. Arming teachers makes schools more dangerous and does nothing to shield our students and educators from gun violence."

When the rampage in Uvalde occurred, Rob Couturier said it swamped his business, LockOut USA, which sells the SmartBoot System, a school lockdown and building security system.

Couturier, president and founder of his company, which is based in Michigan, said sales rose by 300 percent last year after a shooting in the state at Oxford High School in Oxford Township. The Nov 30 incident left four students dead and seven people injured, including a teacher. Authorities arrested a fellow student, a 15-year-old sophomore, and charged him as an adult.

"Sales have doubled or tripled since last year" because of the Uvalde shootings, Couturier said.

As of June 8, there had been 27 school shootings this year in the US, including Uvalde, according to Education Week, which started tracking such incidents in 2018.

School boards are adding more armed guards and conducting additional active shooter exercises. More states are allowing teachers, administrators and other staff members to be armed.

Panic buttons, locked classrooms and school entry points, surveillance cameras inside and outside schools, bulletproof glass, emergency communications systems, and a host of new technology devices are being added at a cost of millions of dollars.

Enrollment rises

Some school districts are considering following the example of Quitman, Arkansas, which in 2018 installed safety pods to protect against shooters. These pods are made of ballistic steel capable of stopping bullets from handguns, shotguns and semi-automatic high-caliber weapons.

The pods, originally manufactured as tornado shelters for schools, cost $15,000 to $30,000 for a typical classroom.

Quitman School District Superintendent Dennis Truxler wrote in a media release that the district's student enrollment rose by about 20 percent after the pods were installed, citing "parents' desire to send their kids to a safer school".

However, many Twitter users felt differently.

One user said: "We don't have space for books, desks or extra school supplies to promote learning in our school's classrooms. We have to have space for these gigantic safety pods so people can have their military-grade weapons."

Amy Klinger, a school safety expert and director of programs for the Educator's School Safety Network, thinks turning to such products is indicative of a wider problem.

"We tend to respond to events like the tragedy in Uvalde with a quick solution. Let's do a quick fix. Let's buy something really fast," she told National Public Radio. "And we tend to look at something shiny and go, 'Hey, let's buy that thing'."

She said the problem with buying such items is "it makes people feel better, but it actually makes your school less safe because it creates the illusion of safety when you don't really have it."

In Madison County, North Carolina, each of the six schools that opened on Aug 22 has been stocked with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a safe, along with ammunition for use if there is an active shooter, and supplies to provide lifesaving care for anyone injured.

In a Facebook video, Madison County Sheriff Buddy Harwood said, "A deputy armed with a handgun isn't going to stop these animals." He added that only his deputies have the password to the safes.

Meanwhile, a school in Hurlock, Maryland, has incorporated safety design elements, including ballistically-rated office glass and weapons detectors. The school's open design increases sight lines for staff members.

Architect Peter Winebrenner, who helped lead the design, told the local ABC News affiliate that it is now "the hardest it's ever been" to balance school safety with a welcoming learning environment.

New school design must consider the need to protect students against an active shooter threat, while not making them feel as though they are learning inside a prison, he said.

In the wake of the Uvalde shootings, in the Los Angeles school district-the nation's second-largest with more than 600,000 K-12 students (those from kindergarten to the 12th grade)-additional measures to enhance safety on campus were announced by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The district's updated protocol includes measures to reduce the number of entrances on school grounds. By adopting a strategy known as "safe corner", district officials also want to ensure that students, teachers and first responders know the location of the most protected area, in the event of an incident.

A wave of shootings at schools in the United States has prompted tougher measures to safeguard students and teachers. (PHOTO / AP)

Line of defense

For gun-rights activists and Republican state lawmakers, training and arming school personnel and adding armed guards have become the main and first line of defense against situations involving active shooters.

In Georgia, gun-rights groups have pushed for more educators to be armed.

Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Second Amendment, said in an interview with Reporter Newspapers, which is based in Atlanta: "Schools are a soft target, but once people understand that there's someone there who is armed, no one's going to go in there and shoot. Had one of those teachers in Uvalde been armed, then they could have not stepped in."

The Cobb County Board of Education near Atlanta voted to allow certain school staff members to carry guns. A law adopted in 2014 allows Georgia teachers and other employees to carry weapons in schools if local school boards authorize this.

In June, Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine signed a law allowing teachers who receive 24 hours' training to carry a gun in schools.

He also announced that 1,183 schools across the state would receive nearly $47 million to cover expenses for security enhancements such as surveillance cameras, public address systems and automatic door locks.

In Florida, more than 1,300 school staff members across the state serve as armed guards in 45 of 74 school districts, according to state education records. The heightened security followed the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed by a 19-year-old gunman.

In Brevard County, Florida, Sheriff Wayne Ivey said in a video posted on social media last month that school resource deputies would wear new uniforms with a "tactical appearance that clearly signifies that we mean business", and carry a rifle at all times, according to the Local 10 News website.

Ivey said that previously deputies had to go to their patrol car to get a rifle before heading back into a building to deal with an active shooter.

He said making schools hard targets is his top priority, adding, "Let me be very clear, you are not coming into my schools and killing our children."

Ivey said some people have expressed concerns over the new tactical look and the level of preparedness, saying it reminded them of walking through an Israeli airport.

He said: "My response to them was simple. 'When was the last time you read about someone shooting up an Israeli airport? You haven't.' And the reason for that is that they are better prepared, better armed and better trained than anyone else. And they have won the war long before the battle was ever fought."

US President Joe Biden does not support hardening schools against potential shooters, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in June. "He believes that we should be able to give teachers the resources to be able to do their job," she said.

On June 25, Biden signed into law the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years. "There are too many other schools, too many other everyday places that have become killing fields, battlefields here in America," he said.

In June, a PDK national survey showed 80 percent of respondents support placing armed police officers on duty when classes are in session and screening all students for mental health problems. Allowing teachers and other staff members to be armed was supported by 45 percent but opposed by 55 percent.

Mass opposition

Polling has shown that teachers are overwhelmingly opposed to being armed in the classroom.

In an American Federation of Teachers survey of nearly 4,000 K-12 teachers in Texas, 76 percent answered "no" when asked, "Do you want to be armed?"

In Virginia, a statewide public opinion survey conducted by Patch News found 83 percent of respondents were opposed to teachers being armed. Those who favored allowing teachers to carry weapons cited lengthy police response times to an active shooter event-a critical factor in the Uvalde massacre.

While much of the effort to make schools safer has centered on hardening security, experts said schools should focus on softening to support students' social and emotional needs.

Odis Johnson, from Johns Hopkins University's Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said, "Our first preventative strategy should be to make sure kids are respected, that they feel connected and belong in schools."

There has been a significant increase in the willingness and ability among schools to hire mental health support professionals, as much of the funding is coming from pandemic federal aid. According to the White House, with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money, schools have seen a 65 percent rise in their number of social workers and a 17 percent rise in counselors.

While schools in New Jersey have armed guards, the state also is taking another approach to thwart possible shooting incidents-"threat assessment teams". A month after the Uvalde shooting, a bill was adopted and signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy requiring all public school districts in the state to establish these teams for the 2023-24 school year.

The teams are intended to enhance schools' ability to help identify risks before an act of violence occurs, and they will identify students who might engage in violence or other harmful activities. To prevent targeted violence in a school, the teams will also assess and deliver intervention strategies to manage the risk from students who pose a potential safety hazard.

Each team will consist of a safety specialist, a principal or other senior administrator, a school resource officer, a teacher and a psychologist, a counselor, and a school social worker or school employee with expertise in student counseling.

Laurie Doran, director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness said, "We are not only first responders, we are first preventers."

Cathy Bolto, coordinator of a network of parents and community members serving students, said that while threat assessment teams might reduce potential risks with early identification, children who are determined to be "threats" should be handled in a "nurturing way, not with force or aggression by law enforcement."

In Texas, following the shootings in Uvalde, the state transferred another $105.5 million to support additional school safety and mental health initiatives through August 31 next year, on top of existing funds for school security measures.

Most of the money will be spent on such measures. About $50 million will be used to buy bullet-resistant shields, while $17.1 million is earmarked for school districts to purchase silent panic-alert technology.

In Uvalde, many students fear returning to school, and some have chosen to learn online. At the request of the Uvalde school district, to help students, parents and faculty members feel safe as they return to school, the state announced early last month that it would provide more than 30 law enforcement officers to schools for the new school year.

Across the state, many school districts are adopting various safety measures. In Dallas, the second-largest school district in Texas, students must wear clear or mesh backpacks so that authorities can detect illegal items such as guns.

Some school districts have gone further. On Aug 22, the Kilgore school board unanimously approved a plan to allow district employees to voluntarily carry a concealed weapon on campus. This school system in northeast Texas has about 4,000 students.

Andy Baker, superintendent of schools for Kilgore, said, "The intention is to provide one more level, one more layer, in the possibility that we ever have a severe act of violence on one of our campuses."

School faculty members interested in taking part in the plan will need to meet prerequisites to be considered. Few people in the district will know the identity of these "guardians".

In Uvalde, Adam Martinez has decided to let his children choose online schooling for the coming year. It wasn't his first choice, but they are still scared, he told The Texas Tribune.

"I was telling my son, 'there's gonna be a tall fence, and they're gonna have state troopers on all the locations,'" Martinez said. "And he told me, 'Who cares if there's cops? They're not going to do anything anyway, they're scared'."

May Zhou in Houston, Minlu Zhang in New York and Yinmeng Liu contributed to this report.