Skip to main content

A Year After Parkland, the School-Security Industry Is Booming

School districts and parents around the country are investing in bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards, security consulting, and safe rooms. But will any of it work?
Chief operating officer for Amendment II, Rich Brand, shoots a child's backpack with the company's bulletproof shield inserted in it in December of 2012.

Chief operating officer for Amendment II, Rich Brand, shoots a child's backpack with the company's bulletproof shield inserted in it in December of 2012. According to market research firm IHS Markit, school security was a $2.7 billion industry in 2017.

Just one day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the bereaved population of Parkland, Florida, staged a candlelight vigil. Before it began, Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old was one of 17 students killed, went on CNN to make an impassioned and personal plea. "President Trump, please do something. Do something. Action. We need it now. These kids need safety now," she beseeched the president. "What security is there? There's no metal detectors. The gunman—a crazy person—just walks right into the school."

A year on, action on the federal level to mitigate school shootings by limiting access to guns has remained almost non-existent outside of a bump stock ban the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced in December that will become effective in March. Instead it's largely been left to parents and school districts to turn their resources and attention to school safety. And, desperate to minimize the threat of school shootings by any means possible, they have invested in a whole array of new products in the burgeoning school-safety industry, ranging from surveillance technology to bulletproof whiteboards and school supplies.

In recent years, a number of high-profile school shootings have turned the school-security sector into a massive growth industry. According to data collected by the market research firm IHS Markit, school security was a $2.7 billion industry in 2017, a figure that doesn't even account for the money spent on armed security guards and campus police officers.

Entrepreneurs have seized on the eagerness for any preventative measure that might save a student's life. One company, Massachusetts based Bullet Blocker, started in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, sells a line of bulletproof backpacks, ranging from $175 to $490. In the days after the Parkland shooting in 2018, Bullet Blocker saw its orders increase by 30 percent. Cheaper bulletproof bags retail at Home Depot and Walmart for $150.

It's not just nervous parents that are buying in, but also cash-strapped school districts as well. Some have responded directly to mass shootings in their region. The San Bernardino Unified School District, in California, spent $100,000 on security consultants before sinking over $1 million into redesigning North Park Elementary School after a shooting in 2017; in Florida, one month after the Parkland shooting, then-governor Rick Scott rolled out a half-billion dollar plan to bolster school security. Other districts have responded to less localized violence. Districts in Maryland, North Dakota, and Minnesota have signed on to stock classrooms with bulletproof whiteboards and bag inserts. In 2017, the Atoka Public Schools district in Oklahoma forked over $400,000 to create six separate safe rooms; in May of 2018, voters in San Antonio approved an $850 million bond measure for the Northside Independent School District that will pay for the installation of bullet-resistant lobbies across 44 elementary schools.

The question remains as to whether these measures work at all. Experts told NBC News in 2013 that there was little reason to believe bulletproof supplies, like backpacks, would provide effective protection in the case of a shooting, as students are rarely near their bags throughout the course of the school day.

Michael Curran, the dealer coordinator of Bullet Blocker says that, "although there has not been documentation of anyone who has survived a school shooting with the use of a bullet-resistant item, if someone were to shoot at a student using their bullet-resistant backpack, the backpack would stop the bullet, and prevent that student from passing."

Classroom modifications may seem more promising, but can come with a hefty price tag. One estimate by Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, a security-industry group, found it would cost a district about $170,000 per high school to implement the most basic tier of school-security initiatives, like push-button classroom lockdown and 14-day video surveillance storage—a total of over $10 billion if rolled out across all schools nationwide. For a district to implement the most sophisticated security systems, complete with universal bulletproof glass, license plate monitoring technology, and landscaping to ensure maximum visibility, it'd cost an estimated $540,000 per high school, or some $36 billion to accomplish nationally.

And research has found these school-safety technology initiatives to be largely ineffective. A 2016 study funded by the DOJ found "limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology," as well as limited evidence as to what technologies should be prioritizing. According to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of schools using video-surveillance systems rose from 20 percent in 1999 to over 70 percent in 2013, with the percentage of schools actively controlling entrances increasing to 90 percent over that time period. Yet the number of school shootings has continued basically unabated over the last 30 years.

"Many choices about the technology selected, however, may be made with incomplete information or with information that is influenced more by political or reactionary consideration than by local conditions," reads the DOJ-funded study.

Research done by the Washington Post in late 2018 found that even school resource officers, whom numerous schools have begun to allocate funds for, do little to prevent shooters. The Post found only two instances of such armed officers taking out an active shooter over the span of 19 years—a number that pales in comparison to the number of school shooters that were thwarted due to their weapons malfunctioning.

There are, however, some things that can be done. According to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, practicing lockdown drills and creating a culture of reporting that allows for students to express concerns can increase safety without creating "prison-like climates." So, too, does increasing counseling and psychological support at schools, which has been a major demand of the recent teachers strikes in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The school-security industry, on the other hand, has become "ripe for exploitation," according to Ken Trump. "The security hardware and product industry has hijacked school safety, especially following the Sandy Hook and then Parkland school shootings. They have become increasingly organized in their lobbying of Congress and state governments for funding focused on physical security hardware and products under the name of 'target hardening' schools," he warns.

That sentiment has been echoed by others. "School safety is the wild, wild west," Mason Wooldridge, a security consultant who helps school districts assess their vulnerabilities, told the Associated Press in October. "Any company can claim anything they want."