Hardened targets: Can body armor, prison design keep kids safe?

By Caroline Bottger

Last week, gun control non-profit Sandy Hook Promise debuted a shocking PSA blithely titled “Back-To-School Essentials.” Viewed more than one million times since it was first uploaded to YouTube, the video portrays kids showing off their new school supplies: backpacks, headphones, and the like. 

But things take a dark turn when a boy says that his new shoes are perfect for the new school year while behind him, his peers flee a shooter. Other “indispensable” supplies include knee socks that double as tourniquets and a cell phone for texting your mom while hiding in a bathroom stall. The closing credits announce, “School shootings are preventable when you know the signs.”

‘Knowing the signs’ is a long-term strategy to prevent gun violence, but parents hoping to keep their children safe from school shootings this year have been buying up bulletproof backpacks. Office Max and Home Depot were selling the backpacks, manufactured by personal security companies such as ArmorMe and Guard Dog Security, for $100 to $120 apiece. The packs boast the sign-off of the National Institute of Justice, saying that the bulletproof technology complies with the Department of Justice’s Level IIIA standard for body armor. 

But does it? According to a DOJ spokesperson, the NIJ has not signed off on the efficacy of the bags — the only body armor it approves is for law enforcement. Furthermore, past shooters have used AR-15 rifles, while such backpacks only protect against a 9-millimeter handgun or a .44 Magnum with zero bullet penetration. Former NYPD police commissioner William Bratton has voiced his doubts too, saying that children might not hold the backpacks in a way that would protect them. Some schools also have rules about no backpacks in class.

Schools are focusing on “hardened” infrastructure security, meaning sturdier doors, thicker windows, and gathering spots, in addition to armed guards: schools “designed with the unthinkable in mind,” wrote Slate’s Henry Grabar

As critical as these updates are for student safety, some administrations are in a bind. The average U.S. school is 44 years old, wrote Patrick Sisson at Curbed, and many are in dire need of more mundane, but much-needed, repairs and supplies. 

Shooter drills have also changed. After Columbine, the standard procedure was to shelter in place. However, in the wake of Sandy Hook, thinking has shifted to a more active approach, including fleeing and even taking down assailants. But there is continued concern about the effectiveness of these drills, especially after reports that an unannounced shooter drill at a Florida school caused asthma attacks, anxiety, and vomiting among students. Reality is not what these drills should go for, according to child psychologists. Instead, they should emphasize “repetition rather than realism,” said Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University.

But as retired FBI agent John G. Ianarelli wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “We cannot keep waiting around for something to change. Through regular active-shooter drills, schools can equip their students with the skills to react quickly and safely to frightening situations.”


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