Yet another gun massacre has rocked an American learning institution, the 45th school shooting to take place this year. And on both sides of the political spectrum, the responses have been as predictable as the shooting itself — the left argues for gun control; the right argues for more guns.
It is perhaps the most fiercely divisive issue in American politics. Since 20 children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, there have been 142 school shootings — at least 33 of which involved fatalities, according to Everytown For Gun Safety. Still, on the issue of gun control, the political lines have been firmly drawn. Nothing has been done, and there has been no indication that anything will be done. There is no middle ground.
But as the debate rages on, some are wondering whether anything can be done in the meantime to protect schools from active shooters.
One group thinks there is, and that it’s playing out in Indiana. Already, they note, at least one school there is carrying out a program that works to mitigate school shootings without promoting more guns or gun control. They say ten more Indiana schools are slated to have this program in place by next year. And the proposed solution could be implemented on a federal level.
“I know it sounds politically crass,” said Mason Wooldridge, the co-founder of Our Kids Deserve It, a group that works to promote what many might consider aggressive school safety standards. “But if Sandy Hook Elementary or the college in Oregon had what Indiana is promoting in their schools, nobody would have died.”
No Ordinary Safety Standards
The safety standards Wooldridge is working to implement in Indiana schools are no ordinary measures.
They’ve already been implemented at Southwestern High School, a small school in rural Shelbyville. There, not only do children perform “active shooter drills” alongside fire drills, teachers wear special key fobs that alert police faster than a 911 call. Classrooms have “hardened doors” that lock automatically and “hardened exterior glass” windows to deflect both bullets and brute force. Cameras in the school have “shooter detection technology” — tools created for the military — to help law enforcement more quickly locate suspects. And if the suspect is trapped in the hallway, smoke cannisters can be detonated to slow down the shooter.
Wooldridge thinks these measures could have prevented the deadly outcomes of shootings like Sandy Hook and last week’s incident at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
“The reason he was able to carry out the killing was because he was able to walk up to the door and walk right in,” he said, referring to Sandy Hook. “With this system, a sensor on the glass would have said someone is trying to break in, and that would have gone to the administrative area and the local police department. So he would have been by himself, stuck in a hallway. In Oregon, the same thing would have taken place.”
In addition, Wooldridge says the doors at Southwestern High School lock automatically — a concern for fires, but a safety measure so teachers don’t have to remember to lock the door behind them. Wooldridge said this would prevent situations like the one during Sandy Hook, when a teacher told a 911 dispatcher that she had to go outside to lock her door while the shooter was active in the hallway.
The measures are expensive, costing anywhere from $400,000 to $600,000 for a 35-classroom school, Wooldridge said. But he insists the costs would amount to “a McDonald’s meal once a month” for taxpayers, and that school or law enforcement budgets would not be allowed to be cut to make the upgrades. In addition, Southwestern’s particular upgrade was funded by a donation from a security company and government grant. Grants will also fund the 10 additional schools to receive the technology next year, he said.
Schools Without Security Are ‘Essentially On Their Own’
There is something a bit unnerving about installing high-tech security upgrades on elementary school campuses. But in 2013, the FBI explicitly said that schools must “play a key role” in mitigating the outcome of active shooter situations — if only because of how quickly the events unfold.
According to one study, the median time for shootings is about three minutes, the vast majority stopped within nine minutes. At the same time, police take on average three minutes to arrive on scene, and another several minutes to locate and stop the shooter. “This means that for at least the first several minutes of an attack, the potential victims are essentially on their own,” the study added.
The conservative solution to this is that schools must put more guns directly inside the school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre famously said following the Sandy Hook massacre, before calling on Congress to put armed police officers in every American school.
But there are potential pitfalls to that, Wooldridge notes. For one, law enforcement has no way to know who is the “good guy” and the “bad guy,” and the need to act quickly can result in deadly confusion. And there has been little discussion of liability if a non-law-enforcement officer accidentally shoots a child, or if a child accidentally gets hold of the “good guy’s” gun.
In addition, law enforcement budgets would have likely have to be increased to pay for increased capacity of police officers patrolling schools. That increased cost would be recurring — personnel costs would never go away, so long as officers remained in school. By contrast, a government investment in a security system would eventually be paid off.
Do High-Tech Security Systems Really Solve The Problem?
In the months following Sandy Hook, President Obama signed numerous executive orders to develop model emergency response plans for schools and provide $30 million in grants for schools to develop their own plans, among other things. But there has been no effort to create a nationwide standard for public learning institutions when it comes to active shooter response.
“Nationally, there’s nothing being done to create standards of safety,” Wooldridge said. “But in Indiana, they are doing all those things.”
It’s likely that the idea would receive pushback from conservative groups, which generally advocate a state or local approach. In comments to the conservative Daily Signal, for example, the Heritage Foundation’s education fellow Lindsey Burke said initiatives like Indiana’s shouldn’t be handled by the federal government.
If national standards aren’t acquired, however, it will be up to school districts themselves to decide whether to invest in these measures — and with the high costs, it’s likely that they would be implemented mostly in predominantly-white suburban schools. Indeed, the small Southwestern High School is 97 percent white, and the median income level is above the state’s average.
And in a way, aggressive school safety measures only reinforce the notion that school shootings are, as Donald Trump said, inevitable. With that point, for now, Wooldridge agreed. But not entirely.
“He’s right that no time soon can we stop these events from happening, but he was false because they are able to be mitigated, and they are able to be stopped once started,” he said. “The gun debate will always be there. Let’s continue it, but in the meantime, there are real actionable steps we can take to make sure these events are mitigated in the future. There are commonsense ways to make our schools safer while we make these laws.”