When crazy comes to school

As the nation debates school safety in the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, two jurisdictions and one company were not satisfied to sit around and wait for an answer. Both elementary schools in Simpsonville, South Carolina and in Jordan, Minnesota, the elementary, middle and high school have moved officers inside. Several other schools have put ballistic whiteboards in the hands of their facility. All of these solutions are designed to put measures in place right now to help protect the nation’s schoolchildren.

Not an SRO

“After the shooting in Sandy Hook, we started trying to think of a way to improve security for the elementary schools, because people were concerned,” explains Chief Steve Moore, Simpsonville Police Department. First, the department added extra patrols, but that wasn’t enough. Now located inside the elementary schools, Officer Justin Chandler and Robert Parker are not primary responders. Chandler handles a lot of clerical work, statistics and reports. Due to this, all he needed to work out of Plain Elementary was a desk and wireless Internet. Parker is the department’s property and evidence tech. He attends more meetings at the police department but while not there, he works from Simpsonville Elementary School.

Jordan Police Department went a step further making some structural changes to give the officers offices, including the chief who has an office with a very large picture window looking out at the entrance, giving him eyes on everyone coming and going. Once some computer issues are worked out, Chief Bob Malz anticipates being fully ready at the school by the time spring break ends.

Bulletproof teaching tools

Another aspect of school safety came in the form of a teaching tool. Hardwire LLC manufactures ballistic equipment for the military and law enforcement and saw a need to bring safety tools into the classroom. “I heard about Sandy Hook after a business trip,” explains CEO George Tunis. He was sitting with his 12-year old son watching the footage two or three days later. “It was so striking,” he explains. “I remember the image of one particular father. My son and I looked at each other and said, ‘We need to do something about this.’”

Tunis realized his company needed to come up with a product that would give the adults a fighting chance. First, he talked to other parents, and then partnered up with the headmaster at Worchester Preparatory School where his children attend. They brought the idea to the school security board. “They wanted to know when we could do it,” Tunis explains.

In three days, Tunis presented the school with lightweight, 18-inch by 20-inch bulletproof whiteboards that could absorb multiple magazines of ammunition from any handgun or shotgun without ricochet or injury. The 3.7-pound boards are light enough that even a small teacher could hold on to it. “It’s the same weight as a 9-millimeter Berretta. [The kick] is equivalent to a little leaguer throwing a 45-mph ball at you. It’s nothing.” As part of the training they offer, Hardwire uses a shock simulator. “We have the teachers hold the shield,” Tunis says. “It shows them they can do it easily. It’s not going to knock them down and spin them around three times.”

On September 24, 2003, Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn. became another tragic statistic. Chief Phil Jones was one of the first on scene that day. “It had such a profound impact on me and our community,” he states. “Our schools and our churches are two places we consider sacred. We send our children off to school and assume they will be safe. That day, driving away from the scene, I realized that wasn’t the case. We needed to do something about that.”

After the shooting, Jones read all the reports, went to lectures and talked to experts searching for a solution. “The problem is that no one has come up with a viable solution,” he explains. “I’ve heard President Bush talk about it and President Obama talk about it, but no one is coming up with a solution.” Then Jones heard about Hardwire’s product. “It was too good to believe so I had to have one,” he explains. “I had to feel it, weigh it and write on it. I had to shoot the hell out of it. I shot it full of 9 millimeters and 40 calibers. I went up to a 44 magnum super mag. I couldn’t penetrate this thing.” Now Jones is on a crusade to get whiteboards everywhere in the schools. “I want one in every classroom. I want every cook to have it. I want every janitor to have one. This product is unbelievable. It’s amazing.”

These solutions impact school safety for a number of reasons. Two main aspects are they add layers and can be implemented immediately.

Like an onion (or a parfait)

Adding police officers to the school and giving ballistic whiteboards to teachers adds layers to school safety. “Layers of defense are a tried and true method,” says Tunis. “Working with the Army, we’ve learned to work with the people out, not the perimeter in.” First you need to protect the inside then work out to doors, security cameras and reaching into the community to change things. “We’re not asking you to become Captain America and run into the hallway,” Tunis explains. “It’s the last line of defense and the ability to buy time for first responders.” Equip, empower and get back to educating, he says.

Another aspect to layering protection comes from the law enforcement standpoint. Officers have told Tunis, “We don’t want to see more guns as we come in. It’s hard enough to know who the bad guy is.” The teachers and students are trained in positioning themselves for optimum protection. “Five teachers and five shields coming down the hallway with students behind them, and five more teachers and five shields behind them would be very formidable,” states Tunis.

“We do feel law enforcement support is very important for this idea to grow,” Tunis explains. “Since Sandy Hook, the gun control debates are going on and it will take a long time to implement any solutions. We have to buy law enforcement time, and adding these layers of defense will buy the teachers and students time to survive. It gives them a fighting chance. It gives the officers a safer environment to respond to. It’s about getting those kids safe and giving those first responders a corridor of safety.” Currently Hardwire has whiteboards in or going into schools throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and Maryland.

Right now!

Officer Chandler first brought the idea of working out of the school to the School Improvement Council (SIC) which is made up of parents, administrators and other leaders. While the community considered the idea, Chief Moore needed to get permissions as well. “Because it didn’t require any structural changes or additional pay, all I really needed to do was let [the city administrator] know what was going on and get his ideas as well.” Chief Malz agreed putting officers in the school was an immediate solution that made sense in his community. “I simply believed we needed to take it upon ourselves to find out what was right for our community,” he explained.

Hardwire’s whiteboards are another immediate solution. “One of the keys to any solution is it has to be immediate,” explains Tunis. “From the first time I heard about IEDs over in Iraq, it was almost a year before we offered solutions. A lot of guys got killed in that year.”

Although the small and medium whiteboards are readily available, some schools want something a little different like in Wicomico County (Maryland). “We started talking about the ballistic boards and also how we could expand on them, using them on doors and creating walls in areas that don’t have walls,” explains Andy Turner, Coordinator for Safe Schools, Wicomico County Board of Education. “We have elementary schools that have a 1970s open-space model. When we talk about our lock-down drills in those areas our kids have nowhere to hide. No way to defend themselves. What we’re designing with Hardwire will make us less vulnerable on the inside.”

Making it happen

Although very few concerns have been expressed, funding is always a factor. Wicomico’s whiteboards and Hardwire structural improvements will be funded in a variety of ways, including a $25,000 donation, Safe Schools money designated through the governor’s office and the general fund.

“Money is tight,” Turner says. “We’re going to try and phase it in every year until we get all of our schools covered.” Hardwire donated all the whiteboards at Worchester Prep. In the case of Jordan, the school district agreed to pay for all the associated costs of putting the officers in. Simpsonville implemented their changes at no cost to the community.

Jones states he works hard on public/private partnerships, which is how he is helping to pay for some of the boards which run $299 each. “We had a jump start by Cold Spring Granite Company, who donated 75 boards. I’m finding nothing but interest wherever I go.” Jones says finding the money and crusading to get the boards in every classroom at every school is an honor for him. “I’ve been through a school shooting. I know what it feels like. I know what it does to people. I know what it does to a community. It made me question if I’m doing my job. Something has to be done and Hardwire has given us a viable solution.”

Having officers work out of the schools makes sense in both Simpsonville and Jordan, but both are relatively small towns. Moore’s advice to other agencies who might want to explore the same idea, especially those with larger jurisdictions, is to look at what an officer does and make sure he or she would have enough time to be in the school. He suggests maybe a supervisor doing paperwork could work. Malz agrees and adds, “I do believe that in order for this initiative to have a chance, all egos and territorial control issues need to be set aside. I was very fortunate to be able to work with several individuals in key positions that were able to make the safety of the children in our community their number one priority.”

Every jurisdiction can look at their community needs and know there are real solutions adding layers to their school safety readily available. “If a school buys these and nothing happens for a hundred years, for a hundred years they know they could have used them,” Jones explains. “If something does happen, they don’t have to just sit and watch children be picked off.”

Although Malz offers no guarantee that putting an officer in the school will prevent shootings, he feels doing nothing is unacceptable. Turner sums it up. “The one thing we can’t guard against is crazy,” he says. “What we’re hoping for with Hardwire’s products is that when crazy comes we’ll be more prepared to handle it.” So will Jordan, Simpsonville and all the agencies implementing solutions for school safety.

 

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000, and has worked for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University.

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