Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
In January 2020, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District updated its safety protocols. Like Texas Grandstand reports, the $69,000 he received that year was part of a $100 million state grant intended to “strengthen” Texas schools following the shooting that killed ten people in Santa Fe High School Governor Greg Abbott called the funding an unprecedented effort “to make schools safer places for our students, for our educators, for our parents and our families.” That summer, in Uvalde, police swept the corridors during active shooting exercises. The city’s SWAT team was brought in to lay out the maps. Law enforcement is gearing up to turn schools into fortresses in the blink of an eye. The school district’s police chief called the drills “very successful,” according to documents obtained by the New York Time.
On Tuesday, 19 children and two teachers were killed in their classroom at Robb Elementary by an 18-year-old armed with an AR15 type rifle. Police and federal agents from Uvalde, once at the scene, waited nearly an hour before confronting the shooter to end the murder. In the aftermath, Republicans called for more of the same interventions that failed to keep kids safe at Robb Elementary. Ted Cruz and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick blamed the gates. A former Trump official told Washington Job that schools were targets because shooters “always used the path of least resistance” and that more was needed to “invest in their campus security.”
In the absence of any significant legislative effort to regulate the possession of firearms or the volume of weapons in circulation, many schools, like those in Uvalde, have indeed responded to calls to transform into something more akin to security bunkers, often with the help of federal dollars. This drive to reshape schools so they are less vulnerable to mass shootings has spawned an industry of design consultants, technology companies and security professionals. The school safety industry has billions of dollars in government contracts to show for its efforts, but not much evidence that it makes children safer.
Academic hardening is the most recent and tragically American development in the discipline of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. The school of thought has surprisingly progressive origins: the central idea came from urban planner Jane Jacobs, whose ‘eyes on the street’ theory explained why vibrant, people-filled urban spaces were safer than vacant ones. . Instead of pushing for safety by promoting community, as Jacobs envisioned in 1961, the late 20th century instead saw the rise of what social critic Mike Davis dubbed the “militarization of urban space.“Instead of trying to encourage social bonds which in turn discourage harmful behavior, traditional urban planners, criminologists and design professionals have focused on making the urban landscape hostile to homeless people and impermeable to violation by perceived strangers through “security walls, guarded entrances, private police, and even private roads. The police have been involved in the process of urban planning and architecture. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the Los Angeles Time noted that many of the city’s businesses were being completely redesigned as “high-tech riot control” citadels.
But it was at the turn of the 21st century that the field has really exploded and spread to schools. Prior to Columbine, school safety focused more on preventing petty vandalism and drug use. As a consultant wrote in a specialized journal, the first interventions were low-tech and limited in scope: the schools began to “chain their secondary sorties against the intruders, then to focus on the problem linked to night vandalism and the theft of equipment from visual aid”. The idea was to protect the building. That changed after the twin traumas of the Littleton, Colorado, and 9/11 massacre. Bill Clinton did tens of millions of dollars available to schools to enhance safety. In 2003, at the height of the War on Terror, the newly created Department of Homeland Security pumped $350 million into local schools to hire on-site law enforcement and purchase surveillance systems and other security systems.
Nearly two decades later, around the time of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, school security had become a A $3 billion industry. CCTV has become ubiquitous: The share of schools equipped with video surveillance has increased from 19% in 1999 to nearly 84% in 2018.
A professional group, the School Safety Advocacy Council, now hosts an annual convention devoted to strengthening campuses, on which vendors sell educational products that also serve as tactical defense, such as bulletproof whiteboards, and “ballistic shelters”, in which students can supposedly wait for a shooter. The organization also holds a spin-off conference focused only on “active threats” with keynote speeches from school administrators and police officers who have come directly into contact with school shootings. Interest in conferences exploded in 2018 after the Parkland shootings, and Congress passed an industry-drafted bill lobbyists who made $350 million available for even more security expenses. In this way, the criticism that Congress is doing “nothing” in the wake of the school shootings isn’t quite true: In a rare show of bipartisanship, it’s pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an effort to transform American schools into something closer to high school. security prisons.
This effort to reshape the school’s physical environment to withstand shootings culminated in the rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School. New 50 million dollar building features self-locking doors, extra-toughened bulletproof glass windows, and a layout that maximizes visitor surveillance.
But there is precious little evidence that any of this makes schools safer or prevents shootings. A review by the National Association of School Psychologists found no research showing that safety technology actually reduces violence, while highly visible safety measures contribute to students’ feelings of danger and unease.
Even officials at the School Safety Advocacy Council acknowledge that much of the reinforcement effort is half-baked. After the Parkland shooting, the group’s director told the New York Time“There’s going to be a lot of credit dollars going to school districts without much oversight…There are no national standards in terms of school safety products.”
And the focus on bolstering schools with design and technology to withstand fire can divert attention and resources from identifying risks and preventing attacks in the first place. As a school safety expert Explain, “A skewed focus on strengthening targets overlooks the time and resources needed to devote to professional development training, planning, behavioral and mental health interventions for students.” The Governor of Texas has cutting public funds for mental healthand the state ranks dead last for access to mental health care.
Ultimately, school-hardening efforts are workarounds to avoid the much more obviously effective but politically difficult task of dealing with the deluge of guns in the United States. This cannot be done by throwing money at schools that ultimately gets passed on to contractors or police budgets – it requires changing laws, regulating the gun industry and acting quickly when people make threats. For instance, only a handful of states have so-called “red flag” laws that allow courts to seize weapons from people threatening to commit harm, and of those that do, even fewer allow school officials to seek such an order.
The design of a school, no matter how “hardened” it is, can only mitigate so much damage once filming begins. But that won’t stop some lawmakers from pushing for more of these failed efforts. In Uvalde, Abbott called the 2019 spending package which gave the school district money for its ultimately failed safety plan for “one of the deepest legislative sessions, not just in Texas but in any state to address school shootings”, and a model for future action. Texas can expect a repeat of past practices to produce similar results.