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The Protection Industry Wins When Politicians Duck Gun Control

March 5, 2018

Over the past few days I read several articles describing the boost in sales in protective devices and protective training for schools and the proposals in nearly every state to  increase the number of School Resource Officers. While some of these ideas have a degree of merit, in each case they underscore the reality that “hardening” schools as targets will not guarantee safety, will not change the behavior between students in schools, and are not the best place to spend money.

In Delaware, the GOP legislators won’t talk about obvious measures that might make it difficult for people to purchase military style weapons designed to kill large numbers of people but WDEL reports that they are willing to appropriate $315,000 to install at least one “panic button” in each school and set aside funds to create the “Delaware School Safety and Security Fund,” a competitive grant program that would issue awards of up to $50,000 per school to address unresolved security issues. In keeping with GOP and neoliberal thinking about government spending, GOP Rep. Short assured the public that “the competitive nature of the program will require schools to consider their most pressing needs and will award funding to facilitate projects that better protect students and teachers.” The implication in this statement is that if the funds were given to the State Department of Education to allocate it would not require schools to consider their most pressing needs and would NOT mete out funds in a way that would effectively identify projects that “protect students and teachers”.

In Ohio, Samantha Ickes, an independent reporter for CantonRep.com, reported on the use of metal detectors in school districts in Stark County, Ohio…. and the facts in the story do not provide a compelling argument for the devices:

Mark Williamson, director of marketing and communications (for Akron public schools), said two guns have been confiscated in the last four years. However, these weapons were not found using the metal detectors.

Students are checked at random times — not always at the beginning of the school day. The only buildings using the metal detectors daily are the alternative buildings, Williamson said.

Most of the schools are not using permanent metal detectors because Williamson said it isn’t practical. Ellet High School, for example, has more than 1,000 students in one building. Williamson said it would cause an issue with getting students into the building and to class on time.

So… metal detectors did not identify the only instances where guns were confiscated from students and the administrators in one of the larger districts in Ohio have concluded they are not practical. Why, then, would schools consider spending $4,000 to $5,000 on portable metal detectors and $150 for wands and who-knows-how-much for the staff to monitor the protectors and use the wands? Because they need to “do something” but that something couldn’t possibly restrict anyone’s right to buy any kind of weapon and couldn’t involve hiring more staff because that would be “throwing money at the problem”. The result of needing to do something tangible is that parents are banding together via social media to promote the idea of spending thousands of dollars on metal detectors.

The NYTimes Tiffany Hsu looked at the school protection industry in a cold-blooded fashion in an article in yesterday’s business section titled Threat of Shootings Turns School Security into a Growth Industry. The article opens with these two paragraphs the highlight everything that is wrong with these “hardening”solutions:

The best way to shield a school from a gunman is to have a metal detector. Or doors that can be remotely locked. Or Twitter-trawling bots looking for threats. Or bulletproof clipboards, whiteboards and backpacks.

So says the fast-growing group of companies that sell school safety equipment. They have ramped up their marketing to school safety officials in the wake of the shooting last month at a high school in Parkland, Fla. But even as school districts rethink their security and seek to increase their budgets, they have little guidance from government agencies or independent consumer groups on which equipment would actually protect their students.

The lack of government regulations in school and student protection mirrors the lack of government regulation sought by gun owners… and the lack of government regulation sought by GOP legislators across the country. And the result is the widespread purchase of snake oil… and the lack of oversight on how billions of dollars have been and will be spent:

Last year, sales of security equipment and services to the education sector reached $2.7 billion, up from $2.5 billion in 2015, according to data from IHS Markit. After the Parkland shooting, demand is surging.

“Right now, there’s going to be a lot of appropriations dollars being sent to school districts without a lot of oversight,” said Curtis S. Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, a training provider. “There are no national standards in terms of products for school safety.

And the protection industry wants to keep it that way so they can profit from the fears generated by the school shootings that are statistically isolated events but widely publicized and occurring in a variety of locales. And the protection industry is on the verge of receiving billions in sales by capitalizing on the horrific shootings. The closing paragraphs of Ms. Hsu’s article describe what will take place in Florida:

The school district, the fourth largest in the country, currently receives $9.5 million from Florida to keep its campuses safe. But now the superintendent, school board chairwoman, mayor and other leaders are asking for an additional $30 million for “qualified human resources, artificial intelligence and technology based strategies,” according to a letter sent to state lawmakers last month.

Miami-Dade’s plan includes video surveillance networks, automatically locking doors, digital floor plans, broad mass communications systems and ballistics-resistant windows. The county also wants more school resources officers and mental health services.

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, spoke to reporters about the need to fund school safety programs.

“We’ve got to invest in metal detectors, we’ve got to invest in bulletproof glass, we’ve got to invest in steel doors, we’ve got to invest in upgraded locks,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that somebody that wants to harm any one of our students can never do it again.”

And the saddest part of this spending frenzy, as highlighted earlier in the article, is that no one knows whether any of these measures make any difference whatsoever:

New companies are being formed to take advantage of the growing demand, people in the industry said. Businesses that had offered visitor management services and gunshot recognition software to hospitals and stadiums are now focusing more on schools. Military and law enforcement consultants are adding principals and superintendents to their rosters.

But Heather L. Schwartz, who has studied safety technology for the RAND Corporation, said that research into what actually works is “really thin.”

There’s not a lot of evidence to help districts sort through the pile before investing in costly systems,” she said. “There’s a lot of hunger for some authoritative third-party source to go out and review these options.”

If schools sought $30,000,000 for counselors or teamed with social service agencies to expand mental health services into schools the GOP would claim they were “throwing money” at the problem. But if the funds are used to increase “video surveillance networks, automatically locking doors, digital floor plans, broad mass communications systems and ballistics-resistant windows” it would be deemed a good investment.

I recently attended a meeting where the Hanover Police presented their budget for the coming year and noted that they were seeking funds to develop a “soft interview space” for victims of crime. The police chief cited research that showed that such spaces created a comfortable environment for the victims, especially those who were victims of domestic or sexual violence. The presentation featured a picture contrasting the typical sterile interview room with the “softer” version. I wholeheartedly endorse this use research-based use of my tax dollars… but could not help but note the irony in the police chief seeking funds to soften his work space at the same time as our President and most State legislators are seeking ways to “harden” our schools despite the fact that the research into “what actually works is ‘really thin'”. What if we took a page from the Hanover Police and spent millions to soften the schools by hiring greeters instead of SROs and giving every teacher a small grant to “soften” their classrooms to make them more inviting. That, it seems to me, would be a better way to “throw money” at the problem.

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