Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Tanks, Armor, and Hello Kitty Backpacks: Re-evaluating Technologies to Counter School Shootings

By Elizabeth ZelkoPublished November 9, 2014

As concern grows over the increase in scale of school shootings over the last 5 years, and the fight for gun control continues to gain little headway, many schools are searching for an alternate solution or tool to help stem the flow of violence. Some companies have stepped up to the plate, using the resources and technologies at their disposal, with varying degrees of effectiveness, to create their own brands of technological solutions.
By Elizabeth Zelko, 11/9/14

Despite political deadlock regarding gun control, there is a general consensus among the American public that further measures need to be taken to prevent and combat future school shootings. While the debate over arming schools or enacting stricter gun control legislation continues, some opportunistic companies are taking matters into their own hands and finding ways to capitalize on the desperation of parents and schools alike by offering their own solutions. One such example is bulletproof school supplies. Such supplies include clipboards, backpack liners, and whiteboards made from Dyneema, the same lightweight material used for armored military vehicles in Afghanistan and SWAT team shields. According to Hardwire, a company which specializes in armor for law enforcement and military purposes, such products are able to "absorb… multiple magazines of ammunition from handguns or shotguns without ricochet or injury."

Hardwire's website also boasts a selection of six Easter-egg hue colors and features photos of a teacher brandishing a trigonometry-adorned whiteboard as a shield. The description of the backpack insert includes the following reassuring words: "You never want to be in a situation when you are threatened by gunfire, however, if you are, you'll have a chance with a Ballistic Backpack Insert covering your back." Such an endorsement could easily be accompanied by the image of man with an appropriately (or in this case inappropriately) cheesy smile, sporting a JanSport and giving two thumbs up in the most stereotypical infomercial scene. School districts in Minnesota, Maryland and North Dakota spent upwards of $25,000 to outfit their schools with Hardwire's bulletproof equipment.

 This is a particularly striking example of a wholly un-productive use of technology, of applying an innovation intended to protect soldiers from machine-gun fire at the hands of highly organized terrorist groups to something as common-place and unsuspecting as a child's backpack. Not only are such companies profiting from the fear perpetuated by previous school shootings, they are also escalating this fear by making schools and parents believe that such shootings are likely enough to occur to merit purchasing such a product, when in reality they are very rare. In addition, many feel that militarizing schools will only invite future shootings. However, this is not to say that technology shouldn't and can't be used in an effective and pro-active manner in order to prevent school violence.

Another solution that has been proposed and implemented in several school districts is monitoring the social media usage and browsing history of students. Such methods are being used to detect instances of cyber-bullying in addition to activity that might indicate that an individual poses a threat to the school or to other students. There have been many occasions where individuals who went on to commit violent crimes in schools had visited suspicious websites or maintained sites of their own demonstrating violent inclinations or sporting manifestos. Several school districts have contracted out to private firms that provide monitoring services and inform schools about students that could be in need of serious help. Such methods have already been proven successful in preventing suicides and ending instances of cyberbullying. Thus, it is possible that they might prove equally successful in identifying threats.

Nonetheless, there are concerns that such monitoring is too intrusive and comes perilously close to trampling free speech. To prevent students' rights from being violated, local governments could establish guidelines and restrictions on what such companies can and cannot monitor, particularly in regards to preventing schools from censoring students. Furthermore, districts that decide to employ such technologies could work both with the companies carrying out surveillance and with school psychologists to better identify worrying behavior in an effort to limit the extent of prying into students' lives. With the appropriate strategy and implementation, such a program could be an effective mechanism to prevent future school violence.