Thursday, August 16, 2018
Nation & World

So it’s on to high school now. Here’s a bullet shield for your backpack

As the school year wound down this week at St. Cornelius Catholic School in Chadds Ford, Pa., eighth-grade students were handed a gift meant to prepare them for their transition to high school: a bullet-resistant shield that can fit in their backpacks.

"It is their life now, which is very sad," Barbara Rosini, the school principal, said in an interview Tuesday. "But if it is something that will help keep our kids, or any child or any adult, safe, that is unfortunately where we are now."

"I never thought I would need this," Jacob Nicosia, one of the students graduating Tuesday, told a local television station during the distribution event Monday.

The small private school in a small semirural community west of Philadelphia, with several hundred students from prekindergarten through middle school, is not alone in its attempt to address the multiple school shootings over the years.

Since a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide, according to an analysis in February of figures provided by the Gun Violence Archive. In those episodes, 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed.

As more schools try to tighten security in response to school shootings, educators, legislators and some parents are considering military-style gear as much a part of safety routines as other precautions, such as lockdown drills and metal detectors.

On May 23, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana signed a bill into law allowing students to wear bulletproof backpacks in schools. That gun bill was one of several filed after 17 people were killed on Feb. 14 in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

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Other schools are considering new safety measures, such as covering windows with resistant film or installing metal detectors — all steps that have their own vulnerabilities.

The idea that the nation’s schools should give out bullet-resistant gear, rather than take other measures, points to a lack of action by legislators, gun control advocates say.

"We should never tolerate an America where we make children protect themselves while letting elected officials get away with doing nothing," said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, a gun control group founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011.

Others say it is misguided.

"I have never recommended it in my business at all," Curtis S. Lavarello, the executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, a training provider, said of bulletproof backpacks. "I think it creates a false sense of security for the student and the school itself."

Lavarello, whose work takes him to up to 300 campuses a year, said improving communication strategies, like anonymous texting, with students was a better approach to school safety.

"Honestly, it is probably a sad statement that it sounds as though we are going to start equipping students as we do law enforcement officers," he said. "I would prefer to see money in areas with better results."

Companies have ramped up their marketing to school safety officials in the wake of the Parkland shooting in particular. But school districts have little guidance from government agencies or independent consumer groups on which equipment would actually protect their students.

Rosini, the St. Cornelius principal, said the school already had special bolts on doors and conducted lockdown drills. She said she discussed the idea of bullet-resistant gear with Robert Vito, whose daughters attend the school, about a year ago because his Unequal Technologies Co. makes protective gear for athletes, law enforcement officers and professional stunt performers.

In an assembly Monday, Vito presented the shields, which were tested at military laboratories and are known as SafeShields, to 15 students and 25 faculty members. A shield would not resist an AR-15 bullet, but it has been tested to stop handgun bullets and shotgun shells, as well as provide protection against stabbing, he said in an interview.

Vito’s 14-year-old daughter is among those graduating Tuesday who received the donated SafeShields. Made of a Kevlar composite, they measure about 10 inches by 12 inches and weigh about as much as two 8-ounce cans of soda.

"Sadly, this is the sign of the times," Vito said. "The parents have to take responsibility for their child’s safety."

Vito said the company was talking to schools in Atlanta and Texas about supplying the shields, which could cost $99 each for schools and be passed from graduating to incoming students "like a textbook."

"This is not the only solution," Vito said. "This is part of it."

Tammy Brogan, a teacher at the school, said she showed her 9-year-old daughter, Juliana, a student there, how to slip one of the shields into her school bag, making room for it among the books and a water bottle.

"She took it," Brogan said. But, she added, "I don’t know if she fully understands the impact."

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