Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
In January 2020, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District updated its security protocols. As the Texas Tribune reports, the $69,000 it received that year was part of a $100 million state grant intended to “harden” schools across Texas following the shooting that killed ten people at Santa Fe High School. Governor Greg Abbott called the funding part of an unprecedented effort “to make schools safer places for our students, for our educators, for our parents and families.” That summer in Uvalde, police officers swept hallways in active-shooter drills. The city’s SWAT team was brought in to map layouts. Law-enforcement departments prepared to transform schools into fortresses at a moment’s notice. The chief of the school district’s police force called the exercises “very successful,” according to documents obtained by the New York Times.
On Tuesday, 19 children and two teachers were killed inside their classroom at Robb Elementary by an 18-year-old armed with an AR15-style rifle. Uvalde police and federal officers, once at the scene, waited nearly an hour before confronting the shooter to end the killing. In the aftermath, Republicans have called for more of the same interventions that failed to keep children safe at Robb Elementary. Ted Cruz and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick blamed doors. A former Trump official told the Washington Post that schools were targets because shooters would “always use the path of least resistance” and that more was needed to “invest in their campus security.”
In the absence of any meaningful legislative effort to regulate gun ownership or the volume of guns in circulation, many schools, like those in Uvalde, have indeed heeded the calls to transform into something closer to security bunkers, often with the aid 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-security industry has billions of dollars in public contracts to show for its efforts but not much in the way of evidence that it makes kids safer.
School hardening is the latest and most tragically American development in the discipline of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. The school of thinking has surprisingly progressive origins: The core idea came from urbanist Jane Jacobs, whose theory of “eyes on the street” explained why vibrant, people-filled urban spaces were safer than vacant ones. Instead of pushing for safety through fostering 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 ties that in turn discourage harmful behavior, mainstream urbanists, criminologists, and design professionals focused on making the urban landscape hostile to unhoused people and impervious to breach by perceived outsiders through “security walls, guarded entries, private police, and even private roadways.” Police were brought in to the urban-planning and architectural process. In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Los Angeles Times noted that many businesses in the city were being comprehensively redesigned as “high tech riot-proof” citadels.
But it was around the turn of the 21st century that the field truly ballooned and expanded to schools. Before Columbine, school security focused more on preventing petty vandalism and drug use. As one consultant wrote in a trade journal, early interventions were low tech and limited in scope: Schools began “chaining their secondary exits against intruders and then focusing on the problem relating to night-time vandalism and theft of visual-aid equipment.” The idea was to protect the building. That changed after the twin traumas of the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, and 9/11. Bill Clinton made tens of millions of dollars available to schools to beef up security. 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 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 $3 billion industry. Video surveillance has become ubiquitous: The share of schools with CCTV jumped from 19 percent in 1999 to almost 84 percent in 2018.
A trade group, the School Safety Advocacy Council, now hosts an annual convention devoted to hardening campuses, at which vendors hawk instructional products that double as tactical defense, such as bulletproof white boards, and “ballistic shelters,” in which students can supposedly wait out a shooter. The organization also holds a spinoff conference focused just on “active threats,” with keynote addresses from school administrators and police officers who have dealt with school shootings firsthand. Interest in the conferences exploded in 2018 following the Parkland shooting, and Congress passed a bill written by industry lobbyists that made $350 million available for even more security spending. In this way, criticism that Congress does “nothing” in the wake of school shootings isn’t entirely true: In a rare show of bipartisanship, it pours hundreds of millions of dollars into an effort to turn American schools into something closer to high-security prisons.
This effort to reshape the physical school environment to resist shootings reached its apotheosis in the rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School. The new $50 million building features automatically dead-bolting doors, extra-hardened bulletproof glass windows, and a layout that maximizes surveillance of visitors.
But there is precious little evidence that any of this stuff makes schools safer or prevents shootings. A review by the National Association of School Psychologists found no research showing that security technology actually reduces violence, while highly visible security measures contribute to students’ feelings of danger and unease.
Even officials from the School Safety Advocacy Council acknowledge that a lot of the hardening efforts are half-baked. After the Parkland shooting, the group’s director told the New York Times, “There’s going to be a lot of appropriations dollars being sent to school districts without a lot of oversight … There are no national standards in terms of products for school safety.”
And the focus on hardening schools with design and technology to resist shootings can take attention and resources away from identifying risks and preventing attacks in the first place. As one school-security expert explained, “A skewed focus on target hardening neglects the time and resources needed to spend on professional development training, planning, behavioral and mental health intervention supports for students.” Texas’s governor has slashed public dollars for mental health, and the state ranks dead last in access to mental-health care.
In the end, school-hardening efforts are work-arounds to avoid the much more obviously effective but politically difficult task of dealing with the deluge of guns in the United States. This can’t be done by tossing schools some money that ultimately gets passed on to contractors or police budgets — it requires changing laws, regulating the gun industry, and swiftly intervening 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 file for such an order.
A school’s design, no matter how “hardened,” can only mitigate so much harm once the shooting starts. But that won’t stop certain lawmakers from pushing for more of these failed efforts. In Uvalde, Abbott called the 2019 spending package that gave the school district money for its ultimately failed security plan “one of the most profound legislative sessions, not just in Texas but in any state to address school shooting,” and a model for future action. Texas can expect a repeat of past practices to produce similar results.