The products are a godsend for some, yet others are targeting the company for profiting off tragedy.
In 2003, a 17-year-old student in a rural Minnesota community walked into his high school armed with a .22 caliber pistol and hunted down two of his classmates, killing one with a shot to the head and another with a shot to the chest.
Ten years after the carnage caused by Jason McLaughlin, who has since been sentenced to life in prison, the community of Cold Spring, Minn. and its Rocori School District have watched the nation fall victim to one mass shooting after another, reaching a tipping point with the Newtown, Conn., shootings that killed more than 20 elementary schoolchildren.
Like any school searching for a cure to the gun-fueled madness, Rocori School District attempted to think outside the box in coming up with solutions that would provide comfort to students and teachers still living with anxiety in the classroom.
The district and local law enforcement found that solution in what some are deeming as an unusual way — rather than arming teachers as some schools throughout the nation have opted for, they’ve purchased bullet-proof whiteboards.
Rocori is the second school in the nation to opt for the white board protection. The Worcester Preparatory School in Maryland was given 90 whiteboards — a value of $20,000 — by Hardwire, the company producing the product. Hardwire CEO George Tunis’ children attend the prep school.
The creator of the military-style whiteboards advertises its product with the photograph of a young, blonde teacher using the board to illustrate a geometry lesson — but all the while, her left hand grips the handles fastened behind the board. She’s ready for anything.
Yet for some, the image of safety the whiteboard depicts is emotional, rather than practical.
“Is the teacher going to use the bulletproof whiteboard as a Captain America in the classroom to deflect bullets?” Kenneth Trump, school safety expert with National School Safety and Security Services told Mint Press News. “Are the teachers going to pick up the white board and carry it to the back of the room to a child’s desk when she goes to help him with a math problem or some class work?”
A new era, a new market
“The timing was right,” Rocori School Board Chairwoman Nadine Schnettler told National Public Radio (NPR), speaking to the district’s choice to take action following the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
That timing spurred Rocori District into action in a very different direction than was taken in South Dakota, where legislation allowing school employees to carry guns in school was signed into law in March by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Rocori wasn’t ready to go that far, but those haunted with the memories of the 2003 tragedy felt compelled to do something.
Cold Spring’s Police Chief Phil Jones, who responded to the 2003 shootings, spurred the purchase of the whiteboards, painting a picture of them as a method of protection, an offensive weapon and a tool for creating distractions for potential shooters in a new age of school warfare.
“Everyone says, ‘It can’t happen to me.’ Well, it happened to us … the war is on,” Jones said in an interview with Mint Press News.
A shield of armor or comfort?
The white boards work like this: Each 18-by-20-inch white board serves as a shield for teachers and personnel, all of whom will be trained by former secret service agents. A teacher can easily hold aloft the white board with two handles on its back, providing an opportunity to fight off bullets and perhaps provide more time for law enforcement to respond while distracting the shooter.
“As teachers are doing their daily lesson plans, it’s in their hands,” Tunis told USA Today. “Teachers are not first responders, but sometimes they’re thrust into that role.”
Coming in at a cost of $300 each, the Rocori District purchased $25,000 worth — through a company that creates armor typically used by law enforcement and military personnel.
The move has been applauded by law enforcement officials in the community who see the new “tool” as a means for protection should a 2003-type act of violence ever take place again, yet it’s received its fair share of criticism too, sparking critical editorials in surrounding community newspapers accusing the district of being short-sighted.
“The central Minnesota community never saw it coming, just like the Newtown, Mass., school didn’t anticipate their shootings — and every other school before that that has suffered such a tragedy,” reads an editorial published in Minnesota’s Mankato Free Press. “But turning whiteboards into bulletproof shields isn’t the tactic that is going to protect students and staff. School security experts say that arming school personnel and introducing protective equipment … are extreme tactics that give a false sense of security. What’s next — 6-inch-thick lunch trays?”
That attitude frustrates Jones, who was the only officer on duty to respond to the 2003 shootings. From where he sits, the white boards are more than just a means of protection for teachers. Teachers and personnel will be trained to use the boards as offensive weapons capable of taking down a shooter, if applied effectively.
“I could take somebody out nine ways to Sunday with this board,” Jones said.
The white boards also could provide another second on the clock for law enforcement, Jones said. And perhaps equally as important, they could give comfort and a sense of safety to teachers and students who find themselves in lockdown situations similar to those that occurred in 2003. In that instance, teachers and students were held in lockdown for as long as an hour and a half — without protection, without noise, without answers to what was happening outside.
A decade after the Rocori shootings, Jones and colleagues are still reminded by those who survived in lockdown that emotional and mental problems persist — the feeling of helplessness is hard to shake.
“We heard it loud and clear from teachers and students: ‘How dare you leave us in lockdown that long (with no defense),” Jones said.
Hardwire — bulletproofing schools
Hardwire Armor Systems typically markets its products to military and law enforcement. But in the wake of the hysteria following the Newtown shooting, a new market has emerged.
While the National Rifle Association (NRA) calls for more guns in school, Hardwire gives parents, students and teachers another form of comfort: protection.
“Hardwire’s Bulletproof School Products are everyday instructors’ tools which also provide emergency armor protection. … The armor technology is derived from solutions developed for the Department of Defense,” its website’s school products session reads: “Lightweight, durable and portable protection for anyone.”
The company’s list of protection equipment doesn’t begin and end with the whiteboards — it has clipboards, backpack inserts and “peel-n-stick” doors, a large whiteboard that sticks to the wall, or door. Like the other products, it “absorbs multiple magazines of ammunition from any handgun or shotgun without ricochet or injury.”
Its products are a godsend for some, yet others are targeting the company for profiting off tragedy and creating a new market for products meant for the battlefield.
“I think that the bulletproof whiteboards are certainly an overreaction that creates a perception of being safer, but certainly doesn’t make anyone safer,” Kenneth Trump, school safety expert with the National School Safety and Security Services, told Mint Press News.
Trump said investment should be in practical school measures, largely aimed at the fundamentals of school safety, which he said include crisis plans, actively tested during inconvenient times like lunch. Making sure the plan is reviewed and incorporates healthy relationships with students, who can feel comfortable to voice any concerns about possible threats, along with hiring school resource officers, are also parts of the puzzle, he said.
Rocori schools have done all of it. A resource officer watches every student enter the one entrance and exit for the campus. Response plans have been altered following the 2003 shooting — and Jones knows down to the second how long it will take for officers to respond.
Yet for those still grasping for security in the wake of the school shootings, whiteboards represent another 18-by-20-inch slice of hope.
“If we don’t have another school shooting, and we pray we don’t,” Jones said, “they can hang on the wall for 50 years, and we’ve won.”