As the school year starts up again, it’s no surprise that safety is on many parents’ minds. On this week’s “TechKnow,” contributor and former CIA operations officer Lindsay Moran explores companies that are developing bulletproof products designed to keep kids safe from school shootings.
“The National Report Card on Protecting Children During a Disaster recently issued a statement saying that in 28 states, public schools have failed to meet the minimum government standards for protecting children in the event of a disaster,” says Moran. “I kind of approached this story from two very disparate vantage points. One, being a former CIA officer who thinks any layer of added security is good, and then one as a mom, in ‘Do I really want to give my kids the idea that this kind of technology is going to keep them safe?’”
Moran checked out some of this technology at Hardwire LLC, an armor company in Pocomoke City, Md., that manufactures bulletproof school accessories.
“This factory was built right in the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts,” Hardwire Chairman & CEO George C. Tunis III tells Moran. “So it started really as a vehicle armoring company, we moved into body armor, and then after Sandy Hook, we really took that same technology and applied it to school armor.”
Hardwire produces bulletproof backpack inserts, whiteboards and adhesive doors for classrooms made of dyneema, a strong synthetic fiber that is also used to make skis and snowboards.
“The key is time, temperature, and pressure,” Tunis explains. “We found that with increasing pressure, ballistic properties went up. So the harder we could squeeze it, at the right temperature, the more the ballistic resistance went up, so the lighter the shield could be.”
Tunis explains that each Hardwire product has about 40 layers of compressed dyneema, giving them the bullet-stopping power of steel while weighing significantly less.
Still skeptical, Moran took some of Hardwire’s products to a local shooting range with Col. Doug Dods of Maryland’s Worcester County Sheriff’s Office.
Moran and Dods first tested a 9mm Glock and .357 Magnum against one of the Hardwire backpack inserts. Some of Dods’ shots were deflected through the bottom of the backpack, but none were able to penetrate Hardwire’s shield insert.
“The way it’s designed, it actually absorbs the energy and collapses around it, which is perfect for a ballistics panel,” Dod explains. “If you’re holding it, your hand’s going to sting, but I’d rather that than a hole in my chest.”
“If you think about the power it takes for this insert to stop a bullet traveling at an incredibly fast velocity, and actually kind of trap it inside the insert, it’s pretty amazing,” Moran says.
Amazing, but not perfect. While the Hardwire armor can currently stop bullets from a 9mm Glock and semi-automatic weapons such as a .357 Sig and .45 caliber Glock, it is not designed to protect against fire from a more powerful automatic rifle like the AR-15, the type of gun used at three of the major U.S. school shootings—Stockton, Columbine and Newtown.
Moran admitted to being impressed by the bullet-stopping power of Hardwire’s products, but wondered how easy it would be for teachers to utilize in case of an emergency. She visited Worcester Preparatory School in Berlin, Md., for a first hand look at how school administrators are responding. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Hardwire provided bulletproof whiteboards and clipboards (as well as training) to teachers and office staff at the school.
“Once the training came about and they saw that it just gave them something that they would have as a tool to use in case of an incident, I think they became not only relieved but true believers,” Worcester Prep headmaster Dr. Barry Tull tells Moran.
Many teachers at Worcester Prep have embraced the whiteboards in their classrooms for both protection and functionality. History teacher Michael Schaefer says that using the whiteboard as a learning aid keeps students from focusing on its protective purpose.
“I think the way I use it and how it matches the classroom decor, if you will, it’s not screaming to kids ‘This is a shield.’” says Schaefer. He hopes to never have to use Hardwire’s product for anything more than charting the Spanish Armada, but has a plan of action in mind should the school come under attack.
“Even in the CIA, we’re trained to ‘get off the X,’ to get out of the dangerous situation, not necessarily to try to defend ourselves,” Moran says in response to criticisms of classroom and self-defense products like Hardwire. However, she recognizes why recent events have necessitated such protection measures. “This is kind of using a very old technology to address an issue that is very paramount in our society: how do we protect our kids, how do we prevent another tragedy like at Newtown?”
That approach to prevention begins not only with products that can protect students, but training for the teachers so they are ready to act when disaster strikes. Moran went back to Hardwire for a hands-on instructive similar to their training program for teachers.
After running a few scenarios in which she used the Hardwire whiteboard to subdue a simulated armed attacker, Moran described the experience as “empowering.” It’s a familiar response for Tunis. “Every single teacher we give it to says the same thing,” he tells Moran.
For further analysis, Moran took the video of her training session to Vernon Herron, a senior policy analyst at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security.
“You did pretty good,” Herron tells Moran. “You slowed the shooter down, you met him before he gained complete entry, and hopefully at that time the kids would be being evacuated to another room. Anything that we can use to buy time for our children is a good thing.”
Herron is positive about the preventative technology and Hardwire gear, but emphasizes the importance of training for every administrator who might have to use the products. “It’s too late to read the instructions once the shooting starts,” he tells Moran.
Protection and preparation are certainly important, however, opinions on these new bulletproof schools accessories vary widely among parents and administrators.
“I think it gives a false sense of security to be honest,” high school teacher and mother Christine Gilliland tells Moran. She believes that preventative measures like school guards should be utilized rather than individual body armor. “I think that students might feel like, ‘But I have a bulletproof bookbag,’ when in actuality, they might be better off ditching their bookbag and running.”
Jennifer Cropper feels differently. She recently bought Hardwire backpack inserts for her two children and had no qualms about explaining their purpose. “You are in different situations sometimes where you’re not able to run,” she says. “I want [my son] to know that there’s something that he can do instead of being a sitting duck.”
Moran knows that the debate over how to best protect schools will continue for years to come.
“After every tragedy, there’s always these initiatives and efforts to try to make our schools safer, whether it be panic buttons in classrooms or sophisticated screening mechanisms at the front door,” she concludes. “I guess it’s a question of how secure can we possibly make our schools.”
Watch "TechKnow," Sundays at 7:30PM ET/4:30PM PT on Al Jazeera America.