After the ability to fit a Trapper Keeper and the electronics, backpacks have another highly coveted attribute: The ability to save your child’s life.
Maya Rockafellow checked off a list of back-to-school supplies as she readied her 6-year-old son, Graham, for first grade as this year’s summer vacation entered its final weeks.
Classroom supplies? Check. Backpack? Check. Bulletproof backpack panel? Check.
Alarmed by the fatal shootings of 17 in February at a Parkland, Florida, school and similar killings elsewhere, the Shelby Township, Michigan, mother says she’s taking extra precautions to keep her only child safe.
“For me, the cost is nothing compared with having a small bit of comfort that he will have something on him for protection,” she said of her son.
As schools across the nation prepare for the 2018-2019 educational year, parents, students, teachers, and school officials are keeping bulletproof protection and gun safety in mind, along with computers, books, lesson plans and learning.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Santa Fe High School. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Columbine High School. Northern Illinois University. Virginia Polytechnic Institute. These schools and dozens of other U.S. learning centers represent a tragic litany of fatal U.S. school shooting scenes.
In all, 39 –or nearly one-quarter of the 160 U.S. mass shooting incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2013 – erupted in elementary schools, high schools or institutions of higher education, according to a report by the FBI and Texas State University.
Along with spurring a national debate about gun rights and restrictions, the school shootings have spurred a variety of business, government, do-it-yourself and other efforts designed to keep students safe.
Several safety companies said in February they had seen a jump in sales immediately after the Parkland tragedy. Although the spike has moderated, they say 2018 sales are higher than last year. And, in a sign of mainstream success, two national retail chains are selling bulletproof backpacks.
“There are very few places in America left where people still think they’re safe from gun violence. That’s disappearing,” says Christopher Kapiloff, one of three partners at School Guard Glass, a Massachusetts-based safety company.
That growing realization has spurred sales of the firm’s intruder-resistant glass.
Developed from polymer research, the glass won’t necessarily stop a shooter’s bullets. However, School Guard Glass’ testing shows the product will remain intact – keeping a shooter outside and students, teachers and other school personnel safely inside – for four minutes or more. That’s often long enough for police and emergency crews to reach the scene of an attack.
The company completed glass installations at 170 schools during the first six months of 2018, compared with 155 last year, Kapiloff says.
School Guard’s glass, which can be installed in existing door and window openings, has attracted a growing roster of school customers in the U.S. Northwest and along the Eastern Seaboard, Kapiloff says.
The company is also partnering with Assa Abloy, the Sweden-based lock manufacturing giant, to produce window door-and-lock combination products capable of stopping an armed attacker from gaining entrance through a school’s exterior and classroom doors. “This essentially can turn every classroom into a lockdown area,” Kapiloff says.
Bulletproof backpacks and backpack panels represent a relatively new yet growing part of the U.S. school safety market.
Sanford, Florida-based Guard Dog Security produces bulletproof ProShield II backpacks that offer protection from potential shooters as well as tech features such as a charging bank or built-in auxiliary ports.
The company advertises the backpacks online in a variety of colors with a price tag of $189.99. Since July 9, Office Depot has offered the ProsShield II products online and in 100 selected stores, says Danny Jovic, a spokesman for the company. He declined to provide sales data for the backpacks, which have been advertised in recent weeks for $131.24 each.
Home Depot is also selling the backpacks, with a list price of $147.74, the retail chain’s online ads show. The company said it started online-only sales of the safety item in September 2016.
Guard Dog’s sales of bulletproof backpacks are relatively higher now than they were at this time last year “because awareness of the product in the marketplace has been growing,” says Yasir Sheikh, the company’s president.
Sales of BulletSafe’s bulletproof backpack panels are up approximately 40 percent from 2017, company President Tom Nardone estimates. One of the product’s selling points is the ability to move the panels from an older backpack to a newer one.
“They seem to sell very well to parents of students who are going to college in the big city, is how I like to describe it,” Nardone says. “All their fears kind of combine in that their kids are leaving, plus the kids are going away to someplace that’s certainly more dangerous than Smallville, USA.”
BulletSafe and Guard Dog Security say their products are able to stop bullets from nearly all handguns. However, they acknowledge that the products likely wouldn’t stop bullets from the military-style rifles used in the Parkland, Florida, tragedy and other school shootings.
The National Institute of Justice, which tests and certifies body armor designed for law enforcement, has never tested other ballistic products, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
As a high school student in Somerset, Wisconsin, Justin Rivard responded to his shop teacher’s challenge about improving school safety by creating a steel-plates-and-rods device that prevents an intruder from opening a school’s inward-opening doors.
Now he’s in the U.S. Army, undergoing basic training during recent weeks at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His father, Brian Rivard, is running the business, taking orders and selling his JustinKase device to a growing list of schools. The company has handled approximately 300 orders, ranging from a single device – which the company sells for $115 each plus shipping – to school districts that order dozens, the father said.
“I think we can safely say we’ve got thousands of schools around the country” as customers,” Rivard said in a recent phone interview.
Called Dominate Safety, the fledgling company is fine-tuning a second prototype that would stop shooters or other intruders who attempt to enter via outward-opening doors.
One of the safety devices had been sent to Santa Fe High School in Texas, where eight students and two teachers died in a shooting in May. A buyer had bought the unit for her niece, Rivard said. However, a shipping issue prevented the delivery. If that hadn’t happened, “there would have been one in that school at the time of the event,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders becomes emotional while answering a question from an elementary school student about gun safety at the briefing Wednesday. (May 30)
Some states dramatically boosted funding for school safety improvements after the Parkland, Florida, shooting.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and state lawmakers in March finalized a $100 million program that has provided schools with grants for building safety improvements and staff training. Some schools have used the funding to order the home state-produced JustinKase devices, Rivard said.
Among the provisions in the sweeping new school safety law finalized in March by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers is nearly $99 million to fund physical security upgrades of campuses via grants to school districts.
School districts nationwide are exploring technology solutions, such as installing metal detectors or shatterproof materials, along with personnel measures such as giving enhanced roles to school safety officers, says Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer and interim advocacy officer of the National School Boards Association.
“There’s not a single trend, because all schools and communities are different,” Negrón said. There’s only one general agreement, that “schools should not be fortresses,” he added.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc
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