Security Theater

Apr 24, 2018

Viewing School from the Inside Out–Part II

By Senior Partner Chuck Evans

For twelve years, I have spent the majority of my time on the outside of schools looking in. I typically play the role of the third party, the objective observer who has enough of a combination of distance and experience to give (mostly) good advice. I happen, though, to be writing this in my last week as the interim head of The Covenant School in Dallas, a six hundred student K-12 school celebrating its 25th year.

This year has been an interesting mix of perspectives. Though still able to work with several other schools on strategic and financial planning initiatives, much of my year has been absorbed with the daily life of a school community. Leading Covenant has provided me with something like a time warp, comparing and contrasting the patterns of activity and relationships in 2018 with my last full-time head of school position in Austin in 2006.

Security Theater

In 2006, keeping exterior doors locked and wearing visitor badges was the extent of our security protocol. Security personnel, uniformed officers with weapons, were for public schools trying to keep the lid from blowing off. Before the horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, the idea of another Columbine-type shooting seemed far-fetched. We didn’t really consider ourselves vulnerable to an intentional attack.

Then, of course, Sandy Hook. According to the Gun Violence Archive, since Sandy Hook there have been 239 shooting incidents on school campuses. More than 400 people have been shot in these incidents, and 138 people died.

The Covenant campus is fenced, with a stone wall facing the nearest neighborhood. But its entries are off of a freeway feeder road, and there is a lot of cross-town traffic in the area, which heightens parents’ and teachers’ sense of exposure. Even though you can’t drive onto campus without being buzzed through an electronic gate, the system isn’t foolproof.

So, in January I hired a guy with a gun. It was a disheartening moment. After a handful of nearby police incidents, none of which directly threatened campus safety, I realized that the sense of security that we have taken for granted in schools everywhere is gone. The fear of external threats has overwhelmed our consciousness, and many parents can’t feel that their children are safe without weapons present in our schools.

I first encountered an armed security officer in a parochial school in San Antonio about ten years ago. At the time, I thought that the measure was an overreaction to the anxiety of privileged parents. Who would bother a school like this, I thought? Since then, security guards have become more and more of a commonplace. When I conduct focus group interviews with parents, from California to Texas, increasingly they express safety and security as primary concerns.

Just a few years ago, a colleague described tactical training that he and his staff underwent so that they could carry concealed weapons at school. Half way through the multi-day training, he told me, he realized that they weren’t being taught how to bring an attacker down. They were being taught to become targets. The goal was for an attacker to feel the need to defend himself and to shoot at adults rather than students.

I also discovered a further consequence of our collective anxiety and efforts to allay fear. The day before school resumed after Christmas break in January, when teachers would ordinarily be collecting themselves, sharing stories about the holidays, and laying out a plan for re-entry, we conducted a harrowing active shooter orientation and training. No one feels good after a day like that, and the time and emotional energy sucked up into the four-hour fear beat down probably furthered most people’s apprehensions.

While adding a well trained security officer to our staff relieved some people’s anxiety, for me it had something of an opposite effect. Though our new colleague is perfectly capable, and in just the right circumstances could likely “neutralize” an assailant, his presence made me more aware of vulnerabilities, not less. He can’t be everywhere at once, and by enlisting his cheerfully reassuring presence we have resigned ourselves to a form of “security theater”without actually having become all that more secure.

It says something tragic about our society that we have accepted lethal force as a practical necessity in our schools-a “cost of doing business,” as I found myself saying to the Covenant board-rather than a paranoid overreaction. We have, in some ways, embraced a kind of militia mentality that we used to ascribe to the lunatic fringe. But the time for choosing has passed for many schools.

In this new era, no one really feels safe at school. Even with armed guards present.