The image that keeps Laura Roth awake at night is a door. It is metallic blue with a silver door knob and a poster filled with quotes from students in Roth’s seventh-grade history class at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor.
At night, she pictures her classroom door locked during a school shooting. According to the school’s lockdown policy, “if a student is in the hallway with a shooter, we’re not supposed to open the door,” Roth said.
The 52-year-old said she plays that scenario over and over in her mind, wondering how she’d react: open the door and put the children huddled behind her at risk, or leave a 12 year old in the hall, banging on a locked blue door.
“It’s ‘Sophie’s Choice,’” Roth said of the two agonizing options.
Five hundred miles to the north, an Upper Peninsula teacher told Bridge she keeps a long wooden dowel in her classroom to swing if there is an armed intruder. In Grand Blanc, a teacher keeps a box of hockey pucks in a cupboard for students to hurl. Third-graders at a northern Michigan school practice throwing paper wads at a teacher holding a banana.
While the chances of a mass shooting at any individual school are astronomically low, active shooter preparation has become part of the fabric of school culture across the country. In Michigan, the steps taken to protect students from a school shooter vary from teacher to teacher and school to school; from six-figure, high-tech gunshot sensors, to stacked desks in front of classroom doors.
Schools say they are more prepared than ever to protect students, from locked entrances to active shooter teacher training. In the past five years, the state has handed out $56 million in grants to Michigan schools for emergency preparedness, and a school safety task force released 32 pages of recommendations last year.
Yet 20 years after the mass killings at Columbine High School and more than six years since 26 were slaughtered at an elementary school in Connecticut, there’s still no clear consensus nationally on what steps actually help kids survive a school shooting.
Michigan does not set uniform guidelines for safety protocols in the event of an active shooter, instead leaving those decisions to individual school districts, which can vary dramatically in the resources available to protect students.
In more than a dozen interviews with teachers and administrators across Michigan, educators acknowledged the cost in time and money spent preparing for something that is unlikely to ever happen in their schools. But in an era when any school could be the next Parkland or Sandy Hook, they say doing nothing is not an option.
“To say it can’t happen here is foolhardy,” said Wesley McCrea, principal at Bronson Junior-Senior High School, southwest of Kalamazoo. “It breaks my heart what is going on. They (school shooters) are taking the innocence out of schools.”
‘Run, hide, fight’
In fact, school shootings have declined since the early 1990s. And sometimes well-intentioned plans to react quickly to possible danger can lead to havoc. Popping balloons caused a campus-wide panic at the University of Michigan in March, with students locked down in a university library and students and parents receiving automated phone alerts of an active shooter on campus and advising to “run, hide, fight.”
Still, schools contacted by Bridge described a range of increased security measures in recent years.
Public schools are required to hold three lockdown drills each year, and the majority of educators who spoke to Bridge have undergone active shooter training in which a trainer enters a classroom and pretends to shoot them.
“No one wants to pretend that by doing these things, they’re going to stop all casualties. Doing things to make sure as many survive as possible is the best we can do.” Steve Dunk, Grand Blanc High School
Houghton High School in the Upper Peninsula has bolts that slide into the floor to prevent doors from being opened during a lockdown. Grand Blanc, south of Flint, has security cameras through its two-building high school campus. Tiny Bronson Junior-Senior High, near the Indiana border, has a camera outside its front door so school staff can see who’s at the door before buzzing them in.
“I don't think there is any way that we could actually prepare for the ‘real thing,’ and I cross my fingers that we never have to,” said Ray Rickert, music teacher at Thornapple Kellogg High School in Middleville, south of Grand Rapids. “It is challenging to get the students to take the drills seriously sometimes but one thing I try to impress upon my kids is that there is a common thread among all places where these things have happened.
“That is that everyone says, ‘We never thought it would happen here.’"
Hornet spray and stacked desks
Dan Burzynski was teaching multi-step equations to eighth-graders at Bronson one recent morning when Principal McCrea asked students to demonstrate a lockdown drill. Students move desks toward the door, where Burzynski helps stack them. With the lights turned out, students sit on the floor against a wall away from the door and windows.
“When you build your barricade, you need at least four desks on the bottom,” the principal says. “How many do you have?”
“Three,” say students.
Students take down the barricade and build it again.
If an intruder got through the locked door and the stack of desks, Burzynski would be waiting with a large metal stapler and a can of hornet spray. “If we had a real situation,” Burzynski said, “we’d arm ourselves with books. Throwing anything, even a marker, could help someone evacuate.”
Dan Burzynski, Bronson Junior-Senior High School (Bridge photo by Ron French)
Bronson is an example of a change in recommended tactics when faced with an active shooter. The prevailing theory for school safety used to be to shelter in place – huddle in a corner of a classroom and wait to be rescued. Bronson and many schools now are using ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training that recommends students “counter” a shooter as a last resort by running around and throwing things at the gunman’s face rather than cowering.
The idea: distract attackers so they are less accurate when they pull the trigger.
“How can I reassure them when I’m not reassured myself?” Laura Roth, Tappan Middle School, Ann Arbor
Books and markers versus a semi-automatic rifle doesn’t sound like a fair fight, but “It is a heck of a lot better to be a little prepared than not prepared at all,” McCrea said. “We have to make sure we’re doing all we can.”
In Steve Dunk’s classroom at Grand Blanc Community High School, a metal ring is mounted on the wall beside the door. In a school lockdown, Dunk can place a nylon rope around the door knob and attach it to the metal ring to hold the door shut on the chance the door’s lock is breached. If an intruder gets past the rope, students are told to throw their school-issued Chromebook laptops.
In the next-door classroom, fellow history teacher Zach Brody has a box of hockey pucks he says he would hand out to students to throw.
“No one wants to pretend that by doing these things, they’re going to stop all casualties,” Dunk said. “Doing things to make sure as many survive as possible is the best we can do.
“You’re looking to buy four or five minutes,” Dunk said. “Most of these things don’t last longer than that.”
High cost of safety
Grand Blanc’s security efforts in the age of active shooters don’t stop with lockdown drills and hockey pucks. The two-building high school campus now has 27 security guards – the equivalent of one for every 100 of its 2,700 high schoolers. The annual cost: $632,000, plus another $105,000 for part of the salaries of three police officers assigned to the school.
The Genesee County district is in the process of installing a door lock system in all its classrooms. The new system secures doors by dropping a bolt into the floor. The project is funded with a $243,000 school safety grant from the state.
The tiny Glen Lake school district in Leelanau County has 700 students in one building near Glen Arbor and Empire. But inside that school in idyllic Up North lake country is some of the most high-tech intruder security available.
There are 53 cameras – one for every 12 students - which all can be monitored from a command center in the school office. Visitors are photographed and given stickers bearing their picture and name.
There are 103 alarms alarms that can be pulled to alert the school and police of security threats, including one in each classroom.
Scattered around the school are 28 gunshot sensors that detect when a gun has been fired. The sensors work by detecting the sound and muzzle flash of gunfire. Police are alerted within one second of a gun being fired, and staff are sent emails and text messages. Police can tell where in the school shots have been fired, helping them find the shooter.
The Guardian Indoor Active Shooter Detection System 2019
“The biggest thing is time,” said Marcus Mead, director of administrative and instructional technology for Glen Lake. “The sooner we can send out a notification, the more lives are going to be saved.”
Glen Lake is the first district in Michigan to use gunshot detectors. Cost of the pull alarms and gunshot sensors: $156,000.
“People like to get on Facebook and snark at us, like, ‘Why don’t you just call 911?’” said Glen Lake Superintendent Sander Scott.
“If you call 911, the cavalry is coming, but you haven’t notified everyone in the building. If someone’s walking toward you with a gun, are you going to remember the code to type in the phone to send an alert to classrooms?”
Gunshot sensors are among the many items marketed to schools in today’s $2.7 billion school security industry. For example, schools can buy bulletproof whiteboards for hundreds of dollars apiece.
Hardwire Bulletproof Whiteboards
Or not. A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University found “limited and conflicting evidence” of “short-term and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.” In one example, a Utah middle school had surveillance cameras, outside doors that could only be opened with IDs and a police officer. None of which stopped a boy from fatally shooting another student just outside the building in 2016. And last year in Parkland, Florida, a school that had security measures and lockdown procedures was the site of another mass shooting, because a former student knew from past drills he could pull a fire alarm and students would flood into hallways where he could target them.
And when the Washington Post asked schools that had been the target of mass shootings what could have prevented the incidents, nearly half said nothing could have been done. Most told the Post they had robust security precautions in place at the time of the shootings.
Not everyone sees the benefits of hardening schools, a security sector that has bloomed into a $2.7 billion industry. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox said that an average of 30 students a year die while on their way to or from school. That’s three times the number who die in school shootings.
“Obviously it happens, and when it happens, it impacts community and the nation,” Fox said. “One is one too many. However, the risk is extremely low, and regrettably, we are over-responding.”
Fox argues that the drumbeat of lockdown drills may cause more harm than good.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t respond, but we are obsessing over the problem,” Fox said. “And in a strange way, we are actually fueling the contagion because we are constantly reminding kids of this kind of rampage.”
In fact, one of the most reliable security measures is decidedly low-tech: keeping students and staff behind locked interior doors, which most classrooms can already do.
The likelihood of a shooting actually occurring is minimum, said Marvin Nordeen, school psychologist for Traverse City Area Public Schools. But “emotions reach a point where they’re not making rational decisions” about security.
‘This is not what education is supposed to be’
Ann Arbor middle school teacher Roth has a few set speeches she gives to students at the beginning of the year. One is on the seriousness of school security.
“I say to them, ‘Your parents definitely want you to learn, they’re sending you here to learn. But even above that, they’re sending you to school with the anticipation that you’re coming home at the end of the day,’” Roth said. She said she knows the chances of a Parkland or Sandy Hook type of shooting occurring at her school are incredibly low.
Still, “I take their safety very seriously,” Roth said. “And so do my students. Their safety is number one.”
The drumbeat of school shootings and the training teachers in Ann Arbor and many districts have gone through – training that sometimes includes a mock shooter pretending to kill teachers – has changed what it’s like to be a teacher today.
Laura Roth, Tappan Middle School, Ann Arbor (Bridge photo by Ron French)
Many teachers at Tappan cover the glass in their doors so a shooter can’t see inside, Roth said. Stacking desks in front of her classroom door wouldn’t help – student desks are light and on wheels. She has potted plants by the window. Maybe she and students could throw them.
“Almost everyone who goes through (active shooter) training says this is not why I got into teaching,” Roth said. “I don’t want to be a part of this. This is not what education is supposed to be.
“Having that low-level of anxiety all the time takes a toll on you.”
“It feels like the norm for them,” Roth said. “They (shootings) are coming so fast and furious now, they don’t know what to make of it. They feel like they’re safe – there hasn’t been a shooter here before so there probably won’t be a shooter here, but it keeps happening. Why does it keep happening? Why aren’t the adults doing something about it?”
Locking doors makes sense to Roth. Beyond that, she wonders if money would be better spent on mental health services for students rather than hi-tech gadgets.
“The level of anxiety and depression in students is rising at such an alarming rate,” Roth said. “I talk to my colleagues and they think that, too. And this (fear of active shooters) has something to do with it.”
Roth locks the blue door of her classroom and walks down the hallway to go home for the day.
“It’s overwhelming for me as an adult to figure out what to do, and not be weary of one shooting after another,” she said.
“I’m trying to deal with that on my own. And on top of that, as their teacher, how can I reassure them when I’m not reassured myself?”