In a Violent America
Safety Becomes a Sales Pitch
By Michael Corkery and Zackary Canepari
Michael Corkery has written about violence in workplaces during the pandemic. Zackary Canepari spent three years photographing mass-shooting-preparedness companies around the country.
Feb. 17, 2023
The school year was starting in 10 days, and Donald Keegan was a busy man. An associate superintendent of the North Syracuse Central School District, Mr. Keegan had to make sure the bus drivers were trained and the cafeterias fully staffed. He had a tour to lead that afternoon and a school board meeting in the evening.
But that late August morning, Mr. Keegan took time to attend a demonstration inside a local factory, where he observed a series of windows being obliterated by an AR-15-style rifle.
Mr. Keegan was joined by other school officials from central New York, a school custodian and a pair of school architects. They stood with their arms crossed as Tom Czyz, the founder of Armoured One, a company that sells protective glass and film, fired more than 30 rounds at a window at close range. The room shook with skull-rattling force. By the end of the presentation, Mr. Czyz’s arms were speckled with shards of glass and dripping with blood.
“It’s sad, really,” Mr. Keegan said later in an interview. “But it’s part of our job to make sure kids don’t get shot. That is part of the current reality.”
Of all the troubling aspects of gun violence, among the most dispiriting may be scenes like the one in the Syracuse glass factory: Preparing school administrators for a mass shooting is becoming routine.
Rising gun violence, punctuated by massacres like the attack at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas last year and the shooting on Michigan State University’s campus this week, is fueling not only the debate over gun control but also a more than $3 billion industry of companies working to protect children or employees against mass murder.
The offerings are numerous: automatically locking doors, bullet-resistant tables, Kevlar backpacks, artificial intelligence that detects guns and countless types of training exercises, like breathing techniques to avoid panic during an attack or strategies for how to use a pencil to pierce a shooter’s eyes.
But even as Congress increases funding for school security measures — including $300 million to help schools “prevent and respond to violence” as part of a bipartisan gun control compromise — the effectiveness of the school security industry’s products and services remains largely unproven.
“This is an entire industry that capitalizes on school shootings; however, these companies have very little evidence that what they are selling works,” said Odis Johnson, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools and a Bloomberg distinguished professor at the university. (The billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, an alumnus, has been a major supporter of gun control efforts.)
Schools and apartments have to be built to withstand fires and earthquakes, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues fines for hazardous working conditions. But there is no equivalent of rigorous and standard monitoring of whether an employer is reasonably prepared for an active shooter.
This regulatory netherworld, industry executives say, is partly the result of the nation’s political paralysis over guns. Many say protective windows and backpacks would not be necessary if guns, particularly military-style rifles, faced more restrictions. Creating standards for school security against guns, some believe, would be seen as giving in to the notion that mass shootings are a part of American life, that they can be defended against but not eliminated.
Mr. Czyz said political leaders who did not support stepping up security measures at schools — or “hardening” them — were naïve. “If you aren’t for hardening the schools, then unlock your front door, unlock your windows and let whoever in,” he said. It typically costs about $350 to install an Armoured One protective window in a classroom door, which Mr. Czyz said could slow down someone trying to shoot his way into a locked room.
With each new mass shooting, more schools and businesses, even in parts of the country that support stricter gun control, are taking steps to bolster the security of their buildings and train their staff. In a survey of more than 1,000 public schools last year by the National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the Education Department, the majority said they were taking some measures, such as putting locks on doors, to defend against shooters. As the threat of violence grows, so is the industry that is offering ways to stop it.
An industry gathers to show off its products.
In one measure of how school shootings have become normalized, the industry holds an annual conference — meeting last summer in Orlando, Fla., just like dairy farmers, golf course managers and tax lawyers did over the past year.
At the Omni Orlando Resort, the National School Safety Conference attracted dozens of businesses selling a wide range of products, from locking devices for classroom doors to a series of “ballistic” tables meant to be used as shields. The participants included law enforcement agents and educators.
Most of the vendors were small operators, but there were a few larger companies like Navigate360 and Raptor Technologies, whose security app was used by the Uvalde School District to alert employees that an active shooter was in the elementary school. But even after a Uvalde school employee used the app, the gunman was able to enter classrooms and carry out the shooting while police officers waited to confront him, which led to more deaths.
The failure of the law enforcement response in Uvalde hung heavily over the conference because many of the technologies and products on display were designed to buy time before the police can arrive. If the police fail to take further action, many of the products cannot ultimately help.
During the day, conference participants attended presentations and walked through a hall of displays. At night, there were entertainment and networking events that are typical of conferences.
A casino night was hosted by ZeroEyes, which sells a software platform that monitors existing security cameras and uses artificial intelligence to detect and warn about people carrying guns into buildings. According to the company, if the A.I. system picks up what appears to be a gun, it sends an alert to a ZeroEyes employee, who determines whether the threat is real and law enforcement should be dispatched.
Since the company was founded in 2018, ZeroEyes technology has detected “hundreds of guns,” one of the founders, Sam Alaimo, said in an interview. Many detections involve students taking unloaded guns or fake guns to school as pranks.
The company sponsored a social event at the conference to give attendees a break from the “emotionally exhausting” topic of school shootings, Mr. Alaimo said.
“Like many others whose business is tied to life and death, such as military personnel, heart and brain surgeons and oncologists, school administrators cannot always remain steeped in the gravity of their severe subject matter,” he said in an email. “A sponsored event at the end of the show is a way to commiserate, decompress and prepare for another day of tackling a major issue.”
‘Trying to change the way people live.’
Some business owners in the active-shooter-defense industry say they are not just selling products but preparing people to defend themselves.
One of them is Ken Alexandrow, a former police officer in Tennessee who runs Agape Tactical, a company that has taught nurses, teachers and church staff techniques for defending against a shooter. His basic sessions cost $1,000.
“We are trying to change the way people live in society,” Mr. Alexandrow said over breakfast while visiting New York to discuss his classes with a company that provides unarmed security guards for businesses. “We want to make people responsible for themselves and stop acquiescing security to someone else.”
He said that many training companies focused on teaching people how to run or hide from a shooter, but that meeting violence with violence was also effective. “Fighting works,” he said.
Mr. Alexandrow started by training employees and volunteer security guards at churches around the South. These students tended to be older men who were familiar with firearms.
More recently, Mr. Alexandrow has branched out into health care and day care.
On his laptop, he played a video of day care workers pouncing on and punching him as he walked through a building in a red padded suit, carrying a fake rifle.
Mr. Alexandrow has also trained people how to “drive” a pen, a pencil or a set of keys into a shooter’s eyes and into the brain.
“If they are squeamish, we tell them, ‘Think about what the shooter has in store for you,’” he said.
Joe LeMaster attended a training that Mr. Alexandrow held in North Carolina at the Outpatient Surgery Center of Asheville in July. Mr. LeMaster, who oversees the surgery center’s nursing staff, said the employees had learned how to rush a shooter, grab a firearm by the barrel and push it toward the ceiling, among other protective strategies.
“It was empowering for them to know there is more options than being a victim and waiting for something to happen,” he said.
It is not clear how many people have stopped a shooter after taking a class, but in some cases, fighting a shooter can reduce injuries and deaths. Two men were credited with halting the gunman at Club Q in Colorado Springs in November by disarming and kicking him in the face. Five people were killed and 18 wounded, and the police said the death toll could have been higher if not for the actions of the two men, one an Army veteran and the other a Navy petty officer. In January, a man in Alhambra. Calif., disarmed a gunman who had killed 10 at a nearby ballroom and prevented him from entering another dance hall, where he appeared ready to shoot more people.
But Mr. Johnson, the Johns Hopkins professor, said that while teaching self-defense skills was important, the focus should be on preventing guns from falling into the wrong hands.
“The idea that a teacher escalating the situation by confronting the shooter is not going to have unintended consequences is naïve,” he said. “That is why we need comprehensive gun reform to prevent guns from getting into the building.”
Massad Ayoob, who runs “armed citizen” classes around the country, said medical professionals were the most common students in his classes, which include instruction on how to draw a gun and “fast, accurate shot placement.”
“They treat the survivors of violence,” he said. “They see physically the tragedy of these things.”
Mr. Ayoob, who is the president of the Second Amendment Foundation, which advocates gun rights, also teaches students how to deal with the psychological and legal fallout after they kill someone.
In Utah, where teachers can obtain permits to carry concealed weapons in schools, the Utah County sheriff’s office trains school personnel how to safely handle firearms, techniques to de-escalate a conflict and how to shoot at an attacker rampaging through a school. Sgt. Spencer Cannon, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said he was surprised at how many of the attendees — a mix of teachers, speech pathologists and janitors — did not own a gun.
“We expected to have a lot people who are all about guns,” Sergeant Cannon said. “But we have people who have never touched a firearm.”
As part of the course, the teachers and other school personnel are taken to a shooting range, where “they get a feel for what they are like,” he said.
A common customer: Educators.
Many of the executives in the active-shooter-defense industry who were interviewed for this article said they did not support more gun restrictions.
Mr. Czyz, the owner of the protective glass company in Syracuse, said the gun debate “has blinded” many schools and businesses into overlooking practical steps they could take, while the broader issues remained mired in politics.
“Should we start addressing gun laws and mental health? Yup,” said Mr. Czyz, a former homicide detective. “But we have been having the same stupid argument since Columbine in 1999.”
Mr. Czyz added that he did not support a ban on military-style rifles because he “does not trust the government” to carry that out effectively.
Maria Cloonan, an administrative assistant at a school in western Massachusetts, said some staff members were worried about the psychological impact that active-shooter training could have on students and faculty.
“Some folks think the training is too strenuous on kids and staff,” said Ms. Cloonan, who serves on her school’s “safety team.”
But she said she believed that such training was helpful. Two years ago, when she was director of a nursery school in a church in Springfield, Mass., Ms. Cloonan hired a firm run by two former local law enforcement officers to train her teachers how to deal with a shooter. She had grown nervous because of increased crime in the city.
“We hope and pray this doesn’t happen to us,” she said. “But we also hope a child never has to use an EpiPen, but if they do the training kicks in.”
Mr. Keegan, the associate superintendent in North Syracuse, said that he thought there should be tighter gun restrictions but that the issue felt distant from his daily reality.
“We certainly hope for greater levels of gun control, but that is not something that we are going to hang our hat on,” he said.
Still, each year, his schools are adding more intense security measures. This fall, for example, North Syracuse has started posting armed officers at its elementary schools, in addition to the middle and high schools.
The school district recently approved about $30 million for safety and security enhancements to its buildings. Mr. Keegan is considering buying more of Mr. Czyz’s glass. He’s constantly being pitched on new products.
“We are getting hit with people trying to sell us,” he said. “My email is blowing up every day with that stuff.”