Re Making Schools Safe(r)

I did not expect to post another entry so soon.  But I’ve begun to get some great responses to my book on dealing with Active School Shooters titled “Making Schools Safe(r)” and available in both Amazon and direct from the printer, Lulu Books, at this URL: (And thank you for getting the book and entering this incredibly important dialog about the safety of our children at one place we all think they ought to be the safest – in school.)  While not directly photo realted it does pertain to schools, teaching, students, and most importantly, lives, so it seemed appropriate to address an issue that recently came up.

One question I recently got had to do with the now heavily advertised “Bullet-Proof” backpacks for kids and also bullet proof briefcases for adults.  The questions basically are asking if they work since some schools are even adopting a new version of the old “duck and cover” drills where students crouch down or get under desks and use the backpacks as a shield against incoming bullets.  The answer is a bit more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.”  So let’s take a quick look at body armor issues in a vacuum then apply it to the backpack approach.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the governmental body charged with testing and rating body armor.  In order to stop a bullet from a typical handgun up to .357 caliber you need a rating of III; to stop a .44 magnum you need a IIIA but to stop a high velocity rifle round like a 5.56/.223 round from an AR15 you need a rating of IIIMax or higher.  Nothing will stop armor piercing rounds from .30 caliber rifles.  Fortunately, most school shooters use 9mm or .357 handguns since few can handle the recoil of a .44 magnum.  So that means that if you are playing the statistical odds with your kid’s life, an armor panel with a level III rating will suffice.  For those of you convinced the AR is the weapon of choice for active shooters you need to go up to the IIIMax ratings.

But now when applying that objective data to reality, the issues get murky.  Lets say that the little darlings have a backpack capable of stopping whatever bullet is fired at them.  What is the problem?  Well problem 1 comes when you realize that those ratings are developed based on an average-sized (150-175 lb) adult male wearing close fitting vests.  Why does that matter?  It has to do with kinetic energy.  The least powerful of the common weapons is the 9mm handgun.  But at close range, its bullet, moving at well over 1,000 feet per second, contains 300 to 500 foot-pounds of energy.  If it hits a soft target and completely penetrates it the energy is not all released into the target; some goes on beyond it.  But if it is stopped in its tracks, it delivers it ALL at that point.  Meantime, an AR round at close range contains 1,500 or more foot pounds of kinetic energy; all of which is expended in milliseconds at the point of contact with a level IIIMax panel.

Let that number sink in for a moment.  Now imagine a sub 100-pound kid (or even an adult) holding a bullet stopping panel in front of them when suddenly that panel is hit with the equivalent of a 500-pound sledge hammer (or more if a high velocity rifle is used).  The blunt force trauma will be extreme and if the head is impacted it will almost certainly be lethal.  The bullet never touched them – it didn’t have to.  But all of its energy did and that is enough to kill.  Vests on adults work, when they do, because the impact zone is spread out and the mass of the target (the person shot) can better absorb it.  Make no mistake, it may still render them unconscious and with a long lasting very tender and massive bruise; it may even break ribs depending on what they are shot with and where the impact occurs.  But a child’s body is vastly more vulnerable, their bones less strong, and not even an adult could hold that panel in front of them, depending on arm strength along, and not expect some major damage.  No human has the grip strength to not have the panel ripped out of your grip and now slam into your body with the impact point far smaller as the bullet deforms the fabric.  

If you drape a bullet proof panel over a watermelon and shoot at it with a 9mm pistol, the melon will be fractured and broken into pieces even though the bullet never hit it.  Childrens’ skulls are softer than that.  Only solid (ceramic or steel) armor can absorb enough of the impact energy dispersal to minimize soft tissue and blunt force trauma but that type of armor is hot and heavy, and even so, no one is trying to hold it out in front of them as a shield based on arm and grip strength.  Imagine your child (or you) getting hit in the face with a 500 lb or more wrecking ball…

The best action for your kids is to not be there when the bullets arrive.  Run, hide, tack those backpacks up on the wall of the safe room, or other solid obstacles, or, when all else fails, ferociously swarm the shooter.  But those backpacks, while the panels inside may stop the bullet itself, they will not stop the transfer of energy.  Making you and them “feel” safe is not the same thing as actually being safe.

As my book notes, it is a sad cultural and social note that we are even having such a discussion.  But we are and we, as teachers, parents, and students, must.  Looking for scapegoats or blaming tools will not have any effect on this horrid phenomenon.  My book suggests some actions and solutions to try to minimize the damage but ultimately if we want to actually stop it, we have to look in the most disturbing of places… ourselves.  At the risk of sounding like a gratuitous commercial I’d encourage you to get my book, read it, think about it, and then start a community discussion about it.  I’m not pretending my solution is the only one or even the ultimate best one, and I certainly don’t believe it is likely to be adopted on a social wide level.  But perhaps it can lead to the discussions that will, in fact, lead to successful approaches.  And if it can do that then I’ll be a very happy camper.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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