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Lockdown Lowdown: Are school security measures merely an illusion of safety?

Lockdown Lowdown: Are school security measures merely an illusion of safety? (WWMT Graphics/Denise Schermerhorn)

In a race to keep schools safe from the threat of school shootings, the Newschannel 3 I-Team is uncovering that some popular safety products marketed toward and purchased by schools are coming under criticism.

Many of the devices are designed to block classroom doors and make it nearly impossible for a school shooter to enter.

Some districts in West Michigan have purchased the products like The Boot, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Among the customers are various schools in Barry, Calhoun, Mason County, and others.

“We have old thousands of them across the state of Michigan and into Ohio, along with several other states,” Brenann Couturier, CEO of the company that makes The Boot, said.

On Lockout’s website, it touts the endorsements of several law enforcement agencies, but other school security experts and those who study mass-shootings say products like The Boot are far from perfect, and sometimes can pose problems.

“Putting something on the door that requires fine motor skills to install is a bad idea,” Joe Hendry, a school security trainer, said.

Hendry describes the door-stopping devices as aftermarket school security products.

“The best response for any active shooter or any security measure is to build it into the building when it’s being built, not putting some aftermarket product on there and thinking you’re safe,” he said.

Hendry also cautioned that the door stop products can be used to the advantage of a shooter if he or she decides to barricade students into a room, among other concerns.

“You can also put a pebble in the hole to stop the device,” he said, referring to those who might sabotage the products’ effectiveness.

Hendry is not alone with his concern over the door-stop products being sold to schools.

The National Association of State Fire Marshalls (NASFA) urges caution for schools who may be considering purchasing the door-stop products.

A release by NASFA states:

...Devices which prevent classroom doors from being unlocked and openable from outside the classroom may place the inhabitants of the room in peril.

NASFA provides a checklist for schools to consider before buying and installing the devices in a manner that might endanger students.

The cost of many of these aftermarket school security devices is also been critiqued by some who wonder if schools are actually buying security, or just peace of mind.

There are other similar products being marketed and sold to schools in West Michigan as well, such as the Nightlock. A flyer obtained by the I-Team shows a United Say Campaign urging parents to make a $59 donation to buy the locks for schools.

Couturier, the CEO of Lockout, sat down and answered questions posed by some of The Boot’s critics.

“We agree with the idea that if we could go back 100 or 50 years and rebuild our schools in a way that’s better for safety and security. We agree that would be amazing,” she said, when asked about Hendry’s comments about building security features into schools instead of having them buy aftermarket products. “Unfortunately most schools don’t have the budget to tear down a school and rebuild it with these new safety problems."

Lockout’s CEO also noted that The Boot has evolved since the beginning to better address the concerns of law enforcement.

As for fears that a would-be shooter might use the device to barricade the classroom, the company touts a “custom-designed patent-pending Spin Key release mechanism,” that allows for law enforcement to potentially get into the classroom if The Boot is being used.

Some also warn the devices could put those with disabilities at risk.

“The issue with these is they often time violate codes, NFPA codes or Fire codes, ADA codes, can someone with a disability implement that feature as well?” Paul Timm of RETA security said in an interview with Campus Safety.

According to an email obtained by the I-Team, during a sales pitch to a potential Boot customer, an employee made claims that The Boot was "approved by the Fire Marshall...", although it's not clear what Fire Marshall the employee was referring to.

Michigan's State Fire Marshall Kevin Sehlmeyer said he has not endorsed The Boot.

"When you start modifying doors and it bumps up against the fire code in the state, that worries me," Sehlmeyer said. "The whole idea of fire codes is so people can exit buildings," he added.

State University of New York Oswesgo Professor Jaclyn Schildkraut, author of Mass Shootings: Media, Myths and Realities, also expresses some worry about the amount of money school districts are spending on devices.

“The reality is the research shows that nobody has ever actually been killed behind a locked door,” she said, referring to the fact that some classroom doors already have locks on them. “You can put locks on the doors for pennies on the dollar and maybe put the rest of the resources toward after school programs, school lunch programs, or things that are much more significant problems for our schools today.”

Schildkraut added that The Boot is an interesting idea, but cautioned school districts need to think deeply about school security purchases.

“I think the most important thing to realize is that every different environment has different needs,” she said.

Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf encouraged schools in his county to buy The Boot, and is listed as one of the product’s supporters on Lockout’s website.

He acknowledged the potential concerns raised about The Boot in terms of a shooter using it to his or her advantage, but he maintained it’s still the best solution for his county.

“The Boot is probably the best thing we have on the market right now,” he said.

As for the concern about districts spending money on such products, Leaf defended purchases of school security devices.

“What else are you going to spend money on?” he asked.

According to data from IHS Markit, in 2014 schools spent approximately $720 million in 2014, with that number
expected to grow.

The Boot has done well in terms of sales to West Michigan schools.

The devices cost about $100,000 to install at Lakeview Schools in Battle Creek.

In Hastings, city voters approved a $70,000 bond to put them in classrooms.

The I-Team also obtained an invoice from Mason County, showing a $30,000 contract for The Boot.

Over in Barry County, despite the concerns raised about the door-stop devices like The Boot, Sheriff Leaf says he doesn't regret local schools installing the products.

"For the most part, that boot is probably the best thing we have on the market right now.” he said.

He says the odds of an intruder using the doorstops to trap students, is very small and he urges those who have concerns about how much the devices cost, to have perspective.

“When the terrorists went and flew those planes into the buildings, what did we do? We armed the pilots, we put heavier doors, we do that for our airports, but what are we doing for our children?” he said.

As the debate over school security methods continues, Lockout’s CEO emphasized that the product is continuously being improved, and said that future models of The Boot will be designed to save district’s money.

“Four our new smart system what we’re doing is partnering with energy efficient lighting,” Couturier said as she showed a soon-to-be released product currently in the testing phase.

The new version of the boot will work with lights installed in the school that would dim if the product is installed in the door, automatically prompting other teachers to activate the Boot.

The lightbulbs that would be installed, according to Couturier, would save districts money.

“Our goal this entire time is to get this into a school at no cost to the school,” she said.

As for the older models, at Lakeview Schools, The Boot cost about $100,000 to be installed, while in Hastings, voters approved a $70,000 bond to install the products.

For now, it seems the school security industry shows no sign of slowing down, with a very real argument also not slowing down, over how to best keep students safe.

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