Kevin Thomas said he was traveling to Virginia for a construction project in June when his wife, Kristen, called him crying.
“I’m just a guy,” Thomas told her.
“I know if you start, you won’t stop until it’s done,” Thomas recalled Kristen saying.
This week, an Alabama school system unveiled Thomas’s new product in two classrooms: a small, bulletproof shelter where students and teachers could hide in the event of a shooting threat.
While the 8-by-8-foot safe rooms are new to West Elementary School in Cullman, Ala., Thomas, 55, hopes to extend the shelters to schools across the United States.
“Those parents in Uvalde and Sandy Hook and Columbine and all the rest of them … we got to let them know, ‘We hear you, and we’re going to do something as individuals,’” Thomas said. “Because right now we can’t depend on the government.”
While Thomas, who owns KT Security Solutions in Cullman, said he’ll install the rooms anywhere, he sees them as a temporary solution.
“Is this the end-all, and we can just stop thinking about it? Absolutely not,” Thomas said. “This is a way to buy time until we as a community and a country figure out the bigger, deeper-rooted problems.
“I hope this thing has to go out of business because we fixed it.”
After a job designing movie theaters for an architectural firm, Thomas said, he started a construction company in 2000. In recent years, he said, he has contracted with retail companies to build small houses for the homeless and with military contractors to construct bulletproof shelters.
Thomas said he cried last summer reading a news story about Uvalde students who died hours after earning honor roll recognition. He tried to fathom his despair if his 5-year-old grandson or 2-year-old granddaughter were present for the attack that killed 19 students and two teachers. School shootings have become more common in recent years, with 46 in 2022.
“I don’t control things at the lawmaking and legislative levels,” Thomas said. “So I was like, ‘Well, what can I do?’ This is what I can do: I know how to build things. I know how to design things.”
While in Virginia, Thomas said, he drew his idea for a safe room, and he built a table-size prototype when he returned home. In July, Thomas said, he spoke with Alabama state Sen. Garlan Gudger (R) and Eric Mackey, Alabama’s superintendent of education, to approve a pilot project.
Thomas said he partnered with three construction companies to get the necessary materials. He said he used ballistics protection strong enough to stop gunfire from most handguns and rifles. He framed the structure with heavy steel to prevent bullets from creating small cracks and employed a locking system similar to those used at U.S. embassies. Thomas said he can install exterior cameras, and teachers can watch footage on a phone app while locked inside the safe room.
About 30 people can fit inside the shelter, Thomas said, and it locks from the inside with a key. The rooms fold into the corner of a larger room but can be pulled out to form the four-walled shelter in 10 seconds, Thomas said.
Thomas said they can also be used as whiteboards and quiet reading and tutoring spaces. Hali Marquette, a special education teacher, told AL.com that she also uses her classroom’s safe room “as a sensory space.”
“It’s an incentive … if you behave, if you do what is asked of you, you can go in and have some free time,” Marquette told AL.com.
Thomas said the rooms cost about $50,000 to construct, but he hopes to receive funding from other states and Alabama districts. He also wants to make some big enough for cafeterias and gyms.
“I don’t want this in my own grandkids’ school, but … I’m going to see to it that it goes in,” Thomas said, “so I can have the peace of mind to know that when I drop them off at school in the morning, I’ve got a really good chance of picking them up.”