The students were encouraged to take one gift and pass the rest down.
For them, it was a graduation present on their final day as eighth-graders at St. Cornelius Catholic School. For pretty much everyone else, it was a nylon-covered sign of the 21st-century nightmare that could unexpectedly unfold at any U.S. school.
The gifts were rectangular “ballistic shields” — 19-ounce bulletproof plates that can slide into a backpack, giving the 13- and 14-year-olds protection from an array of small-arms fire.
“I never thought I’d need this, no,” Jacob Nicosia told Philadelphia Fox-affiliate WTXF.
In the absence of major new policies after the Parkland, Fla., shooting in February, schools have scrambled to answer the uncomfortable question of what to do when students are in the crosshairs of shooters, with some educators even suggesting river stones and baseball bats as defense.
The Safe Shields given to the students at St. Cornelius in Chadd’s Ford, Pa., were donated by Unequal Technologies, a Glen Mills, Pa.-based company. The business makes protective gear, mostly for people playing team sports, according to the Associated Press. But it also manufactures the ballistic panel, a backpack insert aimed at the school-age market.
In bold letters, the website boasts that the Safe Shield has a “kid friendly design — cannot be inserted incorrectly, both sides protect.” The site says the bulletproof plate is “so thin it fits in virtually any pocket” and it also has a “washable, nylon cover” in case of spills.
The shield’s advertisement video is an unsettling mix of idyllic school imagery and weapons testing. It showed a bookbag sitting on a table next to an apple and a paper bag labeled “lunch.” A short time later, a gunman fires bullets into — but not through — the shield in a demonstration of its stopping power. “The Safe Shield is even resistant to stabbings,” an announcer said.
According to WTXF, Unequal donated the shields to the entire eighth-grade graduating class at St. Cornelius and 25 bullet-resistant plates also went to school faculty. The daughter of Unequal’s president attends St. Cornelius.
According to a Washington Post database, more than 215,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine shootings. There have been 18 school shootings this year, according to the database.
The solutions for addressing them are almost always uncomfortable and sometimes lampooned for bordering on the absurd.
“Every classroom has been equipped with a five-gallon bucket of river stone,” Blue Mountain School District Superintendent David Helsel told Pennsylvania legislators in March, according to ABC affiliate 16 WNEP. “If an armed intruder attempts to gain entrance into any of our classrooms, they will face a classroom full of students armed with rocks, and they will be stoned.”
Kenneth S. Trump, president of a school security consulting firm, told the Associated Press that the idea was illogical and could possibly cost lives. The effort, he told the AP, doesn’t enhance safety. It simply fills an emotional security need.
Another district in Pennsylvania has been arming its teachers with miniature baseball bats. As The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang reported, the bats are symbolic, signs that teachers should try to fight a school shooter.
“They’re the little souvenir bats that you buy in baseball parks,” Hall told The Washington Post. “They could be used as a weapon, but so could a number of things in a classroom.”
Other schools are experimenting with giving teachers firearms training, although the results have not always been glowing.
St. Cornelius Principal Barbara Rosini told WTXF she knows there’s only a small chance a shooter will target her school, but every bit of protection helps.
“Anything that we can do to protect our children and our staff, that’s what we have — that’s my job, to try to protect them, and I try to do the best I can,” Rosini said.
In this case, the protection was free. Regularly, the Safe Shields retail for $150 apiece. Schools get a $50 discount.