The staff at Gunning Bedford Middle School in New Castle, Delaware has been given hand-held whiteboards that double as bulletproof shields in case of a school shooting.
The equipment has been placed in the school as part of a pilot program created by state Sen. Nicole Poore and Rep. Valerie Longhurst.
Poore said she hopes to eventually place the boards in schools across Delaware.
"As an elected official and parent, I felt compelled to try any and everything possible to ensure the safety of our school children, their teachers and staff should there be an act of violence like we've seen repeated far too often across the country," Poore said. "If the bulletproof whiteboards save precious minutes for first responders, they will be a priceless addition to schools in our state."
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Made of material similar to the armor plating in bulletproof vests, the 18-by-20-inch boards are light enough to be carried around and used in class every day, but can be wielded like a shield and are capable of stopping shots from handguns and shotguns, according to George Tunis, Chairman and CEO of Hardwire, the company that makes them.
Tunis said the material in the boards was adapted from vehicle and personal armor used in combat.
If a shooter comes on campus, instructions on the back instruct users to grab the white board in a shield grip, position themselves between the shooter and other bystanders to protect them, then disable the attacker using the shield.
Tunis said the shields are designed to allow school staff to close the gap between themselves and shooters and force them to reload. The goal is to buy time for the rest of the school to evacuate and for police to arrive.
"We know that when it comes to an active shooter situation, a few seconds or minutes can make all the difference," he said.
Every staff member in the school, including custodians and secretaries, is equipped with the boards. Those at the front desk have thicker boards designed to withstand fire from more powerful "assault-style" weapons, because the front desk is often where shootings start, Tunis said.
There are 121 boards at Gunning Bedford and 19 at Pleasantville Elementary, also in New Castle.
"Hopefully it will never get used," said Tanya Aviola, a guidance counselor who saw the shields used during a demonstration. "I think it makes us feel a little safer, like, we have something for us to defend ourselves in case something horrible happens."
The shields were paid for by Delmarva Power, the Delaware City Refining Company and Monroe Energy. When purchased individually, they cost about $400, Tunis said.
Colonial School District Superintendent Dusty Blakey thanked the companies for funding the shields.
"For us, this was a no-brainer," he said. "Our job is to educate students, but if we don't feel safe and secure, we can't do that."
Not everyone, however, is convinced the shields are effective.
"We've looked at these types of situations really hard, and there's not a lot of indication that it's a good idea," said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit organization that helps schools and other organizations plan for crisis management. "Having survived being shot at, there's a lot of difference between a theoretical concept and a real live attack when someone is trying to kill you. I personally wouldn't bet my safety on this."
Dorn argues devices like the whiteboards can only be effective after long, very stressful training. And, when under duress, people tend to "fixate" on the shields and forget to do things like lock doors or alert the rest of the school or simply flee, he said.
School staff emphasized that the boards are "just another tool," and that the school has developed and practiced plans for lockdown under new state rules aimed at beefing up security.
Dorn also said fear of "active shooters" can sometimes distract schools from events that, while less headline-grabbing are far more common, like suicides, bullying and bus incidents.
"I worry that we have very serious tunnel-vision," he said.
The whiteboards are the latest in a line of proposals for how to improve security in schools. Lawmakers have previously pushed for better locks in classroom doors and "panic buttons" at the front desk that allow the police to be silently summoned, but costs to the state have proven too high to easily implement such programs.
Much of that discussion was spurred by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 young children and six adult school staff dead.