‘Hardening’ US Schools

William Astore says the idea of putting students and teachers inside pseudo military bunkers represents a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death.

(U.S. Department of Education)

By William Astore

American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.

Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.

That “softness” diagnosis leads to a seemingly logical quick fix: “harden” the schools, of course! Make them into “targets” too intimidating to approach thanks to, among other security measures, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof doors and windows, reinforced fences, armed guards, and even armed teachers.

Here’s the simple formula for it all: no more limpness, America, it’s time to get hard. Johnny and Janey may still find it challenging to read books or balance a checkbook (or even know what a checkbook is), but, hey, there must be an app for that, right? At least they’ll stay alive in our newly hardened schools. Or so we hope. There’s no app, after all, for reviving our kids after they’ve been shot and shredded by some assault-rifle-wielding maniac.

As a retired military officer and professor, and a former gun owner, the latest chapter in this country’s gun mania, the Republican urge to keep all those assault weapons circulating and still protect our children, strikes me not just all too strangely, but all too familiarly as well. Those voices calling for billions of dollars to “harden” schools reflect, of course, the imagery of a sexualized hyper-masculinity, but something else as well: a fetish for military-speak. In my service, the Air Force, we regularly spoke of “hardening” targets or “neutralizing” them.

In essence, politicians like Graham and Cruz seem way too eager to turn our schools into some combination of fortresses and bomb shelters, baby versions of the massive nuclear shelter I occupied in the 1980s during my first tour of duty in the Air Force (on which more in a moment). Button up and hunker down, America — not from the long-gone “red” enemy without, armed with nuclear missiles, but from the red-hot (as in murderously hateful) enemy within.

These days, that increasingly means a school-age shooter or shooters armed with military-grade weaponry, usually acquired all too legally. Sound the klaxons! Lock and (especially) load! It’s time to go to DEFCON 1 (maximum military readiness, as in war) not in nuclear shelters but in America’s schools.

School drill at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea, Feb. 21, 2020. (USAG- Humphreys, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Speaking of my Cold War nuclear-bunker days in the 1980s, when I was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain, America’s command center for its nuclear defense in Colorado, a few things stood out then. Security guards, for one. Locking cipher doors, for another. Security ID badges. Razor wire. Video monitors. Blast doors. I was in the ultimate lockdown fortress. But tell me the truth: Is this truly what we want our schools to look like — pseudo-military bunkers for the (hot) war increasingly blazing in our society?

In fact, the whole “hardening” idea represents not a defense against, but a surrender to the notion of schools as potential sites of gun combat and mass death. To submit to such a scenario is, in the view of this retired military officer and educator, a thoroughly defeatist approach to both safety and education. It’s tantamount to admitting that violence and fear not only rule our lives but will continue to do so in ever more horrific ways and that the only solution is to go hard with even more “security” and even more guns.

Hardening our schools implies hardening our hearts and minds, while we cede yet more power to security experts and police forces. And that may be precisely why so many authority figures so lustily advocate for the “hard” way. It is, in the end, the easy path to disaster.

The Hard Way as the Easy Way Out

Though six of my college-teaching years were at a military academy, where I wore a uniform and my students saluted me as class began, it never occurred to me to carry a loaded gun (even concealed). For the remaining nine years, I taught at a conservative college in rural Pennsylvania where, you may be surprised to learn, guns were then forbidden on campus. But that, of course, was in another age. Only at the tail end of my college teaching career were lockable doors installed and voluntary lockdown drills instituted.

I never ran such a drill myself.

Why not? Because I refused to inject more fear into the minds of my students. In truth, given the unimaginably violent chaos of a school shooting, you’d almost automatically know what to do: lock the door(s) to try to keep the shooter out, call 911, and duck and cover (which will sound familiar to veterans of early Cold War era schooling). If cornered and as a last resort, perhaps you’d even rush the shooter. My students, who were young adults, could have plausibly done this. Children in the third and fourth grades, as in the Uvalde slaughter, have no such option.

A memorial site for the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, which killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.  (U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

That mass shooting took place at a hardened school with locking doors, one that ran lockdown and evacuation drills regularly, and had fences. And yet, of course, none of that, including 911 calls from the students, prevented mass death. Not even the presence of dozens of heavily armed police inside and outside the school mattered because the commander at the scene misread the situation and refused to act. Well-trained “good guys with guns” proved remarkably useless against the bad guy with a gun because the “good guys” backed off, waited, and then waited some more, more than an hour in all, an excruciating and unconscionable delay that cost lives.

But combat can be like that. It’s chaotic. It’s confusing. People freeze or act too quickly. It’s not hard to make bad decisions under deadly pressure. At Uvalde, the police disregarded standard operating procedure that directs the immediate engagement of the shooter until he’s “neutralized.” But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fear and uncertainty cloud the judgment even of all-too-hardened professionals, which should teach us something about the limitations of the hard option.

A related hardening measure that’s been proposed repeatedly, including by former President Donald Trump, is to arm and train teachers to confront shooters. It’s a comforting fantasy, imagining teachers as Dirty Harry-like figures, blowing away bad guys with poise and precision.

Sadly, it’s just that, a fantasy. Imagine teachers with guns, caught by surprise, panicking as their students are shot before their eyes. How likely are they to respond calmly with deadly accuracy against school shooter(s) who, the odds are, will outgun them? “Friendly fire” incidents happen all too frequently even in combat featuring highly trained and experienced soldiers. Armed teachers could end up accidentally shooting one or more of their students as they tried to engage the shooter(s). How could we possibly ask teachers to bear such a burden?

Let’s also think about the kind of teacher who wants to carry a weapon in a classroom. My brother was a security policeman in the Air Force, and he understands all too well the allure of weaponry to certain types of people. As he put it to me recently, “A gun is power. To some, even the psychologically relatively stable among us, carrying a gun is indeed like having a permanent hard-on. You have the power of life and death as well. It can be a pure ego-driven power trip, sexual, every time you get to pull the trigger. You give a guy a gun and strange things can happen.”

Think of your least favorite teacher in your K-12 experience, perhaps the one who intimidated you the most. Now, think of that very teacher “hardened” with a gun in class. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Arming Lady Liberty (to the Teeth)

Arming teachers is a measure of our collective confusion and desperation, though some politicians like Donald Trump are sure to continue to press for it. Again, if I’m an armed teacher, perhaps with a concealed 9mm pistol, I’d have virtually no chance against a shooter or shooters with AR-15s and body armor. Does that mean I need an AR-15 and body armor, too? Who needs an arms race with the Russians or Chinese when we can have one in every school in America?

What, then, of hardening schools? We’re back to locking security doors, reinforced fences around campus, cameras everywhere, metal detectors at each entrance, and of course more armed police (or “school resource officers,” known as SROs) in the hallways. We’re talking about untold scores of billions of dollars spent to turn every American school into a fortress/bunker, a place to hunker down and ride out a violent weapons-of-mass-destruction storm of our own making.

And mind you, of all the things we don’t know, one thing we do: this hunkering down, this fear will be indelibly etched into the minds of our kids as they navigate our ever more hardened, over-armed schools. It won’t be healthy, that’s for sure. In seeking to reduce and eliminate school shootings in America, we should be guided by the goal of not making matters worse for our children.

Gun control march, Jan. 7, 2014, Milwaukee. (Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

As horrific as they are, headline-grabbing school shootings are rare indeed compared to the number of schools across America. Indeed, given the violence of this society and the extreme violence we routinely export to other countries across the globe, it’s surprising we don’t have more school shootings. Their relative rarity should reassure us that all is not lost. Not yet, anyway.

I get it. We all want to feel safe and, above all, we want our kids to be safe. But buying them bulletproof backpacks or hardening their schools is the wrong approach. Besides, if we spend massively on school security, what’s to stop a shooter determined to kill children from going elsewhere to find them? It’s horrifyingly grim logic, but he’d likely go to a playground, or the movies, or a dance recital, or any other “soft” place where children might gather. And what then? I for one don’t want to live in fortress America, surrounded by armed and armored police and intrusive security gadgetry “for my protection.”

Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything but the most modest gun reforms (forget banning military-style weapons or even restricting their sale to people 21 and older), the hardening of schools is an easy target (so to speak). As gun enthusiasts like to say: don’t focus on the weapons, focus on the shooters.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, right? As best we can, we must identify those crazed enough to want to murder innocent kids and get them the help they need before they start squeezing triggers. We should deny unstable people the ability to own and wield weapons of mass destruction — that is, assault rifles (and preferably simply ban such weaponry period). We must do everything possible to reform our blood-drenched society with all its weapons-porn. One thing is guaranteed, as a “solution” to the gun problem, adding more of them and other forms of “hardness” into an already deadly mix will only worsen matters.

Quick fixes are tempting, but school-hardening measures and even more “good guys with guns” aren’t the answer. If they were, those 19 children and two adults in Uvalde might still be alive. An exercise in over-the-top security, meanwhile, is guaranteed to do one thing — and that is, of course, starve schools of the funds they need to… well, teach our kids. You know, subjects like math and science and English and history. We’re trending toward graduating a generation of young people who may have trouble reading and writing and adding but will be experts at ducking and covering behind hardened backpacks.

Going hard isn’t the answer, America. Unless the “hard” you’re talking about is the hard I grew up with, meaning high academic standards instilled by demanding and dedicated teachers. If, however, we continue to harden and militarize everything, especially our schools and the mindsets of our children, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when this country becomes a bastion bristling with weapons, one where Lady Liberty has relinquished her torch and crown for an AR-15 and a ballistic helmet from the local armory.

And that’s not liberty — it’s madness.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is “Bracing Views.”

This article is from TomDispatch.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

15 comments for “‘Hardening’ US Schools

  1. Piotr Berman
    July 1, 2022 at 04:30

    Astore touches upon many important aspects. First, there are always some people who get depressed, suicidal and to some degree crazy. Of those, most are harmless, of the rest, they do some kind of self-harm, and then there are rather few individuals who may want to do something spectacular. Nevertheless, they are not particularly intelligent or original, they take ideas circulated in the popular culture and proceed accordingly. And USA has its “gun culture” with collecting weapons, discussing “stopping power”, reveling in “ra-ta-ta-ta” or some other sound effects (compare with young motorcyclists who insist to make noise, there was a subculture like that).

    In central Pennsylvania where I live and Astore worked for a while, gun culture is more related to hunting and murders are rare. Hunting culture has more discussion how to AVOID shooting each other (an acute practical problem during a hunting season) and few about STOPPING POWER and ra-ta-ta-ta. Every few years something worse happens, e.g. a girl brought a hunting rifle to campus and shot some people, or someone shot a few kids in an Amish school (I remember those two cases as bizarre events over few decades),

    Another issue is the huge disparity stemming from the weapon and training. Some people train for competition when you have to shoot accurately (like hitting center of the target from a pistol from 100 ft away, equivalent of hitting someone in the eye) or less accurately (the good score requires hitting inside a circle with the size of a forehead) but fast. I think that a person competing in the second event would have a good chance against an opponent with an automatic weapon — but not many spend few hours a week for that exact purpose.

    One can dwell more on cases and limits of security measures, but the solution must change the culture with less stress on laws and security measures. Our politicians are pretty bloodthirsty, and rhetoric implants “resolute attitudes” that lead to massive casualties, and hardly ever talk about co-existence and compromise. Besides havoc that occurs on the global scale, we experience cultural effect at home, ideas that resonate with vulnerable minds.

    • joey_n
      July 1, 2022 at 17:17

      Didn’t know you lived in the US (Pennsylvania in particular) but I digress.

  2. Charles Carroll, U.S. Navy Retired
    June 30, 2022 at 09:51

    I agree!

  3. June 30, 2022 at 07:54

    I’d like to correct the teacher. You said: “Admittedly, in a country in which Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything…”

    Unfortunately, the teacher missed the lesson about how we live in a country where the Democrats and Republicans agree on almost everything, including endless wars of aggression, bailing out failed banks with taxpayer’s money, tax cuts for the rich, regime change in socialist countries, constantly increasing military budgets, targeted assassination by drone, privatization of public works, low minimum wage, no universal health care and many, many other important issues. Obviously, they agree on almost everything that matters. So please reread that chapter on American politics, and write an essay on how the congress manages to pass so many terrible laws.

    • robert e williamson jr
      July 1, 2022 at 13:44

      Sweet comment! Thought provoking.

  4. TP Graf
    June 30, 2022 at 06:44

    We’ve hardened our curriculum so that teachers “teach to the test” while forfeiting creativity (and it must be said the ability to foster actual thought). Do we really want to lock our children into hardened prisons seven-plus hours a day in the name of safety? As someone who has never owned a gun, never wanted a gun and never plans to own a gun, but who did give serious consideration to teaching back in my college days, I wouldn’t touch the teaching profession now with a ten-foot pole. How many people, who would make excellent teachers, walk away from the profession or never give it a second’s considerations because of our lethal, fear-based approach to every problem. Who will be left in charge of education of our children then? The psychopaths that love violence and death–that’s who. I guess that’s only right since we elect the same psychopaths to govern us; they might as well start at the preschool level and hold us hostage all our life. Hardened prisons have proved such a great tool of rehabilitation. Let’s extend it to the classroom as well.

  5. Jeff Harrison
    June 29, 2022 at 21:06

    Mr. Astore is describing something that is not a society. The reality is that the real problem is that the US has an incredibly sick society which solves problems both internal and external through the use of overwhelming force. If I wasn’t 72 with 6 daughters and 8 grandkids, I’d be outta here so fast it’d make your head spin. I’ve lived many other places where the society is far more civil.

    • Mcelroy
      July 1, 2022 at 06:15

      Where would you go? Shortlist. Asking for a friend.

  6. Shaun Onimus
    June 29, 2022 at 20:59

    A backpack filled with books is pretty good at stopping bullets. I remember carrying around 3 hardcover textbooks at a time(yay bad posture), no need to bulletproof these heavy, thick word-holders . Maybe they had also taught me a few things along the way(that I forgot once I grabbed a smartphone). I’d like to think the answer is books, not for the bullet stopping but for stopping the ideas before they grow roots to shoot em.

  7. M Beresford
    June 29, 2022 at 16:13

    Idiocy reigns, what a cop-out, the only area children of the last and this generation are weak, is internally understanding the demanded actions —that go with (I did wrong and I’m sorry). Missing for 3 decades is the real expected demand of consequences —that previous parenting and schools not only expected but demanded or else.

    The desensitizing of students to ‘playing out’ action figures in asinine defense games during class time is fearfully misplaced…..students should and need to know that conflicts and bodily crimes are far removed from school premises —not a daily possibility as these abusive dumb –armed student military drills (best left to the bloody military who now fight not for their country or people but foreign corporations in the open acknowledgement of stealing resources/robbing/banks of weakened foreign (now disavowed Middle Eastern countries since —hollowing out profits from federal/state governmental services/programs are all that are left for our ever obese corporations—that use trade agreements to -impose obese corps as equal to small-to-medium home companies in government contract negotiations. Welcome the treason acts of phony regime-changes and lies to use taxpayer monies to shovel taxpayer monies illegally to defence corporations–that cannot survive without wars…..and the real life-taken pillage gained…..Every corrupt power has to start somewhere—and it has always been the young targeted first not by words or agreement but by the bully-force of corporate military greed that furthers their profit market with new needs—that will be supplied…..

    • Kyra
      July 1, 2022 at 00:32

      It should be a crime to send a small child to military school. They grow up thinking the military is their family, and that war is normal, it’s normal and expected to solve conflicts with violence. Questioning authority and conscience are long gone before adulthood is reached. They are soldier bots who can be programmed to do anything the US military asks for. I’m pleased that my grandpa’s military school shut down. I wish every other would follow.

      Parentheses are always used in pairs. You opened but did not close two left parens in your text. The exception to the rule, when you only need a single parenthesis, is a smile.

    • TrompeL'Oeil
      July 1, 2022 at 05:26

      “Idiocy reigns”

      Not everywhere hence the “trouble”.

  8. TrompeL'Oeil
    June 29, 2022 at 15:03

    “‘Hardening’ US Schools”

    Some perceive that it is time to increase the fear level through various vectors so “we can get with the team”, not only by thanking them for their service, and this is a potential vector in such “enhancement”, whilst some problems will likely lie in co-ordination as a function of too-many-cooks-spoil-the-brothness, whilst possibly increasing sales of opiates, and facilitating accelerating iterations of Mr. Rove’s -We Are An Empire routine.

  9. June 29, 2022 at 14:53

    I just came back from Bangladesh and people there kept asking me about the shootings in America. They can not understand this culture at all. All I could say is that, Americans (not all but too many) love their guns more than their kids.

    • Mcelroy
      July 1, 2022 at 06:21

      Wrong. We love our freedom enough to sacrifice our own lives, and those of our kids, to keep it.

      These shootings may come from a sick culture, but they likely also stem from unchecked power in the IC, using black ops and psyops against their own people. We know at least some of them were gov sponsored or encouraged. We also know the media is our enemy, and they are the ones that blast these shootings on the airwaves non stop for days at a time.

      There are more than just crazy gun owners causing this problem.

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