After last week’s mass murder at Santa Fe High School—with ten dead and thirteen wounded—Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick suggested that Texas needs to harden its schools to limit access. One way in, going past security. The immediate reaction I saw on social media was that Patrick is crazy. But the idea already is implemented in inner city schools in New York and Detroit. It is the expense and shortcomings that make the idea unworkable.
Without doubt, this idea came from Patrick’s own experience with a gunman. On January 21, 2010, Fausto Cardenas followed one of Patrick’s female staffers into his Capitol office while carrying a concealed handgun. He left when she called security. Cardenas then walked out on the south steps and discharged his pistol several times into the air before he was arrested. Patrick was not present at the time, but demanded that the Capitol’s open door policy be replaced by increased security—resulting in $3 million in security upgrades: metal detectors at all four entrances manned by armed Texas Department of Public Safety troopers.
So we should not be surprised that Patrick would offer a similar solution to school shootings at a news conference in the aftermath of the Santa Fe tragedy. A former Majory Stoneman Douglas student walked into the Parkland, Florida, school in February and killed seventeen students and teachers. A current Santa Fe student walked into the building with a shotgun hidden beneath a long coat and then opened fire on an art class, prompting this comment from Patrick:
We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward and retrofitting schools that are already built. And what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits to our over eight thousand campuses. There aren’t enough people to put a guard at every entrance and exit. You would be talking twenty-five-, thirty-, forty thousand people. But if we can protect a large office building or a courthouse or any major facility maybe we need to look at limiting the entrance and the exits into our schools so that we can have law enforcement looking at the people who come in one or two entrances.
Schools may have to have (change) their start day—not all students show up at once…. We’re going to have to be creative, we’re going to have to think out of the box because, for what we know today, this student walked in today with a long coat and a shotgun under his coat. It’s 90 degrees. Had there been one single entrance possibly for every student, maybe he would have been stopped. Now that will take a lot of work and a lot of money, but we need to do the work and do the money to protect the children the best we can. In other words we may need to harden our schools and make them safer.
In some inner city schools in neighborhoods where violence is common, walk-through metal detectors are routine. Detroit was one of the first cities to do this, followed by schools in New York and Chicago. Los Angeles does random checks on students with metal detectors. Civil libertarians complain that the increased security with guards makes schools feel more like prisons than places of education and advancement.
There are numerous other downsides to Patrick’s idea, not the least of which is the cost. The price of walk-through metal detectors range, in general, from about $3,500 to $5,000 each. There are more than 9,100 public school and charter school campuses in Texas. If metal detectors cost $4,000 each, then the total price tag for equipping the state school buildings would run about $36.4 million. (And, with the way the Texas Legislature has been acting in recent years, the state merely will mandate that schools adopt this procedure and pay for it out of local tax dollars.) That cost does not include the ongoing price tag of security personnel payroll.
For a second downside, we need only look at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza murdered twenty children and six adults in December 2012. Sandy Hook was a locked facility. Lanza shot out a window made of tempered glass to gain access to the building. When law enforcement officers arrived minutes after the shooting began, one had to use the butt of his rifle to knock out the glass on a locked door so officers could enter the building. A locked facility did not thwart the shooter but did momentarily delay police. From start to finish, the Newtown incident took about eleven minutes.
A third downside is the fact that so many urban and suburban schools in Texas have had to resort to using portable buildings to handle growing student body populations. These buildings usually can only be accessed by leaving the main building and walking outside to the portable. So would each portable have a metal detector? And what about recess or athletic activities? This is not as far-fetched a question as you might think.
On August 3, 1987, an unemployed welder names Patrick Purdy went to a gun store and purchased a Chinese-made AK-47. A loner who filled his hotel room with toy soldiers, Purdy hated Asians, believing they were taking jobs away from “native-born” Americans. On January 17, 1989, Purdy took his weapon to Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, where the predominantly Asian student body was having fun on the playground during recess. Purdy opened fire, killing five and wounding 32 before taking his own life. The national debate over assault weapons—which I prefer to call military-style tactical weapons to avoid the niggling over fully automatic versus semi-automatic—began that day.
When Patrick appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, he blamed everything but guns and offered any solution other than any kind of restrictions on firearms. Santa Fe already had decided to send teachers through the training program to allow some of them to carry firearms, but it had not yet been implemented. However, one of those critically wounded Friday was the school’s resource office, the in-house policeman who tried to stop the shooting. Here’s what Patrick had to say:
George, should we be surprised in this nation? We have devalued life, whether it’s through abortion, whether it’s the breakup of families, through violent movies, and particularly violent video games which now outsell movies and music. Psychologists and Psychiatrists will tell you that students are desensitized to violence, may have lost empathy for their victims by watching hours and hours of video violent games. Ninety-seven percent, George, of teenagers, according to psychiatrists and psychologists, watch video games, 85 percent of those are violent games.
Are we desensitized, are these children, are these teenagers?
And then, of course, George we have our schools that are not hard targets. We have done a good job since 9/11 of protecting government buildings, and airports, and private buildings, but we have not done anything to harden the target at our schools. And we still have this gun debate, George, on whether or not teachers should be armed or not. I believe, and the parents of the students I’ve talked to in Santa Fe since Friday believe they should be.
But as we have seen, shooters have attacked students through broken windows and on playgrounds. A school policeman was unable to halt the tragedy in Santa Fe. There simply is no way to make a school completely secure, and in hardening schools we might just be preparing a future generation of acceptance for living in a police state. Talking about school hardening is just a way of avoiding talk of the real problem—firearms in the hands of people who should not have them. Texas hardened the Capitol on Patrick’s demand, but anyone with a License to Carry can enter the building with a concealed handgun and bypass the line at the metal detectors. That license requires additional background checks and a minimum amount of training. Perhaps the licensing and registration of firearms might be a good place to start the discussion.
Incidentally, I have an LTC that I got mostly so I could avoid the security lines at the Capitol. On qualifying shooting, I scored the highest of anyone in my class, a 248 out of a possible 250 points. I don’t carry. As a journalist, I have walked into more than one dangerous situation unarmed and will continue to do so. But asking responsible firearm owners to go through an additional DPS background check and spend four hours on a Saturday proving their competency does not seem like a lot to ask when children are dying at school.