PERSPECTIVE: Why a ‘Bulletproof’ Backpack Isn’t the Answer to Protect Kids from Active Shooters

It’s a new school year, and due to very recent active-shooter incidents many parents are seeing advertising for what has been termed by portions of the media as the must have item for back-to-school: bulletproof backpacks.

It is very important to realize protective vests termed bulletproof, similar to the type worn on every arrest while an FBI agent, are not actually bulletproof. They are bullet-resistant. The same applies to supposed bulletproof backpacks. They are not bulletproof but ballistic (bullet) resistant. There’s a limit on what they can stop. Ballistic-resistant materials only protect against different types of handguns and possibly knife-slashing. Essentially “nothing” is absolutely bulletproof. In a small percentage of instances, a bullet can pierce a vest or a bullet-resistant backpack that’s been rated to stop them. If properly cared for, the vest should last five years.

Some things to consider when weighing whether to purchase a bullet-resistant backpack:

  • Cost — approximately $175 and upwards.
  • Gun violence is high, but chances of being killed by an active shooter are small. You are much more likely to be struck by lightning in a thunderstorm.
  • In the unlikely event a student experiences an active shooter, 1) the backpack won’t protect them from the front or side, 2) slung over the shoulder renders the backpack absolutely useless, 3) in an effort to flee an active shooter, students may panic, take off their backpack and run, rendering the backpack totally useless.
  • The probability exists the student won’t have access to their backpack. Walking the hallways between classes during the school day, seated in class, in the cafeteria at lunch, in the auditorium for assemblies, recess in the playground, PT in Phys-Ed class, etc.
  • As an increase to security procedures many school districts are mandating students utilize clear, see- through backpacks similar to the ones required at stadiums and arenas.

Bullet-resistant backpacks are made of what is called “soft armor,” a Kevlar-style lightweight material. This substance used to produce bullet-resistant backpacks is categorized as “Level IIIA.” This signifies the backpack is designed to protect against most handgun ammunition: .38, .357, 9mm, .40 and .45 caliber, and .44 magnum. Read and understand the fine print, and research if you do not.

In recent school shootings, mass shooters utilized AR-15 semi-automatic long weapons. Bullet-resistant backpacks are useless to resist rounds fired from these weapons. The round is considerably more powerful, fired at a higher velocity, in rapid succession with significant impact.

For example, a typical round fired from an AR-15 leaves the barrel traveling three times faster at high velocity (+/- 2900 FPS), striking with three times the energy and lethality than rounds fired from a .38 (+/-840 FPS). The 9MM (+/-1180 FPS), 40 caliber (+/-1300 FPS) or .357 (+/-1510 FPS) also don’t match the AR-15’s power. All available backpacks will do nothing to protect against a .223 round from an AR-15. High velocity rounds penetrate steel plates at 500 yards.

“Hard armors” are designed to resist high-caliber, high-velocity rounds and tend to be quite heavy. School backpacks are not made with the stronger ballistic-resistant hard plates. They would be too heavy to wear and carry for most, especially small children.

To guarantee anything absolutely bulletproof is naïve. Bullet-resistant backpacks as protection for our children do nothing more than provide a warm and fuzzy feeling for parents who believe they just did something to protect their kids. Security professionals agree bullet-resistant backpacks will not protect anyone from an active shooter utilizing a high-powered weapon firing high-velocity rounds.

Active shooters are well aware of the same concerns you have.

Active shooters understand security deficiencies and how to take advantage of each.

Active shooters plan and prepare before engaging in their attack, including target selection, surveillance, observing schedules, ascertaining site access, etc.

Nationwide, schools and other venues continue to be “soft targets.” So what’s the best way to protect and address the problem of safety and security?

Everyone at all levels of responsibility must accept their obligation and endeavor to develop levels of preparedness to deter, deny, detect and delay another tragedy at the entry point before access is gained.

One blatantly obvious remedy has been staring us in the face prior to the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999: Prevent an active shooter by interrupting his/her plan before access is gained to the school. Concentrate upon a single point of access. Combine overall access control, positive entry control systems, proactive physical security policy, procedure and process.

A School Safety & Security Assessment (SSSA) assists with this endeavor. SSSA provides a picture of the level of safety and security at the institution and will identify and prioritize areas requiring improvement to protect students and staff. The assessment will review, among other areas, the entire venue, perimeter security, entry and access control, building interior and exterior, lighting, classrooms, windows, key reporting, communication, personnel and equipment, emergency plan, etc. How effective are the security policies and procedures that have been implemented? How solid is a school’s awareness of present and future risk, threats and vulnerability?

One School Resource Officer (SRO) placed within each school during the school day is barely a microscopic portion of the remedy. Believing one SRO to be the sole solution to school security is careless, neglectful and very naive.

A comprehensive security assessment is how responsible individuals begin efforts to protect, defend and limit active-shooter incidents targeting all soft targets — particularly our schools.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Hard Conversations About Soft Targets: DHS Workshop Aims to Save Lives in Mass Shootings

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Peter D. Yachmetz of Yachmetz Consulting Group, LLC, is a retired FBI agent, having served 29 years at the Bureau. With both private and corporate sector security consulting experience, his specialities include physical security, access control, due diligence and comprehensive background screening, red-team assessment and penetration testing, security risk assessments, special event safety-security, and seminars/training on subjects including terrorism, school safety and security, and active shooter.

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