Inside the School Shooting Industrial Complex

Mass murder is big business, but can new technologies and old techniques really save America's educators?


Tim Kile may be the only person ready to confidently answer the question implied by every ‘like’ on every hospital bed photo of Umpqua Community College hero Chris Mintz, who was shot seven times taking down Chris Harper-Mercer mid-rampage. Kile, a security consultant at Strategos International, specializes in training teachers and other civilians to respond to active shooter situations. School districts pay between $30 and $60 per employee for Kile and his coworkers to walk educators through school shooting history — and to teach them how to “lock themselves down” if past becomes local prelude.

“I’m not going down doing nothing,” Kile tells a room full of Kansas City teachers during a seminar. “I’m going down doing something.”

This is supposed to be empowering, but the 100 people shifting their weight in the creaking auditorium seats at African Centered College Preparatory Academy on the city’s east side look tired. There are custodians and office administrators in this group and they all look like they’ve been required to attend. And they have, by order of the Jackson County School District board of education.

Over the next 30 minutes of a PowerPoint presentation and orientation lecture, Kile walks his captive audience through three reactions to an emergency situation: Run, Hide, Fight. It is worth noting that these are the same reactions offered by the Department of Homeland Security’s handbook on active shooter response. It is also worth noting that some of the advice is counterintuitive and seems like it could be useful.

Kile recommends being suspicious of fire alarms because, in 1998, a pair of Arkansas middle school students shot and killed five people from the surrounding woods after pulling an alarm to empty the building. He also makes it clear that the first priority is to reinforce barriers to entry. He couches this latter point with an arch bit of scolding that takes so much for granted that it throws the Strategos worldview into sharp relief.

“Everyone in America will hear the emergency response tapes and ask, ‘Why didn’t that idiot lock down the room?’” Kile admonishes the potential victim. He then adds that, if all else fails, throwing shoes is better than standing still.

A sign at the edge of campus welcomes students and staff back to Umpqua Community College on October 5, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon.

Scott Olson/Getty

What Chris Mintz had on his side that few in this room will have is military training and the reflexes that come with it. What Strategos and similar businesses in the school safety field are promising districts around the country is that anyone can be taught how to react in an extreme situation like a school shooting. Or, barring valor, that technology can automate courage. But there is little evidence to support these claims and no current industry standards.

To work as a security guard in a Virginia public school requires 30 hours of certified training every year. California and Texas both require a minimum of 32 hours to get a guard badge. Outside of those states, your only barrier to protecting students is your ability to sell yourself.

“In Michigan, where I’m working, there is absolutely no requirement to be a school security officer at all. None,” says Larry Johnson, president of the National Association of School Safety & Law Enforcement Officials. “To be a school security officer in most states, all you have to do is be a warm body. There are no national standards at all.”

Schools that can afford security often have no idea how to manage it. Many guards still report to maintenance supervisors because there are no alternative management structures in place. Fearful school boards sift through an increasing number of sale pitches, and any halfway competent marketer can hustle enough contracts to build a resume without ever having their safeguards tested.

Johnson faults a lack of funding. State budgets are typically only generous after a shooter makes national news. Adam Lanza had to commit the deadliest school shooting in American history before Connecticut pledged $5 million to school safety and security measures.

“Many of the so-called experts I’ve seen have never spent a day inside a school and seen what’s going to work,” Johnson says. “We have products popping up week after week that haven’t been evaluated. We have people out there teaching who have no business teaching. This is a very dangerous area we’re heading down if we don’t get our heads around how to qualify a real expert.”

Staff at the African Centered College Preparatory Academy put their Strategos training to practice as they bar the door during an active shooter drill.

Peter Rugg

Mike Harrison loops a thin length of rope over the doorknob to the classroom and sits on the floor before it, bracing himself with his feet up against the wall and leaning back until the line pulls taut. “Now you’ve got a secure door,” he says.

“I’d just shoot right through that door,” says one skeptical woman, dismissing this strategy with a flip of her hand as if this should be obvious to everyone. There is a supportive murmur.

The woman is thinking about herself, her safety, but Harrison isn’t.

Harrison isn’t here to argue about specifics or even save the lives of the people in the room. His job is to be a recent history teacher, expounding on the hard-learned lessons of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook. The point he’s trying to get across is that shooters plan ahead, so stalling them or surprising them at all, even if it’s only with a stuck door, can go a long way to lowering the body count.

Harrison wants his students to weaponize their classrooms. Consider turning that stainless steel travel coffee mug into a missile, attack with the wooden stools, the trash cans, even the podium if they can lift it.

“How about those flags in the gym, they’re everywhere,” Harrison says. “Break one of those things off and use them to stab. Where would we stab? We don’t have to think about that stuff, that’s horrible. I don’t want to go through life thinking about where to stab someone. Well that’s the thinking that’s brought us to here, right?”

He runs a hand over his bicep, up to his throat, and gives them their targets. “Soft tissue,” he says. “Soft tissue.”

As for concerns that a flag isn’t much if you’re looking down the barrel of an automatic weapon, reassurance isn’t forthcoming.

“You can survive a gunshot wound,” says Strategos CEO Vaughn Baker. This isn’t the company’s official motto, but it does seem to be a mantra.

Most of the Strategos staff has law enforcement or military experience. Baker, who founded the company in 2002, spent 12 years on a SWAT team. Columbine presented him with the opportunity to take his public sector skills private and he did so with gusto. Strategos now has a four-year $500,000 contract with the state of Missouri, numerous megachurch clients — they pay better than schools — and remains at the top of the school shooter preparation business. More importantly, Strategos has a good reputation.

“I’ve been aware of them for at least 10 years, and they’re a reasonable company,” Johnson says. “I know they are very popular around the country.”

Strategos’ success is largely a product of Baker being a pioneer in his field. Only a handful of school security experts existed in the early 2000s and fewer still trained teachers to engage a gunman. But demand for school security has also trended in one direction. A 2014 FBI report confirmed a dramatic rise in active shooter incidents since 2000, with an average of 16.4 active shootings a year from 2007 to 2013, compared to 6.4 per year from 2000 to 2006.

In that study, the FBI defined active shootings as situations in which “a shooting is in progress and an aspect of the crime may affect the protocols used in responding to and reacting at the scene of the incident.” Measured using the criterion of crowd-sourced website Mass Shooting Tracker, which defines such events as any in which four or more people are shot, Oregon’s tragedy brought the total number of mass shootings this year to 294.

“It seems like every time one of those happens our web traffic doubles and so do our phone calls,” Baker says.

In a June Facebook post, Strategos trumpets a new contract with Cook County, Illinois.


No good business model can go without imitators for long. Sandy Hook triggered a boom in the industry as self-proclaimed tech and security experts battle for tax dollars at America’s 88,073 K-12 schools.

“Hundreds if not thousands of business are popping up across the nation. They’re taking advantage of school districts and increasing the cost of training,” Johnson says. “I know individuals getting up to $5,000 a day to teach these programs for an hour or two. That’s unbelievable. And people are really taking advantage of school districts. I can base that on what I’m seeing as I travel the country.”

Google “school safety, security consultants” and you’ll see a few pages of results, but exact numbers for the industry are hard to come by. Without any real standards or oversight, it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much schools are spending, and with so many companies arguing for different safety measures, it’s hard to know who’s right unless one of their clients gets a real-life test.

While Strategos’ business relies mostly on in-person training, there are companies who believe the best defense is good engineering.

The website for Big 6 instructs visitors to watch this video on its 'Active Shooter' page.

J.C. Brown worked as a contractor on military security projects until 1979 (he says his work remains largely classified) before starting his own private business in the same line. He sold his company in 2009, and made it an entire year into retirement before he couldn’t face another day with nothing to do. Today the 72-year-old South Carolinian works as director of sales and marketing for security company Big 6, LLP.

Brown prepared to sell his latest invention to schools by firing three bullets from his 9 mm handgun into one of his granddaughter’s pink shirts. He carries the mangled prop with him, ready to produce for a hesitant administrator reluctant to go all in on the “V.A.S.T 6,” a fold-out, steel-framed vault for children, lined with ballistic panels capable of withstanding fire from an AR-15, the style of Bushmaster assault rifle favored by Adam Lanza.

“Schools are like farmers, always saying they never have any money but you can see the new combine and the wife has a new car and they’re spending January in the Bahamas,” he says. “I do my demonstrations and I ask, what did you spend your last grant money on? They’ll say we need a practice field for the football team, a teacher’s lounge, a landing strip — some cockamamie thing. I’ll tell them it doesn’t sound like they’ve got their priorities right.”

Shotspotter, founded in 1996 in the Silicon Valley, specializes in sensors that detect gunfire, and has benefitted from a relatively recent shift in priorities. Sandy Hook convinced executives that the firm’s research dollars should go to helping create a school-oriented product. This summer, the company’s Security Solutions division launched a system that uses algorithms for sound wave profiles to register the sound of any gunshot and notify first responders. At a cost of $30-40,000, the system offers to report the number of shots fired, whether the gun being discharged is automatic, and the location of the gunfire on a floorplan of the building.

“There had been internal discussions leading up to Sandy Hook of whether we could design something like this,” says Security Solutions vice president Damaune Journey. “After Sandy Hook, the requests became more and more frequent, let’s put it that way. These people are not in scenarios where they have time to call 911, they’re trying to protect themselves, they’re trying to survive, so this was something that could handle alerting emergency services for them.”

The national 911 response time is roughly ten minutes, but, with most victims of a mass shooting killed in an even narrower window, police response alone wouldn’t be effective. A Sandy Hook post-mortem from Newtown law enforcement reported that the first officer was on the scene just two minutes and 41 seconds after the first radio broadcast, and officers were in the school itself only six minutes later. Yet Newtown remains the site of one of the deadliest mass school shootings in U.S. history.

Improved response times are a big sell with a lot of security firms. One company, School Guard, advertises a Panic Button that can be worn around the neck of every teacher and staff member. Another sells “hands free security phones.” But that’s just one hook. There’s a special film to strengthen school windows, keep glass from shattering, and stop intruders. There are firms specializing in electronic locking devices for any budget and apps that load crisis response instructions on student smartphones. The market is becoming so glutted, it’s common for a company to have advice on its website about how to screen your options.

“We have seen everyone from former magicians to individuals who pull their questionably qualified family members into consulting businesses as school safety ‘experts,’” cautions the National School and Security Services. “While the Copperfield and Brady Bunch brands have served America exceptionally well in the entertainment field, the safety of school children and teachers should not be put in jeopardy by the use of questionably-qualified consultants with a lot of hype but little substance once you get past the ‘smoke ‘n’ mirrors’ of their marketing machines.”

“There is nothing out there that will predict anything, obviously,” Johnson says. “Actually the best way to do that is to put some of the money you spend on consultants into programs where teachers actually engage the students.”

Strategos’ Kansas City training ends with a shooter simulation. The staff is armed with golf balls they can throw to defend themselves. It’s best to give them something without sharp edges. In the heat of the moment, an elementary school teacher once split a trainer’s head open on the edge of a trash can. They’re told to protect themselves from a Strategos worker firing an air rifle.

Upon hearing the shots, the staffers must run into their classrooms and barricade the doors against entry until they hear an all-clear:

As the first rounds go off, there is a lot of yelling. School staffers squeeze into the history classroom as fast as they can, which isn’t impressively fast. One woman hops through, complaining her leg has fallen asleep, and it’s maybe this hesitation that lets Harrison get his air pistol around the cracked door for a split second. He fires imaginary rounds into the group before a few of them can force the door shut, rope up the knob, and blockade themselves with a particle board folding table.

“We’re supposed to shut off the lights!” someone says.

“Whisper!” another shoots back. There is a lot of giggling for a predominantly middle-aged group pretending to be in mortal danger.

The drill runs a second time. This time, Harrison fails to get his barrel into the class. His students get the table up against the doorframe and even loop the rope around it a few times before securing the entrance. They still have a problem with talking.

“We need them to be quiet because we don’t want them to know we in here!” one of the men guarding the door shouts over the room.

“Lights out!” someone says back.

“He says you don’t always turn the lights out,” offers another.

When someone knocks, they know enough not to answer.

Finally, they get the all-clear. Two hours from shuffling into the school auditorium, the staff is finished with their mandatory training, coached to engage the next Adam Lanza or Chris Harper-Mercer or Elliot Rodger or Seung-Hui Cho.

“They did a lot better the second time,” Harrison says at the end of the session. “There’s a whole lot more golf balls in the hallway.