Schools Get the Sales Pitch: Better Safe Than Sorry

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Two years ago, after the multiple killings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., and another shooting incident at a Georgia high school, a light bulb went on in Dale Jeffery's head.

He noticed that some school administrators were calling for students to begin using clear backpacks, which would make it harder to hide weapons. So he quit his job as a marketing executive at a Houston import-export company and founded the SeeThru Backpacks Co., which sells a rugged line of transparent plastic book and gym bags. The bags are available in stores and online at, www.SeeThruBackpacks.com.

While he readily acknowledges that requiring such bags won't solve the problem of school violence, he believes it helps.

"There are certain things you can do that provide a sense of cohesion and security for the majority," Mr. Jeffery said.

He's not the only entrepreneur who has responded to the high-profile incidents of school violence in recent years by promoting products and services to the school market.

Even before the 1999 Columbine massacre, which left 15 people dead, or this month's shootings at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., other incidents of violence had fueled an increase in school purchases of metal detectors and other security gadgetry, such as closed-circuit surveillance systems, student-identification cards, and two-way radios.

"Our stance is we don't believe metal detectors belong in schools, but we don't believe guns belong there either," said Wade Cook, a marketing director for Garrett Metal Detectors Inc. The Garland, Texas, company is one of the largest manufacturers of walk-through and handheld metal detectors in the nation.

Garrett has been selling to schools for several years, but sales really escalated after Columbine. Each big violent incident such as the one at Santana High brings a new flurry of inquiries.

"Metal detectors play only one small part in a secure school," Mr. Cook added. "You really need a holistic approach."

Growing Market

Indeed, some educators argue that metal detectors and other gadgetry provide a false sense of security without addressing the deeper causes of violence. But many others see them as concrete steps to improving school safety.

"It's not just about spending money," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. "But if you're dealing with a lot of problems of vandalism or violence, then high-tech strategies could be useful."

The exhibit halls of any national convention of a major education group are filled with a growing number of school security and safety businesses.

"I'm getting way more calls from people doing school security stuff, from crisis-management plans to safety videos, to ID badges, to metal detectors," said Kimberly Mortier, the exhibits and sponsorship manager for the American Association of School Administrators, which held its annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., last month.

Among the exhibitors at the National School Boards Association's annual convention in San Diego later this month will be such organizations as the Institute to End School Violence, Lookout Portable Security Inc., Safe School Solutions Inc., and Sensormatic Electronics Corp.

Sensormatic, based in Boca Raton, Fla., is best known for selling theft-prevention systems to retail businesses; its products include those plastic tags on clothing that are typically removed at the checkout counter. But it also has a division that markets television-surveillance systems to schools.

Assessing the Risks

Security companies aren't only hawking hardware to schools. School violence has also spawned numerous training videos, seminars, and other programs.

Bob Stimolo, the publisher of the School Marketing Newsletter in Haddam, Conn., has helped numerous anti-violence training programs reach the school market.

"The prevailing view among educators is this is a problem you solve through education and discipline," he said. "While it may be necessary to have metal detectors in some schools, that's not really the solution."

Riskwatch Inc., an Annapolis, Md., risk-assessment firm that has done work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice, has added software for schools that walks administrators through a comprehensive risk analysis, then offers improvement options. So far, only a handful of schools have purchased the software, which was recently reduced in price from $2,500 to $1,000, said Caroline Hamilton, the company president.

"Most schools would rather just put in metal detectors," Ms. Hamilton said. "They want something that is easy."

Mr. Jeffery, the president of SeeThru Backpacks, says his sales would get a boost if more districts outlawed traditional bags. But even where schools have required clear bags, he faces competition from inexpensive models at discount stores.

Mr. Jeffery said he doesn't believe his backpacks will prevent a determined student from smuggling a weapon onto campus, "but if you've got plastic bags, you address the kids who are bringing a gun to school to show their friends."

"Suddenly, you've got a whole lot less guns in school," he said.


Funding for the Business page was provided in part by the Ford Foundation.

Vol. 20, Issue 27, Page 8

Published in Print: March 21, 2001, as Schools Get the Sales Pitch: Better Safe Than Sorry
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