Keeping Your Kids Safe: Area parents react to our Taking Action Special Reports

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – WHNT News 19 is Taking Action to put safety products marketed to families, and to schools, to the test.

We bought two products: the BulletBlocker Clear backpack which has a ballistic insert included, and the Leatherback Gear Armored Panel, which is designed to fit into any backpack or act as reinforcement for other armored bags.

We also put the same laminate that WHNT News 19 previously reported is on some glass in several unidentified schools within the Madison County Schools System, to the test. The district has partnered with EverSafe Security Solutions to fortify certain lobbies. Their hope: to slow down anyone trying to break the glass and get in.

To watch the stories on these products, click here for a look at what we found with the backpacks, and here for our results with the security laminate.

We brought in a group of seven parents whose children attend these Huntsville City Schools: New Century Technology High School, Grissom High School, Whitesburg P-8, Chaffee Elementary School, Providence Elementary School, Academy for Academics and Arts, Jemison High School College Academy, Weatherly Heights Elementary School, and Mountain Gap P-8.

We showed the Taking Action Special Reports on Keeping Your Kids Safe to the group and listened to their honest reactions to our questions about what they heard.

General Thoughts on Safety

They said they are talking with their children about safety and security every day.

Andrew Jennings said, “If there has been an event somewhere, we ask how she is feeling and has school handled it, all that kind of conversation.”

Brenda West added, “They do intruder drills, so they’ll come home and talk about that. Our schools are good about telling us they had done an intruder trill for the day so I bring up, ‘What did you do, what are your thoughts on that.'”

Some of them are intrigued by what they hear from their children during those conversations.

Larry Lewis stated, “I’m always kind of surprised because she’ll come home and talk about the drills they do, but it’s kind of matter of fact. She has never followed up and never acted concerned or nervous or scared or anything like that.”

Laura Huckabee-Jennings added, “I think our child feels a little irritated by the safety procedures that they don’t feel are very effective, and that people overreact. That’s what we’re hearing.”

Each of the parents explained that they feel satisfied by what security their children’s schools offer.

Jonathan Broadway said, “Our school where our kids go has a lot of safety features. I feel pretty comfortable with it, and I know at Huntsville City where my kids go, they have a great team of security people. You do have police officers on site. I’ll drive by the schools and more times than not the police car is sitting out front or the officer is walking around checking things out. For me, where we go to school, I feel pretty comfortable with it.”

Andrew Jennings said when he sends his children to school, he does not find himself wondering if they will come home safely.

“I wouldn’t say it is top of mind,” Jennings stated. “Every now and then we have an event that brings it back up again, makes you rethink about it. But I definitely take our child to school and I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, I hope she comes home at the end of the day!’ That’s not really what we think about. You kind of trust the system has it, and that’s their job. So you hope they do their job.”

He added that he believes many safety products he has seen might not benefit kids as much as they claim to.

“The things I’ve seen so far seem to be geared more toward making the parents feel good, rather than the kids feel safe. So I haven’t seen anything yet that I thought, ‘Oh actually that would be really good for my child.’ Might be more for the parent, I think,” he said.

Backpack Inserts

We showed our story on the BulletBlocker backpack and the Leatherback Gear armored panel to the parent panel.

Larry Lewis immediately brought up this concern: "In elementary school, they don't walk around with their backpacks," he said. "So I don’t want their first thought to be, 'Oh, let me go find this backpack, it’s going to save my life.' I want them to be thinking about whatever security measures they have been drilled on to get out of school and get to safety. I think it may give them a false sense of security."

But Carrie Kimbel quickly disagreed.

“That would make me feel safer," she said, "like, if something did happen, at least they had something. You can huddle behind it if you’re stuck. It’s something to protect you if the worst does happen. I don’t think they’re going to walk around thinking they are going to get shot up just because we have sent something to protect them. I think it’s a safety measure that would be worth it."

But others did worry about what sending a child to school with an armored backpack would mean to the child.

Jennings said, “It kind of elevates the fear for the child in some ways. We talked already about what our kids say when they come home. They don’t think about it much right now. I think if they were carrying bulletproof backpacks around with them, it would be more top of mind of what they’re thinking about every day."

We asked these parents if the backpacks were worth the price.

Broadway said, “I probably would not buy it. " He went on, "I just don’t think that would be a wise investment. My kids in elementary school that have their backpack when they walk from the car to the building, and then the building back to the car at the end of the day. Then in middle school, they go to their locker and they don’t really carry their backpack between classes."

Some parents stated that there is more value perhaps in the "see something, say something" approach.

West said, "I think the smartest thing he [the expert in the story, Cameron Bucy] said is information. Those talks are had in our house. If you hear anything, if somebody is talking about it, you don’t feel comfortable telling an adult at school, tell us. We will contact somebody at school."

Only one parent raised her hand that she would consider purchasing the armored bag or panel: Kimbel.

“It’s brilliant because they’ve got their backpack with them all day. It’s something, it’s better than nothing," she said. "I personally might buy one as a parent, to make my child feel safer if that made them feel better. If they were nervous about it, and that made them feel better, I would buy it for them."

The cost of the bags and panels is high enough that it gives others pause.

"I think there's a practical piece as well, that neither one of those things were under 100 dollars," Jennings said. "We have a lot of kids on free or reduced lunch in the school system and they can’t afford $100 for an extra piece of protection."

Huckabee-Jennings added, "If we are going to spend an extra 100 dollars per child in our school system, is this really the highest impact on their education? Seems awfully expensive."

One parent said it worries her that children may feel they are invincible if they have the bags, or may not even know the level of protection that their bags have with the added armor.

"In Parkland, those hallways were littered with backpacks because kids were just throwing their stuff off so they could get away as quickly as they could. If a child doesn’t even know that is a safety measure they have, who is to say these 100 dollar backpacks are not going to be on the floor?" Isha Greene wondered.

For last takeaways, parents left us with their final thoughts on the armored gear.

"I’m not 100% opposed, but I’m also not running out to get it," West stated. She later added, "I just think these types of things are, in my mind, more applicable to older children than younger children."

But Kimbel thought it might be an easy adjustment for a child: "I think it could become something in their backpacks that they don’t even notice. Like, the folder they forgot about in the beginning of the school year," she said.

Jennings worried that the backpack does not provide much coverage on the body.

“You are relying on being shot in the back," he said, noting that it all depends on how the product is worn.

Laminate

We also asked parents to review the report on the EverSafe security laminate that is being used in certain Madison County Schools.

Parents said they don't often worry about intruders getting inside their children's schools.

"Not very often, because it’s pretty locked down," said West. "I mean, as far as both my child’s elementary and middle school... I worry more about inside (like, students) than I do outside intruders."

Jennings added, "When school is in session, it’s actually hard as a parent to get in school. So I can only imagine an intruder would find it equally as difficult. Pretty well locked down, pretty safe."

We asked the parent panel what they thought about fortifying schools and securing them from the outside.

"I worry that they are over-fortified already," Huckabee-Jennings said. "It feels more like going into a prison complex than going into a school. It feels unwelcoming. I don’t want them to be at all unsafe, but I worry about the image we give to the kids in the community that these are fortified prison blocks somehow.”

After they watched the story, the parent panel gave us their honest opinions of the product.

"It's invisible protection, where it doesn’t create any additional anxiety. It does buy a little extra time which is important," Jennings said.

“It isn’t extra fortification, it doesn’t have the prison feel of extra fences and metal detectors and. This is really kind of invisible. It’s good," noted Huckabee-Jennings.

Greene agreed: "It’s less of an intrusion on the students as well. If you want to fix the facilities, fix the facilities. As long as it doesn't invade the child’s feeling of security."

Neither EverSafe, nor Madison County Schools would reveal the cost of installing security laminate on a school entryway. The school system argued that information pertains to its security initiatives.

Each of these parents seemed aware of the role school buildings play in student protection. They said schools are doing enough for protection, but more wouldn't hurt.

“Every incident that happens is a learning experience for all of us. Both in talking to our kids, for the school systems to know the extra things they need to put in place to add an extra barrier of protection," Lewis said. "So things like this-- we feel comfortable with what we have at Providence, at Huntsville City Schools, but anything that can be added to add that extra measure of safety I think is a good thing.”

West said she believes schools do well when it comes to communicating with children.

"They are doing their best to try to alert the kids, have those conversations with them," she said. "They might not have parents like us who talk to them about it, so they need to hear it from somewhere and I think both of my children and schools do a good job of that."

But many of the parent panel was left with a lingering thought.

"I think physically we are doing the right things. I guess my only question is, are we actually tackling the right problem?" Jennings asked. "I am not sure whether more physical barriers or bulletproof backpacks are tackling the real problem we have."

Takeaways

We asked the group what they would like to see included in future conversations about school security and safety.

“Focus on mental illness, I don’t think that’s talked about enough," Broadway said. "We are wanting to stop guns, and bullets, and bullets coming through. We need to get back to catching, paying attention to the kids. Their behavior."

He continued, "It’s sad that all of these schools have all these fences and walls around it.I understand why we do it, but it’s just sad that we have to do it."

Huckabee-Jennings questioned if large schools provide enough individualized attention to students in order to truly know if they are ok and doing well, or if there are concerns related to their health and wellbeing that could be addressed by an adult that truly knows them.

Overall, the group agreed more teachers and professionals would be helpful.

"Invest in more people. They’re your best defense in my opinion," West said.

But the conversation must move forward. It can not lag and should continue to evolve.

Greene said, "I think us having this conversation as parents and putting it out there into the community, I think it’s a positive step forward in a dark time."