When Schools Become ‘Bulletproof’: New Film Explores the ‘Dark Absurdism’ of School Security — and How it Became Normalized
Filmmaker Todd Chandler wanted to capture snippets of routine life in America, so he followed teachers to the gun range.
Amid heightened national fear over mass school shootings, a teacher in pink earmuffs unloads a pistol’s clip into the chest of a human-shaped target. The scene in Bulletproof, Chandler’s latest documentary, highlights the lengths some teachers have gone to keep kids safe.
In a troubling juxtaposition, the film contrasts long-established traditions like homecoming parades and classroom lectures against newer realities inside American schools: lockdown drills, metal detectors and campus gun safes stocked with AR-15s.
Chandler, the film’s director/producer and a Brooklyn College professor, said the documentary started as a hard look at the booming school security industry, but morphed into an exploration of routines that often feel surreal.
“I started thinking more about this idea of rituals and how all of these rehearsals and preparations [for a mass shooting] play out across the country, seeing things almost like choreography,” he told The 74. The film doesn’t aim to offer a complete picture of the debate around school security, he said, but instead offers viewers “fragments of daily life, of what has long been — and what is fast becoming — normal around the country.”
Bulletproof, which makes its broadcast debut at 10 p.m. ET Monday on PBS, takes viewers to campuses across the country to highlight the fear that gun violence has instilled in America’s school communities while exploring the monetization of solutions that security companies promise will prevent more carnage. The 84-minute film, which will broadcast as part of the network’s documentary series Independent Lens, will also be available to stream on the PBS Video app.
Each year, school leaders spend billions of dollars on security to bulletproof campuses. For the entrepreneurs who manufacture bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards, the race to stop the next school shooter has become big business. Whether that spending has helped, however, remains unclear.
The documentary’s broadcast premiere falls on Valentine’s Day, the same date as the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead and prompted a national debate over gun control and student safety. The film, which was co-produced by Danielle Varga, isn’t a work of blatant advocacy and avoids feeding viewers a perspective on the merits of the high-tech surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills and campus police officers that have proliferated in schools nationwide since Parkland. Yet the film does offer a point of view — one that Chandler described as “dark absurdism.”
“The hope is that the contrast and the juxtaposition will do their parts to highlight what I think is sad or problematic or a little bit absurd,” he said. “But in ways that are subtle enough that it remains watchable and an invitation to engage.”
Mass school shootings are statistically rare and campuses have grown safer in recent years, yet a byproduct of high-profile attacks like the one in Parkland is a security industry that banks on an ever-present threat inside schools. Bulletproof features a Las Vegas trade show where salesmen hawk armored whiteboards, while a California-based entrepreneur designs bulletproof hoodies from a Silicon Valley bedroom. In one Texas school, leaders deploy a badge monitoring system that tracks students’ every move. A school leader explains how threats, including violent campus graffitti, necessitate the surveillance response.
“Some people will say ‘that’s just some kid playing,’” the district security official says. “The problem is we can’t take that risk anymore.”
Many of the security strategies that have grown more prevalent in recent years remain contentious. Active shooter drills have become routine in schools nationwide, for example, but some critics argue they are ineffective and could have a negative effect on children who must weigh their own mortality. Bulletproof explores this tension on several occasions. In one scene, educators barricade a classroom door with chairs and desks during an active-shooter simulation. But one high school student explains how the drills could be counterproductive.
“I feel as if having to do constant lockdown drills is almost as traumatizing as having an actual situation like that,” the student explains.
The film pivoted to a similar debate about whether police inside Pittsburgh schools should carry guns. The proposal was ultimately rejected. During a public meeting, the district police chief explains that without guns, unarmed officers lack the tools necessary to catch “bad guys.”
But Harold Jordan, the nationwide education equity coordinator at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says in the film that officials should focus on the harms that guns present to students inside the schools. Arming officers changes the school environment, he argues, and “sends a very strong and a negative message to students that somehow firearms are needed in terms of dealing with the kinds of everyday things that go on in schools.”
In an interview with The 74, Jordan called the documentary an “anthropological snapshot” that offers viewers an introduction to the “safe schools industrial complex” and the salesmen who “take advantage of peoples’ fears to make a buck.”
Yet he said that he wished that Chandler had offered a deeper look at the efficacy of the school security solutions on display and offered a greater focus on the opinions of students who must attend schools alongside them. But ultimately, he hopes the film creates greater skepticism of companies that he sees as seeking to cash in on fears of mass violence.
“The film is going to perhaps spark a conversation about these things,” he said, “but I think that people viewing the film should really take it further and ask deeper questions — and to ask young people about their perceptions of safety and violence.”
Chandler said that was his precise goal. Rather than forcing a clear agenda, he hopes the film becomes a conversation starter for people who may not typically engage in debates about campus security and strategies to prevent school shootings.
“A film that takes a direct position is going to be less successful in catalyzing dialogue because it’s immediately going to alienate a certain number of people and it’s going to unite another population of people,” Chandler said. “And then we’re sort of exactly where we were.”
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