Can Walls Protect Students From Bullets & Bombs?

Weigh the pros and cons before you invest in this type of solution.

In the wake of the shooting of two students at Harwell Middle School in Edinburg, Texas, earlier this week, school and public safety officials are considering the construction of a cinder block wall around the campus in an effort to protect students from future incidents of stray bullets striking students. At this point, investigators believe a stray round from hunters may have struck the students.

Other schools have sometimes evaluated solid walls as a measure to protect students from stray gunfire, much more typically in urban areas and in other countries where firearms violence is more prevalent than in the United States. In other countries, the walls are typically also installed to provide protection against improvised explosive devices. In fact, in many instances, blast protection is the primary purpose of these types of protective barriers.

As with blast walls, it is important to consider the limitations and potential negative side effects of solid protective walls. For example, when trying to use walls to protect against explosives, there can be situations where the wall itself can become the weapon. If students and staff will be in close proximity to a wall, a large explosion can be planned to topple the wall onto the people in the area. In addition, if the wall is too low and surrounds a multiple story building, the blast from an explosion can be deflected up and over the wall to cause severe damage to the second story of the facility it is designed to protect.  

When trying to provide protection from gunfire as would be the case in Texas, it is important to understand the different ways that firearm projectiles can come onto campus. For example, if a school is located on uneven terrain, rounds can still come onto campus over a protective wall as can rounds that ricochet off of objects like tree limbs, rocks and water. For example, a shot being fired at a can floating in a river can come in at a downward angle several miles away. 

As with any other protective strategy, an important consideration is always the likelihood that the resources expended are practical for the likelihood that they will prevent injury or death in contrast to other prevention measures that require similar expenditures.  For example, if a school does not have AEDs (which can resuscitate someone who is in cardiac arrest) and the risk of injury from stray bullets injuring someone is remote, the construction of a protective wall would be statistically less likely to prevent a death than the purchase of AEDs.

Clearly, the district and public safety officials in Edinburg, Texas, are deeply concerned about the safety of their schools and are trying to do what is best for them. As with many other challenges, as local officials they are privy to far more information than those of us around the country who are reliant upon media accounts. They will probably be in the best position to make appropriate decisions.

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Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at mike@weakfish.org. Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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