In Wake of Shooting Tragedies, Glass Can Give Schools Options

While the first anniversary of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., has come and gone, the details of the December 2012 school shooting remain all too clear in the nation’s memory.  The event, along with a list of high-profile shootings at schools and in public places, has spawned a national conversation over how to prevent such events.

Given that the assailant in Newtown was neither student nor staff—and had to enter the building and its rooms successfully —an immediate reaction to the tragedy was the sentiment that perhaps all schools should be equipped with bullet-resistant glass. Yet members of the glass industry, as the experts on their product, understand it’s not so simple as coming up with an across-the-board deterrent.

“Everyone would love to have bullet-resistant glass in their schools, but there are a couple of issues with that,” says Julia Schimmelpenningh, global applications manager at Eastman Chemical Co.

First, there are serious cost implications. Most schools could never afford it. Moreover, given the various standards of bullet-resistant products, requiring that such glass be used in schools would spawn a whole new set of questions. In short, how much is enough? Just as guns have different calibers, bullet-resistant glass offers an array of options in order to perform successfully against those various calibers. Some recent school tragedies, in fact, have even involved explosives. Knowing what to install would, in the end, be “a guess,” as Schimmelpenningh says.

Eastman decided to tackle the issue with a hands-on approach. After doing some preliminary research suggesting most schools where shootings had taken place were built before the existence of any safety glazing requirements, Eastman staff headed to a local gun shop and range. The testing they would do was not meant to adhere to formal research standards, but the company simply sought a few answers to questions that began with, “What would happen if…?” and “How would this glass perform if …?” The company tested products against a range of firearms that the shop carried.

What they found: With commercially available, fairly common products—namely, standard, 1/4-inch laminated glass—bullets did not break apart glass but instead left a small hole. In other words, a hand could not reach through that hole and, say, open a locked door. (Tempered glass, on the other hand, will break apart.)

Of course, you can’t ignore the fact that the bullet does go through, but the glass’s performance, in essence, “buys you time,” as Schimmelpenningh says—time for an emergency button to be pushed, an alarm to be sounded, police to be called, and so forth.

“What we’re looking to do is provide deterrents,” says Schimmelpenningh, who presented on this topic at the recent Glass Association of North America (GANA) Annual Conference in Orlando.

The immediate reaction to Newtown was a flurry of state-level legislation, but bills generally didn’t go anywhere. The cost implications and product complexities (i.e., how strong is strong enough?) often caused legislation to stall.

Regarding those calls for bullet-resistant glass (normally used in places such as prisons and banks), “What that says to me is that what a laminated product can do is not well understood,” says Valerie Block, senior marketing specialist at DuPont Glass Laminating Solutions.

The glass industry’s role, therefore, goes beyond mere installation. It’s about education, so that schools and communities can make sound decisions based on several variables (e.g., location, level of threat, budget) matched with the array of product options they initially may not have been aware of.

“We know that education on safety glazing is needed, not only in the industry, but for parents, teachers and school boards, and there is no one solution, based upon all schools,” says Ashley Charest, account executive at GANA.

It’s a two-way dialogue in which the industry is now engaged. “I think it’s important for us in the industry to let the schools know that we do have an array of options,” Block says. Meanwhile, the industry can listen carefully to the needs of specific schools—which may be calling for bullet-resistant glass initially—“to understand truly what they are looking for.”

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