He can’t recall exactly when concern began to escalate, but over the last several years, Darren Nakasuji has listened to parents grow increasingly anxious about safety on campus at Seven Arrows, a picturesque elementary school nestled into the tony Pacific Palisades neighborhood of L.A.
As dean of students, it’s been part of Nakasuji’s job to figure out how to secure the school in the case of a shooting attack — and how to quell parent’s nerves, too. “There have been a few incidents that really brought it home — that shooting at UCLA, for example, or even the attack in Santa Monica a while back. The parent body is hyper-aware of this,” he tells me. “We train our teachers to get our kids hidden and to lock down inside a room, closing it off. We know this is generally the safest place for them during an attack. We’ve installed steel doors that are that much harder to penetrate. We have a new camera system. So it’s been an ongoing process.”
With back-to-school season unfolding yet again, though, Nakasuji has also noticed parents talking about a different kind of security: “Bulletproof” backpacks. They’ve been around since the days of the Columbine school shooting, but mostly as a niche product. In recent years, however, sales of these reinforced bags have skyrocketed, capturing the attention of parents, industry analysts and retailers alike. Leading companies like TuffyPacks and Leatherback Gear were founded within the last few years, and this season also marks the first time that that big-box retailers OfficeMax and Office Depot are carrying bulletproof bags in their back-to-school aisles.
Nakasuji recalls a 12-year-old boy at school who recently received a bulletproof pack. ”The parents kind of talked about it as, ‘Hey, isn’t that a cool feature?’ And the kid, being a little older, was into it,” he says. What’s even more disturbing to him is the proliferation of gear designed for kids much younger than 12. In one pitch-perfect example, TuffyPacks got into hot water with Disney for its child bulletproof packs depicting The Avengers and Disney princesses.
For some, this is merely the new normal. “It’s just like having a fire extinguisher or using a seat belt,” Brad de Geus, who founded Leatherback Gear in 2016 with his brothers, told the Washington Post. “These are personal devices for life-threatening situations. It’s as simple as that.”
But is it so simple? Nakasuji doesn’t think so. His school has already worked to minimize the harms of having young students freak out about a lockdown drill — the kindergarteners, for example, are told that they’re practicing for a “skunk” or “some wild animal” wandering onto the schoolyard, while the older kids are just told they’re staying put until police figure out the problem. Most kids aren’t developmentally ready to process the threat of shootings, the longtime administrator says, adding that avoiding traumatizing thoughts, even for a simple drill, is always a priority.
Given this, he’s unsure of what to make of the backpack trend. “Of course it’s alarming, and really sad. It’s extremely upsetting to hear that a bulletproof bag is something that parents are choosing to do. But a lot of it comes from this view of not having control,” he says. “I guess it’s mostly sad that society is at this place.”
There’s some debate over whether mass shootings are increasing in frequency or just becoming more deadly, but what’s far more clear is that school shootings aren’t an “epidemic,” despite more media attention and activism around each tragedy. The U.S. averages about one multiple-victim school shooting each year, and the consensus is that overall gun violence at schools is actually trending down. Yet the idea and imagery of young children being massacred within a campus grips our imaginations hardest of all. We joke about mass shootings happening so frequently that we’re quick to forget them, yet school tragedies seen to imprint on our collective minds with an indelible shorthand: Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Parkland.
We’ve seen again and again that efforts to thwart these attacks through security measures like checkpoints, metal detectors and armed guards don’t really work. Other tactics, like drilling active shooter scenarios, sometimes seem to leave more questions than answers. And so, it’s not a big surprise that an industry of consumer bulletproof gear would rise in the 2010s, says Gene Rugala, a former FBI special agent and expert on mass violence.
“Columbine was the first time I saw companies looking at the issue of school shootings. I remember one brand was offering metal plates for backpacks. We’ve come a long way since,” Rugala says. “Certainly, with the school year starting, it’s peak time for concerned parents to be looking at bulletproofed bags and such. Just being a little facetious, but it’s good to know the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in America, with people perhaps trying to capitalize on that fear out there.”
Bulletproof backpacks today don’t (usually) feature heavy metal or ceramic plates; instead, they rely on synthetic materials like Kevlar, Twaron and others. The fibers are woven into a tough but light barrier, which slips into a backpack and adds 1 to 2 pounds of weight. The most common certification you’ll see online is for “Level IIIA” armor, meaning it’s rated to stop most handgun bullets, but not the higher-caliber ammo from a rifle like an AR-15 or an AK variant, both used recently in the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. What’s also worth noting is that the National Institute of Justice, which certifies products and defines their protection levels, does not inspect backpack inserts and similar consumer products. Companies get around this either by showing third-party test results or, like Leatherback Gear, claiming that its products are “NIJ rated” but produced through a “private label” armor manufacturer that isn’t disclosed.
Meanwhile, the marketing blitz toward parents with young kids is unmistakable. “ARE YOU PREPARED?” yells the TuffyPacks home page. “A backpack for today’s world,” Leatherback declares. “Just Use Code ‘SCHOOL12’ At Checkout!” suggests BulletproofZone.com. Bullet Blocker, meanwhile, ominously quotes a vague Department of Education statement in support of its products: “There is no single answer for what to do, but a survival mindset can increase the odds of surviving.” (Unsurprisingly, the original release makes zero mention of backpacks or armor.)
Rugala is diplomatic when he considers why parents are buying up these bags and inserts in droves — the instinct to protect one’s kid is just that strong, he says. But it’s also easy for him to poke holes into the hypothesis that a $150 to $300 backpack is a practical way to respond to the minuscule risk of a school shooting. “There are a lot of things you just don’t know,” he says. “What’s the likelihood that a child is going to even be in a position to get the backpack if they have to put it in a locker or if they’re out on the playground at recess? They’re not going to carry the backpack the whole time during school. And most backpacks, especially those designed for little kids, aren’t going to stop certain kinds of bullets. It’s a really narrow set of conditions to be able to use such a bag effectively.”
No wonder, then, that so many law enforcement and security experts have raised a metaphorical eyebrow at the trend. Richard McAuliffe, police chief of Hawthorne PD in New Jersey, even worries that students might trust a backpack more than their teachers’ instructions during a lockdown situation, worsening an active-shooter scenario. “I just don’t know if I would buy one. I think there’s a possibility of a false hope,” he told NewJersey.com.
Meanwhile, mental health experts are becoming increasingly concerned over the fact that multiple generations of young Americans are growing up with increased stress and anxiety as a result of imagining threats of fatal harm around every corner. This isn’t just the kind of trauma that haunts a person’s consciousness after a major triggering event, says Deborah Sweet, a psychologist and founder of the Trauma Counseling Center of Los Angeles. It’s a more insidious stress, and one that influences both a child’s development and their parents’ subconscious.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to consider anecdotes like that of Raquel Donahue and her six-year-old son. Donahue, a 38-year-old librarian at Prairie View A&M University outside of Houston, bought a bulletproof insert to sew into the back of her son’s JanSport bag. She told her son to put it out in front of him to stop gunshots. The child was perplexed: What if they shot his hand?
“I said, that would hurt a lot,” Donahue recalled to the Washington Post. “But it’s better than them shooting you in the head or the heart.” (Her son’s reply: “Yes, if I got shot in my hand, at least I won’t die.”)
Sweet worries how normalizing the slim threat of unprovoked mass violence is changing social behavior. “Before the internet, if something happened across the country, we didn’t know about it as quickly or with as much detail. Right now, this violence is in everyone’s consciousness at all times,” she explains. “Traumatized people do traumatic things. You can’t always identify this trauma in someone easily. The public is dealing with a lot of feelings, and wondering what they can do about it. But the key is staying clear on what the factors really are. We’re wired to want an easy answer instead of the complex one.”
In his decade with the FBI, profiling some of the most violent offenders in the country and studying mass shootings, Rugala began seeing patterns in how public violence unfolded. With school shootings, one of the key predictors is easy access to guns — many of the school shootings in the 1990s showed that the perpetrators, being too young or nervous to purchase a gun themselves, took it from a home or a guardian’s car, he notes. Another big takeaway is that developing threat-assessment techniques for schools and workplaces has had a tangible effect on nipping violent incidents in the bud. We know now that shooters don’t “bloom overnight,” and that there’s almost always a trail of red flags noticed by friends, co-workers and even police, Rugala says.
“Communication between schools, counselors and law enforcement is getting better. What’s often absent is that if there is a set of concerns, and law enforcement receives those comments, there’s not necessarily a follow-up. It’s not always their fault — police often don’t have the legal right to pursue,” Rugala adds. “The advent of Red Flag laws to investigate individuals and potentially confiscate weapons could be a game-changer, now. But it’s all about a holistic approach to threat assessment and management, before someone turns catastrophic.”
This is the “complex answer” Sweet alluded to, which stands in stark contrast to the much-discussed “hardening” of schools and other public spaces using fences, bulletproofing and checkpoints. A number of experts note that treating these incidents as a public health issue, rather than a security problem, is the way to create change. This could include, for instance, massively expanding the ratio of school counselors to students across campuses. Researchers James Fox and Emma Fridel, in their report on the rarity of school shootings, note that the average ratio of students to counselors was 482-to-1 during the 2014-15 school year — nearly double the recommended ratio from the American School Counselor Association. Guiding someone to consistent and reliable mental health care demands investment and resources, but its usefulness isn’t as tangible as the image of a backpack stopping bullets.
Nakasuji wonders what kind of environment his 8-year-old son will see as he grows into adolescence, but he has no plans of buying a bulletproof backpack right now. It wouldn’t be a product he purchases for Micah out of his own desire, he clarifies. “Let me put it this way: If getting shot was something he himself was worried about, at that point I’d talk through with him what to do and coach him through the anxiety of it,” Nakasuji tells me. “Maybe [a pack] would help give some agency over the situation and feel like he has power.”
This is undoubtedly a depressing step in the debate about how we prepare, physically and mentally, for a mass shooting in the spaces we occupy every day, be it an office or a mega-mart. Call it the law of diminishing active-shooter returns: At a certain point, mental and monetary investment into playing defense simply isn’t worth it, given the extremely slim odds of you getting shot in such a circumstance.
But pointing at this “law” doesn’t help a panicked parent any more than showing airplane safety statistics to someone with a phobia of flying. Then there’s the dark irony that all in all, kids get shot in their homes and out of schools, as accidents from unsecured guns or amid domestic disputes, with far more frequency (and little chance for a backpack defense) than in a random attack on campus.
Nonetheless, the school-security industry generates $2.7 billion a year, and analysts are predicting that the bulletproof gear market for the Average Joe is growing into the tens of millions. The holistic view is to see the rise of bulletproof backpacks in tandem with the militarization of our local police forces and the popularity of militarized aesthetics within the firearms industry, which leans hard and often into America’s mil-spec fetish. A rising tide of suspicion and angst is fueling our most defensive impulses, but on the micro level, parents and manufacturers aren’t always seeing it that way.
Conveniently, too, now there’s a supply of something that inspires a glint of hope, meaning this year’s back-to-school season is primed to be the most profitable yet.