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Gun Violence Spurs Grim Industry: Bulletproof Items for Kids

Recent school shootings are drawing fresh attention to businesses that seek to protect children from violence.

Interest is spiking at companies that make bulletproof products for children.

Driven by the desire of parents and school districts to protect kids from shootings such as the recent tragedy at a high school near Portland, Oregon, these companies are performing a balancing act between making a profit and providing a product they say will keep children safe. Critics say these companies, while well-intentioned, often don’t understand the realities of daily life in a school.

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“To be honest we didn’t know if anybody would want these or not, but I just felt like, as a parent, I could do my part to do this,” said Steve Walker, an Edmond, Oklahoma, podiatrist whose company, ProTecht, makes bulletproof blankets.

The company has garnered a lot of attention since its website went public about two weeks ago, and Walker said they've received calls from individuals, school districts and at least one corporation interested in the blanket, which can be secured to a student’s back.

“You name it, we can basically make it bulletproof.”

Walker said he got the idea for the blanket following the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, a year ago.

The Bodyguard blanket — ranging in price from $995 to $1,195 — joins a field stocked with bulletproof white boards, backpacks and even iPad cases.

“You name it, we can basically make it bulletproof,” said Ed Burke, chief executive of BulletBlocker, a 7-year-old company that makes bulletproof products for kids and adults.

Burke said business has grown steadily, but tends to increase whenever there is a school shooting or other violent event involving children.

In the days following last week’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University, for example, Burke said he fielded a call from a parent who wanted to order bulletproof backpacks for the entire neighborhood.

“You can definitely see some spikes in website visits and business,” he said.

The backpacks cost upwards of $200.

Burke said that for the most part it’s a niche business, and he concedes there have been tight times in trying to keep the business afloat. But the former sales director for a law enforcement supply company said he’s dedicated to continuing to focus on items for children.

“That’s what the business was started for: To protect children,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that the products are the best way to protect children.

Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert with National School Safety and Security Services, said he sees an uptick in vendors selling protective items for kids every time there is a major incident, going all the way back to the Columbine High School tragedy 15 years ago.

He thinks that many people behind these businesses are well-intentioned but don’t understand the realities of school situations. For example, he said many schools require students to keep backpacks in lockers, meaning kids aren’t likely to even have them in a violent incident.

Trump said many companies are unaware that schools don’t often have the budget for things like bulletproof blankets. Even when schools get one-time funding for more conventional things like surveillance cameras, he said they can sometimes struggle to come up with the money to continue to maintain them.

Trump advocates for strong staff training on how to identify early warning signs, prevent violence and handle security, as well as resources to get kids with problems connected to mental health services.

“Our failures tend to be people issues rather than equipment issues,” he said.