Days after a gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne La Pierre highlighted his organization’s efforts to bolster security at schools. He described schoolchildren as “our most treasured and precious resource” who deserve safety and protection.
“That’s why the NRA launched our School Shield program, to help promote and fund the necessary security that every school child needs and deserves,” LaPierre said at the NRA convention in Houston on May 27.
But in reality, the NRA has devoted only a fraction of its budget to protecting schools. The total amount of NRA funds given to schools to improve security since the program began in 2014 is less than $2 million, or .08 percent of the $2.2 billion in revenue the NRA and its associated foundation have raised in the same timeframe, from 2014 to 2019, according to an NBC News review of charitable tax filings and information from the Second Amendment organization.
The NRA has not granted any money to schools to increase safety since 2019 due to the pandemic, according to NRA spokesperson Andrew Arulanandam. Since then, the NRA’s website for School Shield grant information has remained dormant, encouraging schools that need funding to submit email addresses for future grant program updates. According to an NRA adjunct instructor, the School Shield office was shut down in March 2020 and all three of its employees were “furloughed.” Grant and training activity has not resumed.
A voicemail left on the 1-800 number for School Shield inquiring about funding opportunities on June 2 was not returned.
Arulanandam said in an email that the NRA “anticipates giving approx. $500,000 in grants” for 2022.
One former adviser to the organization told NBC News that multiple former NRA employees were “stunned” that LaPierre chose to highlight the program in the wake of Uvalde.
“It’s total bulls---,” the former NRA adviser, who did not want to be named for fear of litigation, said. “I actually thought we were doing something good. It just wasn’t something they were ever interested in.”
NRA spokesperson Arulanandam said the focus on direct grants to schools overlooks the program’s impact through its training of school “security assessors.”
NRA School Shield assessors train school staff and law enforcement to evaluate their school’s security and determine what steps should be taken to increase safety, according to the organization.
“The real value of School Shield is in the assessors that we train and the number of schools the assessors can touch,” Arulanandam said.
Arulanandam did not respond to a request for how many total trainings have been provided or how much money the NRA or its foundation spent on the trainings, but a part-time adjunct NRA instructor said he did at least 60 trainings over five years in 27 states prior to 2020.
Arulanandam said in-person or remote NRA School Shield training sessions were not possible in the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
History of School Shield
The NRA launched the School Shield initiative in the weeks after 20 children and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. LaPierre drafted Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who was then a Republican member of the U.S. House and is now the state’s governor, to direct a task force to put together a report with recommendations on how to make schools safer.
Hutchinson’s report recommended the development of an online school safety assessment tool, a model school safety training program, and recommended that the NRA provide funding and support to make the National School Shield initiative function as an “umbrella national organization to advocate and support school safety”.
“From armed security to building design and access control to information technology to student and teacher training, this multifaceted program will be developed by the very best experts in the field,” LaPierre said at the time, talking about School Shield.
Less than a year later, Hutchinson resigned from the School Shield effort “shortly after the report was completed in 2013,” according to his spokesperson. The spokesperson declined to answer questions about the NRA’s School Shield grant program, instead responding, “The task force maintained full independence from the NRA and there was no guarantee the NRA would accept all recommendations.”
The NRA has used the grant program’s existence as a fundraising tool at functions since 2014. As recently as April, the program was mentioned in local NRA fundraising materials.
Schools who got the grants in the past and were contacted by NBC News expressed gratitude for the support.
The North St. Francois County school district in Missouri got what appears to be one of the last School Shield grants to schools that were distributed in 2019. Superintendent Kathryn Bockman told NBC the district, an hour south of St. Louis, got $20,341. “The grant was used to upgrade and add cameras to our security system at our five campuses in 2019,” she said.
Bockman said the following year the school decided they needed more security improvements and their community supported a local bond to pay for upgrades to their entryways and vestibules.
In Pontotoc County, Mississippi, the $8,000 in funding went toward the purchase of a $21,000 “safety fence,” according to Loretta Hartfield, a school district official.
“We got a fence that went around the whole building so visitors weren’t allowed to walk in,” Hartfield said. “It was very useful and still is.” She said the school district picked up the rest of the cost.
Rick Blosser, a principal at Nickerson High School in Kansas, an hour northwest of Wichita, said his school hosted a four-day NRA School Shield assessor seminar in 2017 to help local schools evaluate building safety, including cameras, door locks and points of entry. He praised the training and said he would recommend it to other school officials. He said he’s not aware of any NRA grants for security upgrades that accompanied the training.
A school resource officer said that security upgrade funding for the school ultimately came from a state grant program.
A 2019 FAQ sheet on the program — distributed to grant recipients and obtained by NBC News — describes the types of School Shield projects the NRA supports: “[P]rojects and/or activities that facilitate the inclusion and/or enhancement of industry best practices in school security infrastructure, technology, personnel, training and/or policy.” The document lists examples of previously funded projects, such as “perimeter fencing updates and repairs, secured visitor entry systems (door buzzers with security cameras and intercoms), DVR and camera systems, window safety/security film, immediate response systems/panic buttons…”
The first NRA School Shield grants were issued through the NRA’s foundation in 2014, when three school districts received a total of $189,000 in funding, according to tax filings.
During the next three years, there were at least seven School Shield trainings by NRA staff or law enforcement in communities around the country, ranging from one-day workshops to multiple-day seminars, according to local news reports and school district websites. But there were no grants to schools to upgrade security, according to tax filings.
Part-time NRA adjunct instructor Darrel Schenck said the training program was at its busiest in the 2017-2019 time frame. He described a thorough four-day assessment of schools that involved interviews with students, teachers and school personnel. As part of the training of personnel, he would discuss possible funding sources for security upgrades in addition to NRA grants such as private foundation funds as well as state and federal grant opportunities. He said no future trainings are currently scheduled to his knowledge, but he said of the staff at NRA headquarters, “I know they are trying to get things going again, I ask them constantly, I’m ready to go.”
In 2018, when retired Lt. Col. Oliver North took over the organization, he rebooted the School Shield grant program; the NRA sent at least $368,767 to 20 school districts that year, according to tax filings.
2019 was the most generous year of the program with $991,946 sent to 101 schools according to information provided by the NRA.
North left the organization in April 2019.
North told NBC News in a brief phone interview that his questions about funding for School Shield were “what started the process of getting an outside auditor.”
The subsequent financial review uncovered questionable NRA expenditures, which were later detailed in a lawsuit and became the subject of an ongoing inquiry by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
When asked about money that was raised for the School Shield program, North said he wasn’t in a position to know what was done with it.
”Where did that money go? I have no idea,” North said. “I was fired and have been removed from the board.” He said the program “was designed with one purpose in mind: to save the lives of children who are our most precious national resource.”
North added that if he were still at the NRA, “that’s what I would be pushing for right now.”
In 2019, the NRA sued its longtime public relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, alleging it had overcharged the gun rights group, which Ackerman denied. The PR firm filed a counter-claim against the NRA. In court filings Ackerman alleged that the NRA raised millions of dollars for School Shield but failed to spend it on the program, calling it instead a “media stunt.”
LaPierre denied the allegations.
In his interview with NBC News, North said when he was at the organization the program was real and that Ackerman’s allegations in the legal filings remain accurate.
The lawsuit and counter lawsuit between Ackerman and the NRA were settled this spring based on undisclosed terms.
“If you read through all the doggone depositions, it’s very clear,” he said.