The expo had finally begun, and now hundreds of school administrators streamed into a sprawling, chandeliered ballroom where entrepreneurs awaited, each eager to explain why their product, above all others, was the one worth buying.
Waiters in white button-downs poured glasses of chardonnay and served meatballs wrapped with bacon. In one corner, guests posed with colorful boas and silly hats at a photo booth as a band played Jimmy Buffett covers to the rhythm of a steel drum. For a moment, the festive summer scene, in a hotel 10 miles from Walt Disney World, masked what had brought them all there.
This was the thriving business of campus safety, an industry fueled by an overwhelmingly American form of violence: school shootings.
At one booth, two gray-haired men were selling a 300-pound ballistic whiteboard — adorned with adorable animal illustrations and pocked with five bullet holes — that cost more than $2,900.
“What we want to do is just to give the kids, the teachers, a chance,” one of them said.
“So they can buy a few minutes,” the other added.
Elsewhere at the July conference, vendors peddled tourniquets and pepper-ball guns, facial-recognition software and a security proposal that would turn former Special Operations officers into undercover teachers. Threaded into every pitch, just five months after a Parkland, Fla., massacre, was the implication that their product or service would make students safer — that, if purchased, it might save a life.
What few of the salespeople could offer, however, was proof.
Although school security has grown into a $2.7 billion market — an estimate that does not account for the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — little research has been done on which safety measures do and do not protect students from gun violence. Earlier this fall, The Washington Post sent surveys to every school in its database that had endured a shooting of some kind since the 2012 killings of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn., which prompted a surge of security spending by districts across the country.