After nine students and a teacher were murdered at Santa Fe High School in 2018, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton published this plea: “Use Israel’s Approach to Fighting Terror to Stop School Shootings.” Apparently, no one listened. Schools in Texas and in the rest of the U.S. far too often remain easy targets for an unhinged person with weapons, like the recent murderer who slaughtered 19 fourth-graders and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
If the aftermath of this catastrophe unfolds like those of previous school shootings, the very pragmatic and concrete issue of security for children and their teachers is likely to be overshadowed by long-term societal issues related to weapons. Should certain guns or accessories be outlawed? What kinds of psychological problems are not being treated? What are the causes of gun violence? Who can be held responsible?
But Attorney General Paxton and others who have advocated following Israel’s approach did so because Israel’s response to its first school shooting focused specifically on bolstering school security.
In 1974, at a school in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot, three terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine murdered 22 children. After the Ma’alot Massacre, Israel put into place a nationwide system to fortify and protect all schools of 100 students or more. There have been no other school shootings in Israel since then.
The first thing the country did after the Ma’alot Massacre was to make certain that each school had a perimeter barrier and guarded entry points. This in itself makes a school an unattractive target for a deranged would-be murderer.
All Israeli schools have a metal fence around them; these fences are high enough that they would be very difficult to climb over. At the entrance to the school, furthermore, there is a guard. The guard is well-trained and is not a teacher or other staff person, since teachers and staff also must be protected. The guard does not let anyone enter the school premises who is not a student, school personnel or someone else who is clearly supposed to be visiting. Before the school day starts, the guard checks the grounds and the buildings to ensure that no one who does not belong there has somehow entered the school. At larger schools where there are several entrances, each entrance has a guard. Larger schools also have more exits than entrances, with the use of gates that open only from the inside.
Guards are very carefully vetted—police provide their training, which includes frequent testing of the guards’ skills. They are armed with a gun and with a direct line to school administration and the local police. Students know their school’s guard and know he is there to protect them. At the same time, the whole school has a clear system in place in the case of an attacker on the premises. Similar to fire drills, there are drills for what to do if there were an attack. All the students, faculty and staff know where to go, how to respond, whether to throw objects at an attacker or to run for the exits, and so on. There is close coordination with local police, and police drive past the schools several times during the day when schools are in session. Like the police, the guard is fully empowered to use his firearm to stop an active shooter.
One might object to using Israeli methods of school security because of differences between the two countries. Israel has in place more restrictions on gun ownership than does the U.S.; a majority of Israelis serve in the army, and so have training with weapons; Israel is only the size of New Jersey, and constantly deals with terrorism threats. But the need to protect children is the same in every country.
It is critical to focus on the issue of school safety on its own, even while discussion of other firearms-related issues continues. Put simply, it is urgent to prevent these sorts of disasters in our schools. If implemented by local communities, ensuring that schools have high perimeter fencing, well-trained armed guards, direct coordination with local police and a predetermined and practiced school-wide protocol in case of attack will deter potential attackers and save lives.
Cherryl Smith is professor (emerita) of English, California State University Sacramento and author of Framing Israel, a Personal Tour of Media and Campus Rhetoric.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
Originally published in Newsweek.