Calling "campus violence a reality" to prepare for, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore announced plans Thursday to spend $60,000 on the Clark Kent of teacher supplies: an innocuous-looking white board that can stop bullets.
The high-tech tablet — which hangs on a hook, measures 18 by 20 inches and comes in pink, blue and green — can be used as a personal shield for professors under attack, according to the company that makes it, and a portable writing pad in quieter times.
"It needs to be a great whiteboard and a useful tool so that it doesn't get hidden in the closet," said maker George Tunis. His Worcester County company Hardwire LLC starting out making military armor, then adapted it for the classroom after the tragic shootings last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed.
"When Sandy Hook happened … a light bulb went off that it's really the teachers and administrators" who need protection, the father of two said. "Those brave souls were trying to close the gap and get to the shooter and stop him, but they didn't have anything that could stop the bullets along the way."
High-profile incidents like Sandy Hook and the 2007 mass murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech have led campuses across the country to focus on safety.
They've developed assessment teams to evaluate potential threats and revamped policies to tighten security. And in Maryland next week, campus police from nine schools are taking a training course in recognizing mental illness to help them defuse potentially dangerous situations.
Body armor is the latest effort, security experts said.
"There are several vendors that have this type of personalized armor," said S. Daniel Carter, a national campus safety advocate. "It's not something that is in much great use."
UMES is the first university to adopt Hardwire's technology, though the company said it has sold its bulletproof whiteboards, which cost $299 apiece, to roughly 100 lower-grade schools in five states, including Maryland. It also makes bulletproof door shields, clipboards and inserts for children's backpacks, all of which it sells online.
UMES President Juliette B. Bell said in a telephone interview that she decided to order 200 whiteboards for faculty using funds from the university's foundation account so the school could be "proactive rather than reactive" in a violent situation.
Located in the historic town of Princess Anne on the Eastern Shore, UMES has never experienced an "active shooter" incident, unlike some other Maryland schools, including Morgan State University, where a football player and a visiting student were shot in two separate events last year.
"Being able to respond accordingly is very important," Bell said, pointing to the Virginia Tech shootings. "It's all about being prepared."
UMES announced the deal from the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City. Hardwire had a booth set up there where Tunis, with the help of employees and his 14-year-old daughter, demonstrated his products.
Mark McLaurin, a political director with the union SEIU, stopped with several of his colleagues to marvel at his wares. They stared, and then they stared some more.
"It's startling to see," McLaurin said. "I took a picture of it. I couldn't believe it."
His union represents workers in Montgomery County schools, which Tunis considers a potential market.
G. Dale Wesson, a professor at the Eastern Shore university, gave it a once-over and determined that "it won't protect you from a bazooka, but it's something." He called it an alternative to arming teachers.
"You have different options to protect the students," he said from the conference.
Tunis envisions teachers using the whiteboards to fend off attackers individually or as a group, standing side-by-side to create a wall that could shield evacuating students or to fend off an attacker.
"It's designed to be a last resort and to buy you some extra time," he said.
Hardwire first hooked up with UMES in 2004, when a school foundation invested in the company with a $250,000 loan. Later, it granted Hardwire a $500,000 loan, both of which have since been paid back.
"We're very happy to be on the front end of this," Bell said. "We believe this is a technology that is going to be helpful in keeping our students and our facilities safe, and we actually applaud Hardwire for their entrepreneurial spirit."
Tunis said Hardwire has armored about 6,000 military trucks used in Afghanistan and lined military roofs to protect from rocket attacks. The company's materials also are being used to shore up the Bay Bridge's infrastructure, he said.
The whiteboards and other personal products, including clipboards designed for police officers, are made from the same strong stuff, a material called Dyneema, the only man-made material that is pound-for-pound stronger than spider silk, Tunis said.
The products absorb bullets so there's no shrapnel, and force is not a concern, Tunis said.
"The kick of stopping a bullet is no worse than the kick of the gun itself," said Tunis, who is trying to get Walmart to sell the whiteboards through a "Get on the Shelf" popularity contest the retailer is running.
Abigail Boyer of the Clery Center for Security on Campus in Pennsylvania said the whiteboards may not be for everyone, but the conversation that led to them is critical.
"I think every institution certainly should be looking at what they have available on their campus to protect both students and faculty," Boyer said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.
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