Active shooter defense is becoming big business in Texas. Experts ask if it’s paying off

John Wolfe (back), pastor of CrossRidge Church, Little Elm, takes part in a firearm certification on, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023, in Krugerville. The training is offered by the Christian Security Institute, a part of a nonprofit, National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management. (Photo by Shafkat Anowar /The Dallas Morning News)

By Arcelia Martin, The Dallas Morning News

Underneath a sprawling oak tree, a dozen men lay empty pistols and shotguns on wooden tables, barrels pointed at cardboard targets down a sun-scorched grass field.

At the northern edge of Dallas-Fort Worth, off U.S. 377 in unincorporated Krugerville, William Chadwick faces the line of men. The head instructor and trainer at the Christian Security Institute asks if the weapons are empty. The men bark back, “Yes.” Is there a medic? “Yes.” Safety kits? “Yes.” Is there an ordained member?

Little Elm Pastor John Wolfe raises his hand. The men bow their heads.

“God, we pray that we never have to use this training,” Wolfe begins. “But if we do, God, may you be with us…”

The dozen men are completing or renewing their firearm certification, the final step of state-recognized training that allows the churchgoers to serve as armed, plain-clothed, private security at their churches. The process takes up to six days.

The day before, the men learned where to strike a potential threat, in line with the law, that brings an assailant to their knees. They learned when someone becomes their custody and how to remove a weapon from an active shooter maneuvering around pews or an altar.

The Christian Security Institute is among the more involved businesses in a fast-growing active shooter defense industry taking root with the rise of bloodshed and anxiety across North Texas and America.

As the rate of gun deaths grows in Texas, the pro-business state has turned to solutions that have transformed what it’s like to walk into schools and remade business priorities for executives who know these uniquely American tragedies can be lucrative. It spurred a $3 billion industry made up of active shooter training, consultants, surveillance technologies and safety infrastructure. But some experts question the booming line of business and whether any of these strategies are effective at stopping gun violence.

On Super Bowl Sunday, a few hours before kickoff, a shooter armed with an AR-15 and multiple rounds opened fire at a Houston megachurch led by Joel Osteen, a celebrity televangelist and pastor.

Off-duty Houston Police Department and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officers working a security shift killed the shooter in the church lobby, minutes before the Spanish-language service was set to start. The shooter’s 7-year-old son remains in critical condition after being shot in the head.

“All of us here would agree that if it weren’t for them, the number of casualties and victims would have been much higher,” said Doug Williams, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Houston field office, on the action of the off-duty officers. “There is no doubt that their heroic action saved lives.”

The megachurch, once an arena for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, seats 16,000.

The physical and cyber security market in schools alone is expected to grow by nearly 20% by 2030, resulting in a $8.85 billion industry, according to market analysis firm Market Research Future. The market study credits the sector’s surge to parents’ and administrators’ growing concerns for children’s safety at school.

“The idea of school safety has two parts: It is feeling safe and actually being safe,” said Katherine Schweit, a former FBI special agent, adviser with the National Center for School Safety based at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and author of the book, “Stop the Killing: How to End the Mass Shooting Crisis.” “A certain amount of technology and efforts simply make us feel safer and only some can make us be safer.”

There’s plenty of skepticism about the efficacy of the training and surveillance technologies that state and local school districts and governments are dishing out billions for. Odis Johnson, executive director of Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, said no evidence-based research shows that companies marketed to lower the risk of an active shooter situation, actually do.

Most research on school safety tools is self-reported, letting companies focus on the variety of offerings, rather than effectiveness, according to a 2016 report on school safety technology by researchers at Johns Hopkins.

“Market research is there to attract and secure clients,” Johnson said. “We would not really know about the cases where their work really failed.”

A universal vetting system on the burgeoning industry won’t work, said Schweit, as every location has different needs and laws it adheres to. “It’s also buyer beware, right?” she said. “It’s hard to know when you’re under pressure to do something yesterday, what choices to make.”

With a duty to keep people safe, school administrators, religious leaders and building managers feel they have no choice but to buy in.

Big investments

A week before students were set to return from summer break, the 110 staffers of North Texas Collegiate Academy, a public charter school for pre-kindergartners through eighth-graders, met in a back room of Zera Coffee. The Denton cafe was full of couples and groups with annotated Bibles — singles sat with headphones and laptops.

Inside the back area, elementary math teachers and cafeteria assistants listened to recordings of 911 calls from school shootings.

As some teachers wiped at the corners of their eyes, Greg Vecchi, director of operations at Kansas-based SafeDefend, pointed out the critical time lost during emergency calls. He was building up to show the administrators how his company’s threat intervention system notifies authorities with a fingerprint.

“Part of being prepared for today’s world means we have to deal with active shooter drills, just like we have to deal with tornadoes, inclement weather, fire and other things like that,” Vecchi, a former FBI crisis negotiator and U.S. Army veteran, told the school staff. “It’s just something else to add to your responsibility.”

The system installed across the school district’s three campuses cost $200,000, said Superintendent Lisa Stanley. “It’s a big investment,” Stanley said. “But if you think of the time saved…”

Rusty Russell, a vice president of SafeDefend, pointed to how its philosophy is laid out in glossy pamphlets about its threat intervention system. “We focus on left of bang,” Russell said.

Bang is the attack or crisis. What Russell means is their objective is to provide schools, workplaces and religious groups proactive training rather than solely reactive advice. They’ve installed their systems at more than 300 schools across the country, as well as in hospitals and libraries.

Texas legislators passed another round of safety requirements after 19 children and two teachers were killed in 2022 at Robb Elementary in Uvalde in the state’s deadliest school shooting. Mandatory film on windows, at least one armed security officer in every public school.

Districts across Texas received $15,000 per campus plus $10 per student from the Legislature to put toward safety measures like SafeDefend. Last February, an additional $400 million in grant funding was awarded to the Texas Education Agency to assist school districts in replacing or upgrading doors and windows.

“It’s money and we’re appreciative, but it wasn’t going to cover all of it,” Stanley said. The school board decided the difference didn’t matter and that they would just have to find funding elsewhere. “We just told all our teachers, maybe we’ll just clean the carpet this year and replace it in the next budget year.”

At North Texas Collegiate Academy schools, a district with campuses in Little Elm, Denton and Lewisville, SafeDefend was one of a few new safety measures.

In the days leading up to the school year starting, Russell and Brandon Neeley, director of school improvement at North Texas Collegiate Academy, tested the system with Stanley. The alarms and notification systems should go off as Stanley pressed her finger to the sensor.

But while the alarms blared and lights flashed, the superintendent didn’t get the text message reporting the incident like she was supposed to. Russell assured her it was because she hadn’t been fully programmed yet.

“We’re not going to start school with kids in here without it,” she told him.

They also installed a now-required film on the windows meant to prolong the time it takes to shatter the glass by bullet. It cost the three campuses $124,000, Stanley said.

The charter school district got the bids for the window film as lawmakers began discussing mandates. Her quotes landed around $3.50 a square foot. She’s seen the prices more than double since it’s become required, she said.

“We don’t expect them to give it away but don’t take advantage — it’s kids’ safety that we’re talking about,” Stanley said.

After the shooting in Uvalde, salespeople flooded in.

One company pitched the school district bracelets made of reused parachute cords meant to help identify students after an attack. Neeley has gotten more than 200 emails about window films.

“Anytime there’s a tragedy in a school, you’ll see an uptick,” Neeley said. He remembers the swell of vendors at school safety training after 9/11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland.

“They care about money,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of the tragedy.”

Students hand their laptops to the side before walking through the Evolv Express weapons detection system at Mansfield High School in Mansfield on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Mansfield ISD is adding Evolv Express weapons detection systems at all of its high schools following approval by the MISD Board of Trustees in August.
(Photo by Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News

‘Made it a priority’

As students enter Mansfield High School, they dig out their laptops, pass them to staff members to their left and walk through Evolv Express weapon detectors sized nearly the height of the door.

If the lights stay green, students continue through the hallway. If it beeps red, which it does 10% of the time, the student is sent to a secondary screening, often for items the software deems suspect: metal-ring binders, umbrellas, eyeglass cases. Items with similar metal shaft properties to weapons.

“I understand this is not convenient,” said Director of Safety and Security Britney Fortner in October. “Security and safety is not convenient.”

With prevention technologies like these that dramatically change how students view the safety of their school, there’s the task of questioning whether the financial and emotional costs are worth the potential benefit, said William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who has studied school safety for two decades.

“There are high schoolers who probably feel like it’s only a matter of time before their school gets targeted … even though the odds are extremely low,” Pelfrey said. “And that means that they exist in a state of anxiety and fear. That’s a problem.”

The service across the seven high school campuses is costing the district of nearly 40,000 students $800,000 a year, Fortner said. The school district did not receive a grant and did not use safety funding from the state toward this measure. At Mansfield High, the detectors and software run the school $120,000 a year.

“It is expensive, but we just made it a priority,” Fortner said.

Parents and community members were pushing for metal detectors at schools after a shooting in October 2021 at Timberview High School, a campus in the same district.

But metal detectors take too much time. Students have to dump their pockets each time they get to school, whereas the artificial intelligence-powered machines are more time considerate, Fortner said.

The weapon detectors offer peace of mind for junior Hailey Long.

“After the Timberview shooting, I did not want to come back to school — just in case,” Long said. “This makes me feel a lot safer, I don’t have to worry about someone coming in and I don’t mind being checked because I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Even if a student, parent or neighbor wasn’t at the school during the shooting, they talk possessively about the event, Schweit said. “A shooting happened at my school,” Schweit said as an example. It’s the human nature of who we are, to make boundless connections, she said.

“We don’t look at the location, we look beyond it,” Schweit said.

Growth in sales

For some companies, school safety is a second chapter that tailors an existing enterprise to meet increasing needs.

National Glazing Solutions Films and Graphics, a window film company launched in Atlanta in 2009, started by making security and solar films for national retailers, said CEO James Beale. They’re the leading 3M security window film dealer and installer in Texas.

While there’s no such thing as 100% bulletproof glass, Beale said plenty of companies advertise it. Security film helps hold shattered glass together and offers people behind the window time to find safer ground or escape.

Four years ago, NGS opened a Dallas office and in 2022, the company bought its largest Texas competitor to build out its operational footprint. Between 2019 and 2020, NGS picked up nearly 65 district-wide contracts for safety film in Texas.

The company partnered with Houston ISD on an active shooter simulation video. A newscast showing security footage of two layers of glass doors being shot through at the Covenant School shooting in Nashville is posted on its website.

The company forecasted a 60% growth in sales in 2023 from the year prior, primarily driven by school safety clients.

“After Nashville, we just got an explosion of incoming inquiries for private, religious schools, houses of worship,” Beale said.

In 2023, the firm was under contract with more than 110 district-wide programs in Texas, including Plano, Tyler, and Carrollton-Farmers Branch school districts. Texas schools are its largest clients, with a typical contract of about $129,000, Beale said. NGS also works with Fortune 500 companies for security installations at corporate headquarters buildings.

The cost per square foot of glass, depending on the project, ranges from $9 to more than $20, Beale said.

The firm prefers to use a “Tri-Shield” process that applies security film both inside and outside. “We found that it’s roughly twice the price but three times the performance,” Beale said.

Beale, like many of NGS’ employees, is a parent. He’s considered homeschooling his children over safety concerns.

“You don’t even know what they’re doing unless you ask… It used to be ‘What’s the curriculum?’ Now it’s, ‘Well, what are you doing to protect my kids from an active shooter?’”

Calculating the cost

Dealing with gun violence at large is costly. It kills 40,000 people, wounds twice as many, and has an economic consequence of $557 billion a year, according to research from Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit founded in 2013 by billionaire businessman and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg advocating for gun control.

The United States Government Accountability Office estimated that the initial hospital costs of firearm injuries were more than $1 billion annually in 2016 and 2017. However, that doesn’t include physician costs, which could add around 20% to that total, the office reported in 2021.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas secured more than $1.7 million in local and federal security funds in 2022 to protect Dallas-area Jewish nonprofit facilities. Several hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each year on security across Dallas’ Islamic institutions, according to the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

School systems receive taxpayer dollars that fuel the growing and largely unvetted industry, said Johnson, the director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into federal law in 2022, provided hundreds of millions of dollars to schools. The TEA was awarded nearly $94 million in federal funding under the Department of Education’s BSCA Stronger Connections grant program.

It allows schools to choose the particular technologies, consultants and companies that receive these funds, Johnson said.

“Schools are still availing themselves of the latest innovations and of the latest market products to try out at their schools, because they hope and pray that they will do what they’re supposed to do,” Johnson said.

John Dunlap of Gateway Church (left), and Kevin Livesey (center) of Life Fellowship Church take part in firearm and edge weapon proximity simulation as Livesey’s church mate Charlie LAShure watches during a training session to become personal protection officers, Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, in Krugerville. The training is offered by the Christian Security Institute, a part of a nonprofit, National Organization of Church Security and Safety Management. (Photo by Shafkat Anowar /The Dallas Morning News)

Columbine and Sandy Hook

People like Frank DeAngelis know the cost. DeAngelis is the former principal of Columbine High School, the site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history that occurred nearly 25 years ago.

DeAngelis was the principal of the high school back when they only did fire drills, he told an audience of school resource officers, administrators and security vendors at a school safety summit in Richardson in September.

“I look at all of these vendors and think, if we would have had some of these in place back then, we could maybe alleviate some of the things that happened at Columbine High School,” DeAngelis said on stage.

Some safety experts argue that the best form of ameliorating this violence is by clamping down on the availability of high-powered rifles.

“If a person has that type of weapon, they are going to be able to gain entry to that school,” Johnson said. “It will be irrelevant that there’s a camera watching them do it.”

In the crowd was Michele Gay, co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools, the group hosting the conference. She created the nonprofit after her daughter, Josephine Grace, was killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

Halfway through the second day of the conference, Gay got a text from her older daughter, a student at the University of North Carolina. She was on lockdown for an active shooter threat.

“People are just experiencing it everywhere right now,” Gay said.

One of the event’s sponsors, Raptor Technologies, works with more than 5,000 school districts across the U.S. The Houston-based company has sold software for schools to screen visitors, track volunteers and respond to emergencies since 2002. More than 80% of schools in Texas have contracts with the company, said chief marketing officer David Rogers.

While there’s great potential for new technologies in the security space, Roger said many emerging companies are chasing dollars.

In the 25 years since the Columbine shooting, DeAngelis became skeptical about security companies’ intentions when they reached out to him.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that wanted me to endorse a product … so they could say the principal of Columbine endorsed this,” said DeAngelis, who’s retired and consults with schools and communities after tragedies.

‘A vested interest’

Charles Chadwick opened Christian Security Institute, the training company in Krugerville, in 2006. The group has worked with roughly 100 churches and trained more than 450 active officers. Only a handful of students have failed, Chadwick said, and it’s typically during the psychological evaluation.

Once the churchgoers graduate from the security officer program, they’re commissioned officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety Private Security Bureau.

“They have professional credentials, they’re not just a bunch of guys licensed to carry and decided they were going to put together a church security team,” Chadwick said.

Their model ensures there aren’t strangers tasked with protecting churches, said William Chadwick, Charles’ son and the institute’s head instructor. “Their wives are in the sanctuary, their kids are in the children’s wing. They’re not leaving. They have a vested interest.”

Charlie LaShure, 76, proudly volunteered for the training program on behalf of his McKinney church. He’s a former chapter president of the Frontiersman Camping Fellowship at the Royal Rangers, an outdoors arm of the Boy Scouts-like program that works to “evangelize, equip and empower the next generation of Christlike men,” according to the group’s site.

“I care,” LaShure shrugged. “There’s too many people getting shot. The only people I want to see shot are the bad guys.”

During a tactical training session at the security institute, a handful of men sit in a makeshift classroom of folding tables as desks. On a plastic dummy, the trainees practice striking its stomach with the heel of their boots.

“I want his breakfast to come out his nose,” said William Chadwick. They practice arrests with handcuffs over and over again, until they receive a passing grade.

At the gun range, Little Elm pastor John Wolfe prepares for recertification with his 9mm Luger pistol, as the others shoot their rounds at the line. Ear muffs hug his temples over a baseball cap.

Wolfe moved to Little Elm in 1967 and has served as a pastor for the past 15 years. He’s in charge of safety and security.

It’s a shame, Wolfe said, that he has to be at the gun range. Church leaders, like himself, pushed to get certain members trained and armed through the institute, for the things that were happening in the world. There’s been a slip into depravity, he said.

“People have a right to be safe where they worship,” Wolfe said.

If one believes in good and evil, he said, they must be prepared to deal with the latter.