Kevin Thomas was on a long drive one day in early June 2022, when his wife Kristen called with an idea. She’d been watching coverage of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas and that got her thinking about their own five kids and grandchildren. The Thomases own a family company in Alabama that produces pop-up ballistic housing units for the U.S. military to use in conflict zones. Kristen wondered: What if her husband could invent a pop-up ballistic safe room to give kids like those in Robb Elementary a chance to survive a school shooting?
“I said, That’s a great idea, but let me work on something that we can fit into a corner or something and it’s there when we need it,” Thomas said. By the end of the drive, he’d figured it out.
“I was literally working with my hands like this,” Thomas said, creating a right angle with his wrists together and fingers outstretched, just like Miah and Elena had. “I’m like, Oh yeah, it can go in a corner… and be able to fold and just reverse out in time of need.” Given how much wall space it’d take up, he decided to add a white board coating on the outside. He named it the Rapid Access Safe Room, or “RASR.”
When Thomas, a big guy from north Alabama built like a drill sergeant, finds out that the girls have seen his invention on TikTok, he weeps. Thomas says his company has had at least 5,000 inquiries from school districts around the country that want RASRs, which retail at $60,000 each. He says it takes 10 seconds to deploy the RASR and that it can be done by a child.
“The deal at Covenant just goes to show you that no matter what you have at the front door or around the perimeter, if they get inside, you better have a backup plan,” Thomas said, referring to the March school shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville.
According to Pew Research Center, “roughly a third (32 percent) of parents of children in K-12 schools say they are very or extremely worried about a shooting ever happening at their children’s school.” That number is up to 49 percent for families in lower income communities, like the Uvalde neighborhood around Robb Elementary.
But research has repeatedly found that not only is there no evidence that hardening schools reduces the risk of firearm violence, but also that it can actually have negative effects on student and staff mental health. Researchers have found that students experience more fear with visible security precautions, like metal detectors and surveillance cameras, and also found lower student participation in extracurricular activities, student-teacher trust scores and even academic success.
“We also really do need to be careful, in even earnest attempts to keep our kids safe, [that we’re] not turning our schools into fortresses that may be safe against violent external attack, but aren’t places that are susceptible to learning and emotional growth,” says Nick Suplina, senior vice president for Law and Policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading gun safety organization founded after the shooting in Newtown, Conn. in 2012.
Despite the deadlock in national politics over gun reform, it’s actually one of the most widely supported political issues in America right now. According to a Fox News poll this April, 87 percent of voters favor background checks for all gun buyers; 81 percent support raising the legal age to purchase a firearm to 21; and 80 percent support requiring mental health checks for gun buyers and allowing police to take weapons from those who could be a danger to themselves or others.