In the wake of school shootings, schools can be inundated by profiteers looking to capitalize on the tragedies.
SPOKANE — In the minutes, hours and days following a school shooting, those directly affected struggle to understand what happened.
And those looking to make a buck pick up the phone or draft an email.
Within 10 minutes of a deadly 2014 school shooting in Washington, Becky Berg, the superintendent of the Marysville School District, started receiving emails from people trying to sell “door locks, metal detectors and emergency supplies.”
“It couldn’t have been more offensive,” she said.
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The emails kept coming. And then the people. Counselors showed up. Many certified and well-intentioned. At least one a complete fraud.
Therapy animals. Dogs. Even a pig.
Berg sent the pig to comfort middle-school students. Within an hour, the pig’s owner had unrolled a sleeping bag and curled up with the pig. The pig wouldn’t let children come close. The pig didn’t even like children.
“Turned out the pig was not a therapy pig,” Berg said. “It was just a pig.”
The requests and offers kept coming. Berg, already worn down from days of nonstop work, was stunned at the brazenness.
“This was one of my biggest surprises,” she said. “That people prey upon your vulnerability in order to profit for themselves.”
“In the moment you’re so vulnerable it’s pretty hard to imagine,” she added.
Profiteering from school shootings is not an isolated event, school-shooting experts said. In fact, an industry of sorts has developed around mass shootings.
“There is a lot of ambulance chasing,” said Ronald Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center. “Not only to sell products but to also address litigation issues after the fact.”
“I get calls weekly from companies that want to sell and market products, and we do not endorse any of them,” he added.
Those products range from the absurd — bulletproof whiteboards that can be used as shields, for example — to the potentially valuable, including experts in trauma, school-shooting analysts and others.
After the shooting at Freeman High School two and a half weeks ago, the small rural-school district was inundated with hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and emails “to support Freeman,” said Superintendent Randy Russell.
However, unlike in the Marysville case, Russell said the offers have been supportive and well-intentioned.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Russell said. “With nothing being asked in return and just goodwill.”
The district has benefited from a few things. The day of the shooting, Berg flew to Spokane to offer support and advice. One thing she said?
“Vet the help.”
Additionally, United Way and the Empire Health Foundation are coordinating donations and services. United Way is overseeing all monetary donations for the district, Russell said. As of Friday, United Way had received about $50,000 in donations. United Way will not keep any of that money, a spokeswoman said.
The Empire Health Foundation has coordinated volunteers, including counselors from neighboring school districts.
Cheri Lovre, a crisis expert who helped at Marysville, also came to Freeman.
Lovre has worked with schools recovering from shootings since the late ’90s. After a shooting, people “come out of the woodwork,” she said.
Some of them have good intentions, even if their timing is bad.
“It may not at all be the best match for what the school or the community needs at that point,” Lovre said.
Others’ motivations are more predatory. At one education conference Lovre attended, an engineering firm was peddling a crisis-response manual for schools. The firm knew nothing about schools, school shootings or education.
“It’s very easy to see the people who are there to make money and the people who see schools as a market,” she said.
Kenneth Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, echoed Lovre. A “cottage industry” has developed around school security, he said.
For example: Some former military and law-enforcement officers offer training and tactics on how to confront an active shooter. In one such training, they recommend teachers and students throw their shoes at the shooter.
“(These are) people who are well-intended, but it’s not well thought out,” Trump said.