‘What does this say about where we’re at?’: how America deals with school shootings

Bulletproof, a sly, sharp-eyed documentary on US school safety in the era of mass shootings, traces a horrific and absurd status quo. A lockdown drill at an everywhere high school, students crouched under desks, in corners. A tracking badge system for a district in Texas City, Texas, which shows administrators every person’s exact location on campus; a first-grade teacher in Colorado learning to shoot a gun so she can protect her “kiddos”; a department head displaying his district’s 22 AR-15s, since “being in the tactical field myself I understand the importance of superior firepower.” Cut to high-schoolboys playing basketball, a homecoming game, cheerleading practice, banter on the bleachers.

It’s a quiet gut punch of a film, one that takes in the culture of violence in the US through observations of routine rather than infamous ruptures. Numerous documentaries – Song of Parkland, Us Kids, and After Parkland on the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on 14 February 2018 – have examined the unfathomable and sickening mundanity of school shootings in the US, as well as a youth-led movement to restrict access to guns. But Bulletproof, directed by Todd Chandler, takes a more oblique yet still chilling approach: the normal that routine violence, fear and political gridlock have wrought on school districts across the country.

The project, which began in 2015, isn’t limited to high schools. Chandler was interested in “customs, rituals, performances or choreographies that were connected in some way – all the sort of everyday things that take place in and around schools”, he told the Guardian. “All these things are coming from the same place – the homecoming parade and the lockdown drill are both a sort of performance, and they’re both deeply American rituals and they both have this shared origin story.”

The American education system is the nexus of a web of cultural, social and political tug-of-wars, from race to funding to curricula. So it’s no surprise the high school has become the testing ground for ideas of safety – who it is for, how much and in what ways we should pay for it, what people will do in the absence of it, real or perceived. The 84-minute film offers a roving portrait of adaptations to the omnipresence of guns – from over-policing in school districts with majority students of color to expensive, grandiose security measures in ones that can afford it.

Chandler visits districts in Texas, Missouri, New York City and other places, as well as a contentious school board meeting in Pittsburgh, an EMT and gun class for teachers in Colorado, the Silicon Valley bedroom where a young entrepreneur is developing bulletproof hoodies to protect her mom and brother, who live in an unsafe neighborhood. There’s a trade show for school safety equipment that includes bulletproof whiteboards, lockdown compartments and distracting flash-bangs – and Vegas showgirls. Not all scenes are responses to mass shootings, perpetrated overwhelmingly by white teenage males; archival footage from 1993 depicts the installation of metal detectors at the entrance of a predominantly black school.

That history, and another scene in which one classroom practices a lockdown drill and immediately processes it through an open discussion, demonstrate how “modes of preventing violence feel pretty violent in and of themselves,” said Chandler. “What does that say about where we’re at and what we’re doing?”

Bulletproof bounces between different regions around the US, though the precise locations are deliberately understated. There are no title cards or pin drops, in order to “resist a kind of specificity”, Chandler said. Laying out the map could “lead to ascribing a kind of causality”, as in: of course it’s happening in Texas, of course it’s happening in Chicago, of course it’s like this in a red state/inner city, insert your biases or large-scale regional assumptions here.

“It felt like it was going to undermine what I felt like I was experiencing while filming, which is that this is not specific to Missouri, or Texas, or Chicago,” he said. “This is happening in lots of places, so let’s not focus too much on the details of place.”

The same holds true for one-name events – there is footage of reporters preparing to speak on what is clearly another iteration of a now-routine American tragedy, birds-eye footage of students streaming from a building past four-square and tennis courts. But there’s no mention of a specific shooting, no headlines, no pleas from survivors or loved ones. Like the feature film Mass, released this month, the audience is tasked with supplying most of the context for individual events, which is not hard to do. We all know what the helicopters, Swat teams, and tearful crowds mean, what the headlines will look like, the routines of mass grief and “thoughts and prayers”.

“Films have been made about the specific, and I think those films can be very important,” said Chandler. “But this just felt like a different project,” one about the rituals of gun violence in this country – mass shootings, but also a rapidly evolving new normal of “safety” in different schools.

Chandler said he considered talking to people directly derailed by gun violence in the US – someone incarcerated by an over-policed school, or someone who lost a loved one to a shooting. But he felt doing so would “take too much air out of the conversation, so to speak”. Instead, the aim was the “making strange” of rituals in 21st-century American schools – “so many things that either have long been or are really quickly becoming normal”.

A still from Bulletproof.
A still from Bulletproof. Photograph: Grasshopper Films

The aftermath of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, hangs over the film, though it’s not explicitly mentioned; reference to a specific incident “immediately makes it about school shootings” – which it is, in part, but Chandler said he hoped the film “asks a deeper question about American violence”, and what we consider necessary and normal.

Bulletproof construes the question of violence in American schools broadly; Chandler is careful to point out that it’s not just mass shootings but also state violence, particularly the over-surveillance of students of color. Pointedly, the one school district practicing holistic techniques for the health of students – mindfulness, discussion – is in Chicago, where the majority of students are Hispanic or Black, and can speak to real experiences of gun violence in their neighborhoods.

Yet Bulletproof, in simply observing a drop-in everyday around the country, remains nonjudgmental, allowing participants to explain their logic. A Texas district was given $6.5m by the state specifically for security, a first-grade teacher wants to be prepared, an engineer can make a bulletproof desk, so why not?

“I on the one hand hear that logic [of stopping the bullets],” said Chandler. “And on the other hand, if we have any number of people who are taking that siloed approach, what we end up doing is creating a series of at best, Band-Aids, when the deeper questions” – on white supremacy, masculinity, capitalism, the ubiquity and ease of guns – remain unanswered.

In the meantime, classes go on, students walk the hallways, attend football games, gossip. Bulletproof concludes with these open-ended ordinariness, the low stakes scenes of American secondary education at once fetishized, over-scrutinized and worth protecting.


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