Palm Beach County, Fla., school officials were still reeling from the shock of a student fatally shooting his teacher when the experts came calling. They offered to counsel students, train teachers, put metal detectors in every classroom doorway.
One entrepreneur hawked his brand of security hardware at a school board meeting.
"Sometimes I think 'Where were you before this happened?"' said Ben Marlin, superintendent of the 150,000-student district. "One side of me says I shouldn't react negatively, but another side gets very angry."
More than a year after 12 students and a teacher were killed in Littleton, Colo., a cottage industry has emerged from the fear of school shootings, which remain rare but uniquely horrifying events. Security companies and consultants offer schools workshops, conferences, equipment and inspections for hundreds or thousands of dollars. These businesses aren't reviewed or regulated by state or federal agencies, stirring worries about wasted tax money and even fraud.
"There's been a preponderance and proliferation of individuals saying they're experts in school safety management and many of these people have never stepped foot in a school," said William Modzeleski, the U.S. Education Department's safe schools chief.
Modzeleski and others urge the nation's schools to be more vigilant than ever about checking references and claims of experience.
Companies are attracted by the flow of money -- federal grants for school safety, for example, have increased by $150 million since 1996. They often time their pitches soon after a tragedy, on or near anniversaries, and as students are heading back to school.
Most firms provide good services, educators said in recent interviews, and few if any have been prosecuted for fraud. But individual districts pointed to what they considered questionable practices.
For example, a $200-per-person school-safety seminar last fall advertised a speech by a school official from Jonesboro, Ark., without noting he didn't work in the district in March 1998 when two boys opened fire at a middle school, killing five people. Another expert claimed experience counseling Columbine students at the scene of the 1999 shooting; she was miles away at an elementary school instead. Some people offering themselves as expert consultants have limited backgrounds as journalists or law enforcement officers, rather than extensive experience with school safety.
"We would hate for people to use the tragedy here to foster a business," said Marilyn Saltzman, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County, Colo., school system that includes Columbine High School.
If other schools need to check references, the district has files on who worked with its students, she said. Instead of hiring a consultant, Marlin of Palm Beach County contacted the Colorado district for help improving some policies and security measures.
Regulating thousands of private firms would be next to impossible, says Modzeleski, but as part of a pilot program approved by Congress the Education Department will offer schools guidance on the best programs. The recommendations are slated to be released later this fall, he said.
But, Modzeleski added, "I'm not certain it can be fixed through regulation. It's fixed though careful examination and diligence."
Established security businesses are also worried.
"You almost apologize for doing what you do, because there's been such an onslaught of overnight experts, charlatans, gadgets and gurus," said Kenneth Trump, who's operated National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, since 1989. "What works in a nuclear facility or high-rise office tower might not be applicable for a K-12 school setting."
It's worth the extra time and money for schools to investigate an expert's credentials, said Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a group of 10,000 school-based law enforcement officials.
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