BALTIMORE — Calling "campus violence a reality" to prepare for, a university in Maryland announced last week that it planned to spend $60,000 on the Clark Kent of teacher supplies: an innocuous-looking whiteboard that can stop bullets.
The high-tech tablet — which hangs on a hook, measures 18 by 20 inches and comes in pink, blue and green — can be used as a personal shield for professors under attack, according to the company that makes it, and as a portable writing pad in quieter times.
"It needs to be a great whiteboard and a useful tool so that it doesn't get hidden in the closet," said maker George Tunis. His company Hardwire LLC starting out making military armor, then adapted it for the classroom after the shootings last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed.
"When Sandy Hook happened … a light bulb went off that it's really the teachers and administrators" who need protection, said Tunis, a father of two. "Those brave souls were trying to close the gap and get to the shooter and stop him, but they didn't have anything that could stop the bullets along the way."
High-profile incidents like Sandy Hook and the 2007 mass murder of 32 people at Virginia Tech have led campuses across the country to focus on safety.
They've developed assessment teams to evaluate potential threats and revamped policies to tighten security. Body armor is the latest effort, security experts said.
"There are several vendors that have this type of personalized armor," said S. Daniel Carter, a national campus safety advocate. "It's not something that is in much great use."
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is the first university to adopt Hardwire's technology, though the company said it had sold bulletproof whiteboards, which cost $299 apiece, to about 100 schools in five states. It also makes bulletproof door shields, clipboards and inserts for children's backpacks, all of which it sells online.
University President Juliette B. Bell said in a telephone interview that she decided to order 200 whiteboards for faculty using funds from the university's foundation account so the school could be "proactive rather than reactive" in a violent situation.
Located in the historic town of Princess Anne, Md., the university has never experienced an "active shooter" incident, unlike some other Maryland schools like Baltimore's Morgan State University, where a football player and a visiting student were shot in separate events last year.
"Being able to respond accordingly is very important," Bell said, pointing to the Virginia Tech shootings. "It's all about being prepared."
The university announced the deal at the Maryland Assn. of Counties summer conference. Hardwire had a booth set up there where Tunis, with the help of employees and his 14-year-old daughter, demonstrated his products.
G. Dale Wesson, a vice president at the university, gave it a once-over and determined that "it won't protect you from a bazooka, but it's something." He called it an alternative to arming teachers.
Tunis envisions teachers using the whiteboards individually or as a group, standing side by side to create a wall that could shield evacuating students or fend off an attacker.
"It's designed to be a last resort and to buy you some extra time," he said.
Abigail Boyer of the Clery Center for Security on Campus in Pennsylvania says the whiteboards may not be for everyone, but the conversation that led to them is critical.
"I think every institution certainly should be looking at what they have available on their campus to protect both students and faculty," Boyer said.