The Fallacy of Wasp Spray for School Safety

The genesis of the notion of ‘bug spray’ as a tool against an active shooter in a school safety plan sprung up in the late 90s after a series of high profile school shootings. As police departments across the country scrambled to adjust procedures and train officers on dynamic entry post Columbine the teachers and staff in our schools were clamoring for assistance. The school administrators were being reassured that the police would respond differently and thus no need to change anything at the schools was required. To some this was a comfort but other school personnel weren’t appeased. In this vacuum of options several programs arose and ideas for countering an intruder gained popularity. No one will argue with the notion that doing something for school safety is better than nothing when countering an armed intruder. The idea of throwing things, barricading doors and fighting at all costs as a last resort are still sound options. The missing element was how a teacher in a classroom with young students could accomplish this alone.

Due to school policies that prohibit weapons in schools there were limited options for defense. Ever so quietly the idea was passed from law enforcement to the teachers to put a can of wasp spray in the drawer. It isn’t technically a weapon. It doesn’t violate policy. If questioned by administration it can be explained away as necessary on the playground or something. However, In a crisis it can be used directly at an intruder from a considerable distance to distract or detour them from continuing to enter the room. So in an effort to protect the classroom the sprays were encouraged as a means to circumvent the prohibition on weapons in the classroom. At the time it was a reasonable option. Over the years the concept spread and became a dominant theme in school safety. Teachers feel comforted with having a can of bug spray in the classrooms. Police officers heard the option and figured that someone must know what they are talking about and done the necessary research. Thus the idea spread to use bug spray. Some schools started providing teachers with response kits in case of a violent intruder and cans of bug spray were included based on the false notion that this was an effective counter to an armed intruder. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. Most bug sprays are only a minor irritant to humans.

Bug spray has never actually been tested on humans for this purpose and isn’t sold for that purpose. The internet is rife with videos of people demonstrating how ineffective bug sprays are at stopping an aggressive attacker. Not to mention that one of the side effects from exposure to humans lists it can be lethal. People often scoff at this claim as we don’t care about the perpetrator, but the reality is that cross exposure will likely occur to all the students in the classroom or hallway. When it comes to the liability of this how are you going to defend the clear disclaimer ‘misuse of this product is a violation of federal law.’ To reiterate the point, anything in a crisis should be used to thwart the attack. The fallacy arises when schools arm their teachers with a product not intended for this purpose knowing a substantially more effective option is available.

With all the discussion of what to give teachers for protection in a school safety plan,  the simple answer is Mace brand gel pepper spray. There are many benefits to the Mace brand gel pepper spray that include efficacy against humans, distance for deployment, ease of use, and temporariness of effects. The 1989 FBI study on pepper spray prompted the vast majority of police agencies in the country to adopt it as an option. The use of the weapon in response to hostile action (not crowd control) has been thoroughly vetted in the courts and proven time and again to be reasonable. Naysayers always point to the notion of taking down an armed shooter with a gun. First off, Mace brand pepper spray in this situation should be used as a defensive weapon. The purpose of having it is to secure the door and barricade it with furniture. If the perpetrator is able to get past the door the 24-foot stream sprayed in the general direction of the door will find it’s target and the side effects of involuntary eye closure, burning skin, labored breathing and mucous production are debilitating to the attacker. The idea is to keep the intruder out of the classroom where the vast majority of casualties occur in our schools.

No better example of a this defensive use exists than the Seattle Pacific University shooting when a student building monitor pepper sprayed an armed shooter and subdued him until police arrived. Other than the vastly superior efficacy the most important aspect for use of Mace brand pepper spray in schools are the temporary effects. Students inadvertently sprayed or contaminated would suffer no permanent effects. When there is a specific product available for an intended purpose the decision of substituting a less effective option is absurd.

There is a broad misunderstanding of school shooters in our schools. Sandy Hook shone the spotlight on those living with mental illness in our communities. This focus distracts from the stark reality that since 1995 to the present over 80% of shooters in our schools are students. The other segment is usually a disgruntled employee or the result of a domestic relationship. These perpetrators all know how to bypass the external security. These facts lead to the support of classroom security and protection options for our teachers. The solution for administrators is to utilize tools that have proven to be effective but will minimize collateral damage.

1 reply
  1. Gary L. Sigrist, Jr.
    Gary L. Sigrist, Jr. says:

    Fantastic post. I hear many people tout the benefits of bug spray as a defense for school shooters. Besides every argument made in your blog, many states have regulations about what can and cannot be kept in a classroom, even when kept secure. The Bureau of Worker’s Compensation chemical hygiene recommendations would discourage the practice of have bug spray in a classroom. School policies may be even more restrictive. Although I am a proponent of chemical agents such as mace and pepper spray, employees would be wise to check with BoE policy to see if such products are even allowed in the school.


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