ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS – Omer Barnes was a real estate developer and contractor in New York and New Jersey for 13 years before he got a call in 2018 from the superintendent of his children’s elementary school.
The official was asking for a meeting; he was concerned about doors. As a developer and contractor, one of Barnes’ tasks was finishing doors.
“I’m talking about high-rises with dozens of apartments that need flooring, kitchens, counters, ceramics – I do everything,” Barnes told TheMarker in the offices of his company, Remo Security Doors, in northern New Jersey. “Four years ago I started installing metal fire-proof doors. They come from Israel with a Mul-T-Lock mechanism, which is hard to find in the American market.”
The superintendent’s concerns, however, were far different. Barnes, who until then thought in terms of fires and burglars, learned about the school’s mass-shooting drills, which are all but standard in American schools. He learned that his own children’s school held drills at least four times a year.
“The superintendent started explaining the rules and I felt like I’d been hit by a train. I suddenly realized that four times a year they announce the drill, and the teacher locks the door, turns out the lights, draws the shades and takes the children to the corner farthest from the door,” Barnes said.
“They sit in absolute silence for several minutes until a police officer enters and tells them the drill is over. At first, I didn’t think I understood him. I remember asking him three times to explain it to me. I wanted to be sure that this is what my kids had to do over and over.”
Barnes describes the conversation in amazement. “I asked him if he thought what he was describing sounded normal – if it seemed reasonable to put small kids in a dark corner in complete silence for 20 minutes,” Barnes said. “It’s enough to have two kids in each classroom afraid of the dark and this fear will morph into a panic attack.”
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Growing up in Israel, Barnes practiced going into a bomb shelter every few months at school, and during the 1991 Gulf War he had to run into a sealed room when Iraqi missiles came over; fortunately the rockets weren’t carrying poison gas. So maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised by the drills at American schools. He admits that in Israel there are drills where sirens go off and the kids have to run into a shelter.
“But when kids in Israel run to a shelter, they’re with friends and can laugh and stay calm, aware they’re safe from rockets. And they don’t have to be afraid that a terrorist will break through the door and shoot everyone,” he said.
“One of the most important things today in Israeli drills is to keep the students active, to let them play or read during the drill.” But in the United States “they have to sit quietly in total darkness for 20 minutes imagining shooting scenarios they know from video games and movies.”
Coincidentally, just hours after our meeting, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association called for an end to schools' active-shooter drills because of concerns about children’s mental health.
As Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said last month, “Everywhere I travel, I hear from parents and educators about active shooter drills terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night. So traumatizing students as we work to keep students safe from gun violence is not the answer,” she said, as reported by The Associated Press.
Barnes promised to get back to the superintendent with a proposal to secure the school. “I started researching and discovered that in 90 percent of the cases current or former students perpetrated the shootings,” he said. “So there’s no point replacing entrance doors because the shooter is already walking freely inside the building.”
Barnes, thinking in terms of Israeli building codes, thought at first to suggest converting certain classrooms into protected rooms where all students could run to during a shooting. “But then you start thinking how many and where to put them, and there’s the problem with changing all the procedures about kids having to stay in their classrooms,” he said.
So instead of building secure spaces in every school, Barnes decided to turn every classroom into a secure space. “I realized that the moment I replaced the classroom door, I basically made the class a secure space,” he said. “My whole line of thought since then has been how to replace the doors to make them bullet-resistant.”
Thousands throughout the U.S.
Barnes, 43, was born in Tel Aviv, one of five children. His mother was a stay-at-home mom, and his father owned a clutch of small businesses. He served in the army’s Nahal infantry brigade and then studied business. He met his wife, a Californian, in Israel 15 years ago. After closing a few deals in Israel, they traveled to New York and decided to stay.
During that visit he met two Israelis who offered him, through a common acquaintance, to be a junior partner in a Manhattan real estate deal. He spread out from there.
After meeting with the superintendent, Barnes tried to figure out how to build a bulletproof door that met New Jersey’s strict safety codes. A few months later he returned with a prototype metal door with a reinforced glass window. Since then he has installed thousands like it around the United States.
“The moment the superintendent saw the door he thought it was a brilliant idea,” Barnes said, but not everyone was convinced.
“When I installed the first door, one of the teachers was upset. She saw the door and angrily asked: ‘Is this what we’ve come to, a place with bulletproof doors in every class? What’s going on here?’ I reminded her what happened after 9/11, how they secured every airport and since then terrorists have stopped trying to hijack planes.”
Barnes, by the way, wasn’t the first businessman in the United States to offer bullet-resistant doors, which have been around for decades. He says his doors are special because of the price – $2,500 per door compared with around $10,000 for competitors – and the relatively quick installation time, saving schools weeks of renovation work.
“I developed a trick – a metal doorpost that fits on the existing one,” he said on a tour of the showroom, where he showed me various models he has sold. “You can install a door in barely 45 minutes. It lets me finish an entire school in one weekend in a quick, clean way that doesn’t require subcontractors.”
Barnes says that while the door is assembled in Israel, the parts come from all over the world. The reinforced glass comes from the United States to meet the code requiring that every classroom door have a window. Similar materials come from Mexico and Germany. The locking system is sent from Taiwan.
“I offered the superintendent 60 doors for $120,000, and I replaced all the doors shortly thereafter,” he said.
Barnes, with his low voice, solid frame, short hair and Israel-army-veteran aura has become a popular guest on the television news. “His bullet-resistant doors are turning classrooms into safe rooms,” read a CNN headline in October. As CBS' Pittsburgh affiliate put it last year, “Company aims to change classrooms into fortresses with bullet-resistant doors,” while CBS’ Tampa affiliate offered: “Bullet-resistant doors could be coming to a school near you.”
The national hysteria has helped make Barnes a terror-fighting expert. “We’re trying to make a change for everyone, that kids will be safe, the parents dropping off the kids at school will be comfortable again, the school is safe, the educators are safe,” he told the Tampa affiliate.
Protecting mental health
In a country with over 130,000 schools, dozens of shootings a year shouldn’t make an entire nation hysterical. But the phenomenon is common enough to appear in the nightmares of all American parents with schoolchildren. The nightmares began in earnest after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when two Colorado 12th-graders murdered 12 students and one teacher with the cool of trained terrorists.
School shootings have since become much more common, including the 2007 massacre of 32 people by a student at Virginia Tech, and the murder of 20 children age 5 to 7 and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. According to CNN, between 2009 and 2019 there were some 180 shootings in American schools in which 356 people, mostly students, were killed.
Last year saw a dramatic rise of shootings motivated by anti-Semitism including the Poway synagogue shooting in California and the killings at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey. Barnes received dozens of requests from synagogues and Jewish institutions; they realized that a glass door with a code lock wasn’t enough against someone with an automatic rifle.
“Cameras are good if you want to see the shooter after the attack, and an armed guard is an easy target who the terrorist kills first before moving on,” Barnes said. “The safe room, in contrast, is a proven solution.”
Still, the question remains about the distress during those drills when the kids are crowded into a dark corner.
“First, we solved the problem of protecting the children and teachers both physically and mentally. Today, students and teachers who are in classrooms where our doors are installed know they’re protected; the shooters can’t break into the classroom or shoot through the door,” Barnes said, adding that schools have received initial approval to keep the light on in the room during drills where his company’s doors are in place.
“Thanks to our doors, the students don’t have to sit in total darkness. Instead, they can sit and read a book during the drill. We live in a country that measures everything, but no one has yet measured the students’ trauma from fearing that someone will shoot them at school.”
And not only students. A few months ago, Barnes flew to a meeting at a school in Beverly Hills. Ten minutes before the meeting there was a mass shooting at a high school in nearby Santa Clarita; two students and three others were wounded.
“Then I turned on the TV and saw a father saying his daughter had called him from a classroom closet where students were hiding. She told him a school shooting was going on,” Barnes said.
“And he said tearfully that he wanted to talk to her to calm her down but told her to hang up so that the shooter wouldn’t hear her and shoot her. Today, if my son calls and tells me there’s a shooter at school, I can talk to him and calm him down, knowing he’s safe.”