Joe Leggett of Papillion is sending his kids to school with something new in their backpacks that he hopes they never need: bulletproof panels.
He bought the 9-inch-by-12-inch inserts from a Sarpy County security firm and says the $120 panels give his kids a protective edge if a school shooting ever occurs. And they give parents some peace of mind.
"I pray hard for their safety and protection," said Leggett, a former Pottawattamie County (Iowa) sheriff's deputy. "But we do things to increase those odds."
Sales of the panels have risen at the local store and nationally since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Leggett bought the panels following the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 students and staff.
Wearing a backpack with a bulletproof panel — which may seem surprising to some — comes as politicians have suggested arming teachers, and schools elsewhere are building safe rooms for students in the event of an attack.
"It's a commentary of the times," said Ron Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center.
Some experts say the panels offer peace of mind and provide protection, but they caution that they aren't foolproof.
Leggett bought the panels at 88 Tactical, a business near Gretna that sells firearms and offers weapon and self-defense training.
Shea Degan, the business's founder and CEO, said the panels are made of a synthetic bullet-resistant material, weigh less than a pound and are less than a quarter-inch thick. Degan said the inserts will stop a handgun bullet but aren't designed to stop one from such weapons as an assault rifle, which was used in the Florida attack and at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012.
Handguns have been used in other school shootings, including the 2007 attack at Virginia Tech that left 32 dead.
While the inserts are easy to find online, they're harder to track down at retail stores locally.
Degan said sales of the panels have jumped since the Florida shooting. He said the store sold about 30 of them during the past year and half. But in the time since the shooting, the business has sold an additional 100-plus online and in the store. While that's not a big number, considering that there are more than 100,000 students in the Omaha area, Degan said the sales increase shows that some parents believe the product could make a difference.
He said the panels are meant to be inserted into the back of a backpack, providing protection to a wearer running from a shooter. If a student encountered a shooter face-to-face, the backpack should be held up like a shield or worn on the chest like a vest, he said.
Joe Curran, founder of Massachusetts-based Bullet Blocker, said his company's sales of bulletproof panels are up significantly since the Florida tragedy.
Curran likened the panels to other safety measures at schools, such as smoke alarms and sprinklers.
Leggett's children attend the Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, and a district spokeswoman said parents have called to make sure their children wouldn't violate any school polices if they had bulletproof inserts in their backpacks.
Annette Eyman said it's fine for parents to send their kids to school with the inserts if they choose.
"Anything parents can do from their end that makes them feel they are doing more to protect their child, we are totally in support of," she said.
Leggett said that as a former law enforcement officer, he wore a ballistic vest on the job every day and wants to provide the same for his children.
He and his wife have four children, including three in school. Those in first, fourth and seventh grades each have a bulletproof panel in their backpacks.
He said he doesn't want them to be fearful and told them the chance of a gun attack is very slim.
An insert in their backpack, Leggett told them, is like wearing a helmet when they ride a bike or using a seat belt in the car — it's just another way to stay safe.