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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Bullets or bacterium – in pursuit of the forgotten school intruder

Posted on 7th August 2019 at 16:13pm

David P Perrodin, PhD, examines how the shadow of superbugs - a host of tiny, unseen enemies - could be a far greater danger than security threats to schools than many people currently perceive.

While many are introducing security measures to deter physical attacks, it is entirely possible that they are overlooking the threat of antimicrobial resistant bugs that loom over their schools (image: G Broom)

The problem with listening to anecdotal evidence and sentinel events is not just that you spend time, energy and money on events that are astronomically unlikely to strike at your school. It’s also that while you’re worrying about a bee flying into a bus because it happened once somewhere, you aren’t worrying about major events that haven’t happened yet, but which experts can see on the horizon.

Or, in the case of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococous aureus (MSRA), events that are more or less upon us already, but are not on the front pages of the papers or news websites. MSRA is a tiny organism that usually only gives you a zit; but if you catch one of the more virulent strains when you have a compromised immune system or any other vulnerability, it can rot off your limbs and kill you. While schools are worried about fortifying school buildings like they are medieval castles, a host of tiny, unseen enemies are already within the castle walls, preparing to attack the inhabitants.

Actually, now that I think about it, that sounds just like a medieval castle; it’s just that the plague germs have had an update. But this time we have germ theory, so there’s no excuse for children to become sick while we’re off boiling witches and building weird gadgets.

MRSA is a bacterial infection that doesn’t respond to many traditional antibiotics. Laypeople refer to it as a flesh-eating bacteria. It is certainly scary and it seems to be making appearances, with more aggressive manifestations, in new venues, including schools.

Depending upon what set of statistics you subscribe to, one could argue that MRSA is discreetly approaching pandemic levels – a quick online search brings back countless current stories of kids that have lost limbs or lives due to MRSA – but meanwhile, officials are busy pounding bollards out the front of their schools.

This silent maimer and killer has worked its way from hospitals and sports locker rooms into schools; in a way that is reminiscent of polio. The man I replaced when I took my first school administration position was a polio survivor. His floppy left foot was a reminder of a normal childhood that veered off into a world of hospitals and treatment one school day when he couldn't walk from the playground, as his legs had inexplicably stopped working. Yet, Polio was not a medieval plague. And today, our guard is down.

The school safety profession is so consumed with tunnel vision – focusing on whatever freak event is clogging Facebook this week – that it is unprepared for other, possible, sentinel attacks to the wellbeing of students. Have we turned our school safety strategy into a contemporary Maginot line?

In 2011, a study by researchers at UC Davis found that the number of children hospitalised owing to community-acquired ‘superbug’ Methicillin-resistant Staphylococous aureus MRSA, doubled between 2000 and 2007 (UC Davis, 2011).

Statistics on MRSA fatalities for youth in America are, at best, murky. On September 18, 2014, President Obama issued an executive order combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This order included a multi-agency plan due in 2020 to respond to this threat to domestic security – a plan that would mandate standards for electronic health record-based reporting for MRSA (Obama, 2014). As of July 2019, a uniform MRSA database had not yet been established in the United States and other countries.

It’s possible that such unofficial tallies of youth maimed or killed by MRSA (and their bacterial counterparts) already rival, or even surpass, those of students killed in school shootings. 

A few wealthy districts are spending tens of thousands of dollars on special machines that kill MRSA on desks, door handles and fitness room equipment. A $100,000 germ-zapping robot named ‘Gronk’ is helping to kill MRSA at a Massachusetts High School (Demers, 2016). The article about this notes that 350 of these robots have been sold to hospitals, medical facilities and schools across the country. 

Meanwhile, the poor rural school battles this foe with a re-purposed spray bottle containing a mixture of generic bleach diluted with water. Think long and then tell me which of these schools is the ‘safest’? I’m starting to sense that this problem is larger than we’ve been led to believe...

But unlike the Gronk-protected school, most are doing little to nothing – and, unlike school shootings, there is no definite ‘smoking gun’ to prove that a child contracted MRSA at school – but many school environments are testing positive for MRSA and more humans are carriers.

In a school of 300 pupils, between staff and students, there will be a guaranteed statistical handful of passive MRSA super-strain carriers who can spread the bug, under the right conditions, with nothing more than a sweaty fist-bump.

The irony of MRSA is that it can live for months on bollards and bulletproof window films. What if terrorists take the biological pathogen route, weaponise MRSA and disperse it strategically in schools via a drone, for example by dropping a water balloon tainted with MRSA over a playground one evening – who would ever know?

OK, before you decide I’ve spun off into conspiracy analyst territory, let’s get back to my main point: some people in administration or parents might believe that bollards are going to protect students from the slim chance that somebody can aim a Smartcar between the two front door pillars. Humour them as non-destructively as you can, but you need to keep your eye on the other, real threats that are out there. There will be threats we can’t even yet fathom.

And when it comes to the threats of which we are aware, if they aren't glamorous, they are going unheeded. With all the millions being spent in school safety funding, how much have we put toward preventing MRSA infections?

If you're a small school district with limited funds, save them for bleach, not bollards.

References

Demers, P (2014, October 14): Germ-zapping robot named 'Gronk' helped kill MRSA at Mass. high school. MassLive. Retrieved from here

Obama, B (2014, September 18): Executive Order—Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. The White House. Washington, D. C. Retrieved from here 

About the Author

David P Perrodin, PhD, is a professor in the School of Education at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisc, USA He is the author of ‘School of Errors: Rethinking School Safety in America’ (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019)

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