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Schools turn to technology to bolster their security–but will it help?

The recent spate of shootings at school campuses this fall–from the five young girls killed at the Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, to the teenage girls brutally murdered at a high school in Bailey, Colo.–has forced school administrators once again to take a close look at their safety and security initiatives. And, not surprisingly, many school districts are turning to new technologies to enable them to say these familiar words to concerned parents, students, school board members, and community residents: “We’re doing everything in our power to make sure that we don’t have another Columbine on our hands.”

Of course, school districts must weigh security concerns against other pressing budgetary demands. And even the most sophisticated security measures in the world won’t necessarily prevent random violence on school campuses, experts note.

Since Columbine, the terrorist attacks of 2001, and similar acts of violence, “the new normal is increasing the use of technologies to make campuses more secure,” says Ronald Stephens, president of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

But the effectiveness of that approach is problematic, notes Stephens, because violence has taken place even with preventive measures in place. “We’re seeing a lot of schools looking at things such as proximity readers, student ID cards to control access to different areas of the campus, metal detectors, and cameras. But no system is perfect, and despite all the high technology, the most effective strategy is the physical presence of a responsible adult,” says Stephens.

Other experts also warn that technology isn’t a panacea. Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, cautions against an overreliance on technology. “We say there has to be a balance between hardware and heartware,” Trump comments. “Any type of technology is a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a comprehensive school safety program.”

Many schools have not mastered the basics of security and emergency prevention, according to Trump. While staff members might have been trained in security issues, their replacements might not have been, and too often training gets cut in the face of budgetary constraints.

“Technology can be useful,” Trump agrees, “but the first line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert school staff.”

Financial constraints have made it difficult for many school districts to purchase state-of-the-art security technologies, Trump says–and even when schools can afford them, it can be a huge challenge to choose the right technology products and services. As a recent study on school safety initiated by Gov. Mike Easley of North Carolina concluded, many school administrators lack expertise in selecting school safety technology. The study strongly suggested that the state of North Carolina “gather experts in technology, education, and law enforcement with input from private industry to recommend solutions.” The report also recommended that the state consider ways to help school districts acquire new technology. Some North Carolina schools lack automated telephone-calling technology to communicate crisis information immediately to parents and lack basic two-way communication between classrooms and the main office, according to the study.

 

Despite these difficulties, school districts are implementing a wide variety of safety initiatives that incorporate new technologies. Here are examples from school districts across the United States:

Kansas City, Mo.: Three Kansas City-area school districts recently announced they’re adding radio frequency identification (RFID) inspection equipment to their school buses. Sue Oberweather, transportation director for the Lee’s Summit School District, reported the system should be on all 150 buses by the end of the year. The North Kansas City School District and Blue Spring School District also have chosen to add RFID.

The Zonar Systems technology provides real-time vehicle tracking using GPS technology, as well as producing records relating to inspection and maintenance of vehicles. Shirley Patrick, transportation director for the North Kansas City district, sees the technology as offering protection in potential hijacking or terrorist situations. “You’re always able to know where the bus is, which direction it’s headed. And law enforcement can get that information, too,” explains Patrick.

The district plans to upgrade to a system to provide tracking of students, who would carry identification cards that can be read by scanners even when they’re placed in pockets or backpacks. The district uses Versatrans software to route its buses and hopes to begin a pilot program involving Versatrans and Zonar to test the technology.

While a number of school districts throughout the country have added technology allowing them to track when students get on and off buses, there has been some opposition from parents in some areas. School safety experts note that similar objections have been raised to having cameras on buses and in and around campus facilities, but that the complaints appear to have tapered off as incidents of violence have recurred.

Tucson Unified School District officials reported concern from some parents earlier this year when the district began considering use of RFID-enabled identification cards. However, transportation director Bill Ball says the district currently is using units provided by Tucson-based Gateway Communications and Synovia to test bus location systems. The district expects to expand the technology later to allow school personnel to track students’ boarding and exiting of buses. The bus-tracking system could be used to generate alerts when there are problems.

“What you want to know is the unusual, what is not right,” Ball says, and the district is evaluating the tracking systems with that in mind. Ball also hopes the district can find grant assistance–given the increased interest in school safety issues by state and local governments–or serve as a beta-testing site for new technology.

Freehold, N.J.: Early in 2006, the Freehold Borough School District launched an iris-recognition security and visitor management system developed by Hewlett-Packard Co. and its security partners, with the twin goals of improving school security and reducing the administrative burden associated with the student sign-in, sign-out process (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6148).

 

 

The Teacher-Parent Authorization Security System (T-PASS) uses iris-recognition technology to establish the identity of school employees, parents, guardians, and visitors. Here’s how it works: A special camera is used to take close-up images of an individual’s irises, with the images converted to a digital template and stored electronically in a computer along with a database holding contract information, specific access permission, and a photograph of the individual. If the images match those of someone seeking to enter the school, the door is unlocked–with access typically granted or denied within two seconds.

Freehold’s system was designed using experienced gained in an earlier study of the technology in schools, including use of a “tailgating” detection system that monitors the frequency that an individual holds a door open for another person, and a visitor-management application that produces badges with photographs of the visitor and the student being visited. Also added was an application to scan driver’s license information and retrieve information for records, eliminating the need to enter the information manually. According to Freehold school officials, the system is working well.

Houston, Texas: Alan Bragg, chief of the 45-member police department for the Spring Independent School District near Houston, reports parents there have been extremely supportive of efforts in recent years to bring in more technology for security protection. About 16,000 elementary students swipe their ID tags when getting on and off their buses, allowing school officials to know when and where the students arrived at school or got off the bus to go home, Bragg explains. “We don’t get any complaints,” he says.

The district also has 450 cameras on a fiber-optic network monitored by the police department, which has added large plasma screens to allow for more effective monitoring, and has begun setting up security vestibules at its schools. Eleven schools currently have the secured areas, where visitors come to be screened before being allowed access to the building, and other schools will be retrofitted with the technology soon, Bragg reports.

“The visitor comes in and shows identification. Then they’re allowed to proceed or stopped,” he explains.

Spring ISD’s technological tools include a system provided by Houston-based Raptor Technologies to screen for sex offenders. A visitor’s driver’s license is scanned and the information is transmitted to Raptor, which maintains a database that includes more than 400,000 records from 48 states. If a match is found, the police are notified. If the visitor is a parent, he or she may be granted limited access, while in other cases an offender might end up under arrest.

Raptor CEO Allan Measom reports the records in the company’s database are updated continually. The cost to districts is $1,500 in the first year and $432 per year afterwards, which “amounts to $36 a month to have us keep these records updated,” according to Measom.

 

 

The system also can be used to track “private alerts,” keeping schools informed of who is allowed to pick up a child at school, a frequent issue in custody battles.

Finally, both Measom and Bragg report, the system serves to stop sex offenders from working or volunteering at schools. The system currently is used in more than 2,200 schools in 20 states and has been averaging identification of seven offenders daily since the start of the school year, according to Measom. The U.S. Department of Justice has contracted with Raptor to place the system in other schools as a pilot project, Measom says.

Another tool used by Spring ISD is a web-based alert system from Scan USA, which allows parents to be notified of “anything affecting students,” such as a security lockdown or traffic problems, on their computers or cell phones, Bragg reports. The notices are sent to all parents who sign on for the service, he reports.

Such instant-alert systems are proving quite popular with school systems nationwide. The East Aurora Union Free School District in New York uses a solution from Rochester, N.Y.-based SchoolWorld that is offered as part of the company’s modular system for web site management.

SchoolWorld’s E-News Communication system allows schools to text-message parents on their cell phones or reach them via eMail instantly. By using a number of different modules offered by SchoolWorld in the building of their web sites, school systems also can create listserves or emergency notification news tickers to be displayed on their site’s home page, allowing them to disseminate critical information easily in case of an emergency.

“Parents are able to give us their work eMail [address], home eMail [address], and cell phone number,” says Frank Rizzo, East Aurora’s chief information officer. “If we close schools, we can send out notification right then and there.”

Though the district has been fortunate not to have to use the system yet in an emergency, Rizzo gave examples of times he’s had to contact parents regarding snow-related closings, one of which occurred while he was attending a conference in California. Rizzo was able simply to access a broadband connection in his hotel, go onto the district’s web site, and send out a text message to parents from there.

“In cases of early dismissal, your parents aren’t sitting there watching TV,” says Rizzo. “If they’re at work and all of a sudden they get a text message saying we’re closing school early, it helps. This has definitely been a plus for us.”

Odessa, Texas: School officials are upgrading their existing security camera system as part of overall improvements to the district’s technology infrastructure, reports spokesman Mike Adkins. The district has had cameras installed at its secondary schools for several years, partly as a deterrent to vandalism, but is moving to a district-wide system with the capability of increased offsite monitoring.

Odessa High School will serve as the test site for the planned camera upgrade, which will cost about $100,000 for that location, according to Adkins. “We will learn a whole lot from that about how the system will work,” he comments.

 

 

Security cameras, of course, are one of the most common technologies used by school districts to prevent school violence. But at least one security expert questions the deterrent effect of such security surveillance. The current generation of students is less likely to be deterred by camera systems than to “wave at the camera while they’re pulverizing some other kid,” says Randall Atlas, an architect and head of Atlas Safety and Security Design in Miami, Fla. In addition, security guards assigned to monitor video cameras often find their eyes “glazing over” from watching too many monitors, he notes.

Craig Chambers, CEO of Cernium Corp., reports that “video analytics” can improve the effectiveness of camera systems in general and specifically eliminate the “glazed eyes” problem cited by Atlas. This technology, which has been available commercially for the last five years, takes video streaming and looks for objects or patterns of objects that might represent a threat or require evaluation by humans, he explains. “Video analytics will alert the guard to something of interest,” he says. It also enables the guard to perform other duties, such as communications, dispatch, or paperwork, without having to continually check multiple monitors, Chambers adds.

The technology has been installed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which was experiencing problems with on-campus crime and had installed cameras and deployed more police to deal with the problem. The video analytics system helped reduce crimes by 25 percent, according to Chambers.

So, what advice does Chambers have for school districts attempting to work through the maze of technological capabilities to address safety and security concerns? “You need to look at the problem. Is it vandalism, is it theft, is it concern over violent crime? The first conference that you have should be about the problem, not technology. We don’t encourage everybody to buy lots of cameras to have lots of cameras.”

Atkins agrees. Technology has its place in school security, he says–but a sound plan needs to include all security aspects, including building design to control access and direct the circulation of people, fencing, and physical barriers and protection of rooms and mechanical spaces, in addition to panic buttons, alarms, biometric sensors, and cameras.

Indeed, school districts need to devote more attention to determining what risks need defending against before investing in technology, asserts Bill Woodward, director of training and technical assistance at the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study of Prevention of Violence. Too often, he says, there are overexpectations as to what technology can accomplish, and as a result, districts frequently install technology in reaction to a situation, without evaluating its applicability to long-term needs.

“It’s a case of ready, shoot, aim,” Woodward comments. “The way you want to come at it with technology depends on what the problem is at the school. If you have done a full assessment of the physical plant, surveyed the students and the parents, the data should tell you what you need to do.

“You have to have good data and good planning.”

For example, Woodward explains, if 8 percent of the students are carrying weapons, that’s a different problem than one in which large numbers of pupils use drugs, or lots of kids are involved in gangs, or many unsupervised visitors are entering the main building. In many instances, he explains, school officials react to situations they might never encounter and fail to prepare for those they are much more likely to face.

The recent shootings in Pennsylvania and Colorado spurred many schools to install metal detectors and cameras, he notes. That might not be the most effective approach toward preventing violence at their schools, according to the former police officer. The best way for schools to proceed, he says, is to be clear on what they need and not be swayed by technology vendors who promote a particular product.

What’s on the horizon when it comes to technology and school security? School districts in Washington state are looking at voice over IP-based intercom systems, which can use existing data cabling to provide communication throughout a school. And security features, including built-in sensors and monitoring devices, are starting to be featured and promoted in new school construction.

The bottom line, according to school safety experts: School districts should continue to invest in new technology to boost security, but they need to recognize that no technology offers a perfect solution to preventing violence and that human involvement remains critical to the success of any safety program.

 

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