Schools rush to high-tech security in wake of fatal shootings

No technology yet developed could have prevented the shooting catastrophes that rocked Edinboro, Pa., on April 24 and stunned Jonesboro, Ark., exactly one month earlier. But in the aftermath of both deadly tragedies, school leaders in communities across the nation and lawmakers in Congress and elsewhere deepened their resolve to use all available resources to make schools safer.

The U.S. Senate on March 26 unanimously approved a Safe Schools Security Act drafted by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., which would give schools $10 million per year for security technology and consulting.

Funds would be used primarily to subcontract with Sandia Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy facility near Albuquerque, N.M. Sandia was a nuclear weapons security facility during the Cold War. Since then, it has turned its attention toward education, most notably with its celebrated report debunking some of the research casting U.S. public schools in the harshest light.

Under Bingaman’s bill, Sandia now would provide schools with technologies such as electronic ID cards and tamper-resistant video cameras.

School security was a prime topic in state legislatures, too. Most notably, the Tennessee House of Representatives unanimously approved its own Safe Schools Act of 1998. That act would provide $10 million to help equip Tennessee schools with metal detectors and other security devices.

Although the quick approval of these bills was due in large part to the Arkansas shootings, lawmakers insist that such measures are long overdue.

“There are almost two million incidents of violent crime on or near school campuses every year,” Bingaman said in a statement. “The reality is that one in five high school students say they are worried about becoming victims of a crime at school.”

Bingaman’s bill would give schools technology that has already been tested in a $72,000 pilot program at Belen High School in New Mexico. About six months after the installation of video cameras, ID cards, and motion detectors in the fall of 1996, Belen officials reported drops in vandalism, vehicle theft, truancy, and fights. Fighting had been almost a weekly occurrence before the crackdown.

‘Things are not like they were’

Belen’s example is what lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in Tennessee hope to replicate with their respective legislation. The main consideration of school officials after an event such as the Jonesboro shootings is how to keep guns and other weapons out of their schools.

Tennessee has its own history of school violence. In 1995 a 16-year old Lynnville youth opened fire with a rifle in his school’s hallway, killing a teacher and another student. A second teacher was shot in the head but recovered. The boy, currently serving a life sentence, told detectives he was upset about failing grades and problems getting his license to drive.

Jere Hargrove, the Tennessee congressman who introduced his state’s Safe Schools Act, said last year alone 405 Tennessee students were expelled from school for bringing weapons to schoolÐalmost a quarter of them for guns.

“The deaths in Jonesboro, Paducah [Ky.], and Lynnville tell us things are not like they were when we were in school, and not like they were even five years ago,” Hargrove said. He cited metal detectors as one of several ways Tennessee schools might use the money his bill would provide to beef up their security.

Tennessee’s measure would set up matching grants local school districts could apply for on a voluntary basis. For every $25 a local school system raised, the state would provide $75.

In the U.S. Congress, Bingaman’s Safe Schools Security Act, which now goes to the House for debate, would establish a School Security Technology Center at Sandia Laboratories. School security experts at the center would examine the needs of individual schools and design affordable custom security packages for them.

The bill would also create a $10 million grant program to help schools pay for Sandia’s technology measures and expertise. Grants would be awarded to schools annually on a competitive basis. Should the legislation pass, the program’s eligibility and application procedure would be determined at a later date.

John German, a spokesman for Sandia Laboratories, cited other examples of partnerships already under way with schools. At Double Eagle Elementary School in New Mexico, for instance, Sandia helped install a hand scanner to verify the identity of parents who come to pick up their children. The device scans the geometry of a person’s hand and matches it with a print on file created when parents register their children for the school year.

German acknowledged that schools need to address issues of privacy when considering security measures. “That’s why we consult with everyone involved when we work with a school to develop an effective security planÐadministrators, students, PTA, even local law enforcement agents,” he said.

Schools under siege

Before you write out a check for any metal detectors there are several points to consider, said Virginia-based security consultant Alan Matchett.

“Metal detectors are just the tip of the iceberg for security,” said Matchett. For example, if you install walk-through metal detectors, then all entrances into the school must be restricted so that weapons cannot be brought in through other doors or windows. That means other doors must become emergency exits, Matchett said, and all doors but the one monitored and all windows with outside access must be kept locked or must be wired to sound an alarm if they are opened.

The situation can become thorny if students must enter and exit the building frequently. “If students exit the building anytime during the day, they must pass through the metal detector again when they come back in,” Matchett said. “Therefore, detectors must also be set up for physical education classes if they go outside.”

The biggest issue to consider, however, is the reaction of parents, teachers, and students. If the community doesn’t support the technology, Matchett warned, “the school can become a very tense and volatile place for all.”

Ron Marquez, principal at Belen High School, agreed with Matchett. “What may work for one school may not work for another,” he said.

Marquez’ school installed its security measures with Sandia guidance. Better known for designing security systems to protect the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons, Sandia consulted with Belen officials in 1996 to come up with a security plan as part of a pilot program to address school security.

The measures seem to be working. Marquez said thefts amounting to as much as $60,000 each year were reduced to $5,000 after the first year of the program.

In addition to the anti-theft devices, Belen introduced electronic ID cards to ensure that only authorized individuals could enter school grounds.

Belen opted for ID cards rather than metal detectors, said Marquez, because “we didn’t want our students to feel like they were in prison.”

Sandia National Laboratories

Senator Jeff Bingaman

Tennessee General Assembly

Dennis Pierce

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