L ast month, when bullets were found in a trash can at East Carter
High School in Grayson, Ky., on a Friday afternoon, officials
took no chances. The following Monday, police used hand-held metal detectors to search students and staff members as they entered the building.
“We thought it might be a prank, or someone’s way of sending a message,” said Jim Johnson, the district’s personnel director. “We also thought someone might have put them in their pocket accidently and decided to get rid of them.”
It’s also possible that a student might have been keeping the ammunition in a locker, Johnson added. Students were told their lockers would be searched over the weekend.
East Carter High School was not alone in its concern. In the aftermath of the shootings that left 15 people dead in Littleton, Colo., in April, schools from nearly every state have reported similar accounts. Incidents have ranged from students sending eMail threats or bringing guns to school, to four Texas boys plotting a bomb attack on their middle school, to another tragedy at a high school in Alberta, Canada.
Educators agree that the copycat phenomenon in the wake of the Columbine High rampage has been broader and more frightening than usual. The resulting hysteria has prompted school officials to tighten security and reevaluate their districts’ safety initiatives as the school year winds to a close.
Fortunately, there’s money available for school safety programs. The federal government’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention this year launched a $300 million program to provide safer learning environments for children.
Fifty partnerships between school districts, law enforcement agencies, and local mental health authorities will receive up to $3 million a year for three years to link existing and new services into a comprehensive, community-wide approach to violence prevention. Activities that can be funded by this grant include after-school programs and the purchase of security systems.
Some states also are providing grant money. The Pennsylvania legislature has approved a bill to give its schools $22 million in grants to develop safety measures. And a bill that would give $42 million to Illinois schools to install metal detectors and take other security steps over the next three years won House support and was awaiting Gov. George H. Ryan’s approval at press time.
From helping school leaders assess their needs through the use of incident profiling software, to securing buildings through the intelligent use of metal detectors or surveillance equipment, to providing aid in a crisis situation through the use of cell phones or 911 hotlines, technology can play a significant role in a school district’s safety program. In this special report, you’ll learn how colleagues are using technologies like these to help keep their schools safe.
When former Greensboro, N.C., assistant police chief Bob Bateman became the school safety administrator for Guilford County Schools, he found it was hard to gather any meaningful data on campus incidents throughout the district, which encompasses 94 of the state’s 2,000 schools and about 61,000 total students.
The system the district was using at the time “basically consisted of a paper report and a spreadsheet,” Bateman said. “It gave you the raw data, but that was all.”
Bateman wanted to collect information about incidents that occurred not only in school, but also at bus stops and off-campus events.
“Our local law enforcement agencies are very good–but no matter how good the police are, they collect different information in different formats,” Bateman said. “This made it hard for us to get a consolidated report, tailored for a school system, to track crimes and report them to the state Department of Public Instruction.”
But reporting incidents wasn’t Bateman’s only concern. He also wanted comprehensive data he could use to analyze trends and help decide where best to allocate the district’s limited resources to prevent future crimes. And he wanted technology to help him do the job.
Working with a Greensboro-based company called GBA Systems, Bateman and the Guilford County Schools helped develop an incident-profiling software system called SSP2000. The software, which is now used by districts in five states, helps school officials track crime incidents and behavior factors across several variables in order to anticipate and address potential crime before it occurs.
“Recording these incidents over time, you can begin to see trends that help you identify where and how to allocate resources, inform teachers, and so on,” said Kathi Dubel, director of marketing for GBA Systems. “It’s a tool to help schools address campus crime proactively instead of reactively.”
The software lets you record the nature of an incident, where it occurred, what time of day it occurred, whether any weapons were involved, what disciplinary action was taken, and demographic information about the victims and perpetrators involved, including age, gender, race, and grade level.
This information is collected in searchable fields, so if you only want to view data on the eighth grade, or on after-school fights, you can isolate these variables and produce a list. “You can slice and dice the information any way you want to,” Dubel said.
Bateman said the software has made his job a lot easier and has allowed him to make intelligent, informed decisions about security. Working with principal Jules Crowell, for example, he was able to use the software to help reduce the occurrence of fights at Ferndale Middle School.
Crowell’s impression was that he was having the greatest problem with fights in the cafeteria. But when officials looked up his school’s profile in the system, they discovered most incidents had occurred in the school’s hallways. By installing a few well-positioned security cameras and increasing staff visibility in the hallways, Crowell was able to solve the problem.
“If you’re trying to keep up with a thousand students, it’s impossible to rely on your memory alone,” Bateman said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s not try to do what we think we need to do, let’s target the problem specifically.'”
The software resides on a district server, and presently data is entered only at the central location. But Bateman said the next version of the software will allow each principal or school resource officer to access the system and enter or retrieve information themselves: “That’s what we’re drooling over.”
A single site license for the software is $1,000, and district licensing depends on the number of school buildings, Dubel said.
Recognizing warning signs
With a few keystrokes, Wausau, Wis., school administrator Shawn Sullivan searched a computer database for the listing on an eighth-grade boy who had sent threatening eMail to his teachers.
“Ha. Ha. Laughter in your face, you’re dead,” one of the messages read.
Sullivan, an assistant principal at John Muir Middle School, had something to add. He posted a note for other agencies to read, explaining he had just met with the boy to discuss his recent tardiness and some failing grades. The boy’s reason for the problems, Sullivan wrote: “Just lazy.”
Sullivan was participating in a joint program to keep track of students with potential problems–and hopefully to intervene before another act of violence rocks the nation.
In cooperation with local police, juvenile courts, the county sheriff’s department, and the state Department of Social Services, the Wausau School District has launched an innovative computer monitoring program that focuses on its most at-risk youths: those who have been in trouble numerous times, for everything from drug abuse or theft to sexual assault.
A computer database, with about 90 names so far and growing, links the agencies together so they can share information on troubled kids. District officials can log in to scan the names and add their own updates.
By using the electronic bulletin board, “we get an idea of the kids who can be dangerous based on previous behaviors–kids we can direct more resources toward,” Sullivan said.
According to Dave Damgaard, the district’s director of pupil services, the idea for the project came out of a Serious Habitual Offender Comprehensive Action Program (SHOCAP) conference that district officials attended four years ago.
“The idea is that all of these agencies have information on kids, but a lot of times one agency doesn’t know what’s been going on with a kid at the other agencies,” Damgaard explained. A school district might not know that a student has been arrested for assault, for example, or a probation officer might not know that a student is failing his classes. By sharing information, the agencies have a clearer picture of each student’s problems.
Starting the database “was actually quite easy,” Damgaard said. “It turned out we could use the county data center as a central spot, because most agencies already kept records on the county’s (computer) system.”
All that is required of the district to tap into the database is a dedicated phone line and modem to get online, and emulator software to emulate the county’s computer system, Damgaard said.
Child Court Services initiates the files in the database. When a student appears before juvenile court, his or her information is added to the database to be tracked by the other agencies. An assistant principal at each of the district’s two middle and two high schools is granted secure access to the database for monitoring students and posting new information about them.
Confidentiality was the biggest roadblock the district faced in launching the project, Damgaard said. Wausau had to receive permission from the Wisconsin state legislature to allow local law enforcement officers to exchange information with its schools. When a student appears before juvenile court, the judge must get a parent or guardian to sign a release form so the schools can have access to the information.
But knowing who the at-risk kids are and what they’ve been up to might allow schools to intervene in time to prevent potential violence, Sullivan said.
“To me, it’s a benefit in that everybody who’s involved with this child is being kept up to date,” he said. “This alerts us to the problems going on, so kids don’t fall down through the cracks in the school system. The key is to have the collaboration and support from each agency to put (a project like) this together.”
Wausau’s electronic bulletin board can help school officials recognize the early warning signs of violence, but often students themselves are the first to learn of threats or suspect their classmates might be capable of violence. Recognizing that students often are the first to recognize warning signs, many schools are setting up toll-free hotlines for students to report their suspicions anonymously.
About a week after the Columbine High shootings, the Mississippi Department of Education announced it would have a toll-free hotline available this fall for Mississippi schools. The hotline will be a joint effort between the departments of education and public safety, and Regina Ginn, director of the state’s safe schools office, said rewards will be offered for hotline tips that bring results.
For school districts in states that don’t operate their own hotlines, a Columbus, Ohio, company called Security Voice Inc. offers such a service to schools for a fee. When someone calls the hotline, the information is transcribed and faxed to the affected school. The caller is assigned a code number and is asked to call back in three days after the situation has been investigated.
In cases that sound serious, such as a report of someone bringing a weapon to school, the affected school would be notified immediately, and the principal would decide what further action might be necessary, such as calling the police.
Explaining how the hotline works, a Mason, Ohio, school official cited an incident involving an impending schoolyard brawl. A call came in from someone in Warren County about a fight about to take place on a campus in the Mason City Schools, 20 miles north of Cincinnati. Forewarned, the principal put a stop to the trouble.
“The principal was able to follow up on the situation, which is nice because he wouldn’t have been able to know about it otherwise,” said Shelly Beneath, Mason district spokeswoman. “I think if you prevent one incident, it’s a success.”
“If you do some research,” said Jim Jones, a spokesman for Security Voice, “in almost every case of school violence, there was someone in that school who knew beforehand that something was going on, but they were afraid to tell someone or didn’t know who to tell.”
Pat Sullivan, Security Voice president, said his company began by supplying the hotline service to business customers. In January 1997, Security Voice extended its service to schools when it launched the Safe School hotline as a pilot at Reynoldsburg City Schools in Ohio.
Today, more than 1,000 districts nationwide are participating, Sullivan said–including the entire state of Oklahoma, whose superintendent of public instruction contracted with Security Voice to offer Safe School to Oklahoma districts last fall. The state is using federal “Safe and Drug-Free School” funds to cover the service’s expense.
Safe School costs 15 cents per student per month, Sullivan said, and the company only charges for students in grades 7-12. “At $1.80 per student per year, that’s a tiny fraction of the budget for each student,” he said. “To put it in perspective, the state of Ohio pays $4,800 per student per year for public education.”
The hotline also can be used to put a stop to drugs, gang activity, violence, or harassment, he said. “Most kids don’t want to take the chance of doing something they know is wrong if they think someone watching might report them,” he said.
As part of its service, Security Voice provides posters and information to parents about the hotline. Because it’s an 800 number, Sullivan said, it doesn’t support called ID and therefore guarantees a caller’s anonymity.
A day after Kentucky’s East Carter High School used hand-held metal detectors to search students and staff members for weapons, Carter County Superintendent Larry Prichard reported that the searches had caused no major problems or delays.
East Carter High School is no stranger to violence. In 1993, a 17-year-old honor student brought a gun into his sixth-period English class and fatally shot his teacher and a custodian who’d come into the room to investigate. Taking no chances, Prichard said the metal detector searches would continue for the remainder of the school year.
Students are required to line up outside the gymnasium doors to be searched before entering the building. Four city police officers conducted the searches the first day, but district officials said that school personnel would be trained to use the devices and would conduct the searches for the rest of the year.
According to Pamela Riley, executive director of North Carolina State University’s Center for the Prevention of School Violence, hand-held metal detectors have become a fairly common tool for keeping weapons out of school buildings.
“Anecdotally, I know many assistant principals appreciate having these ‘wands’ on hand if there’s a suspicion that a student might be carrying a gun,” Riley said.
Along with electronic surveillance systems, metal detectors have increasingly become part and parcel of a school’s safety program. But the use of these and other high-tech security devices in schools can be a sticky issue, as schools must balance a legitimate desire for security with a potential for unwarranted intrusion.
About 66 percent of North Carolina’s schools use metal detectors, Riley said. Nationally, though, less than one percent of schools use metal detectors on a daily basis, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Before you rush to buy 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,” Matchett said. For example, if you install walk-through metal detectors–or even use hand-held devices to perform comprehensive searches like those by East Carter High School–all entrances into the school must be restricted so weapons can’t 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 a 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.”
Surveillance cameras, like metal detectors, can be useful tools for keeping buildings secure–provided they meet a school’s needs and are supported by the community.
Russell Tedesco, director of security for Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland, is a firm believer in school surveillance. When Tedesco took over the position in 1997, each of the county’s 20 high schools had closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Tedesco convinced the county to spend an additional $300,000 to upgrade the system, and he applied for a grant from the Bureau of Justice and Administration to install cameras in the schools’ parking lots.
“CCTV provides another set of eyes for the administration,” he explained. “Cameras can be where personnel can’t be all the time, simply because we lack the manpower.” Tedesco said the cameras even helped solve a robbery at a county high school a few years ago.
Not every school official shares Tedesco’s enthusiasm, however. Chuck Hibbert, security coordinator for the Wayne Township Metro School District in Indiana, offered this word of caution: “One of the things we must guard against is letting national trends” drive local decisions, he said.
Hibbert said surveillance has become generally accepted among private sector employers, and he thinks this acceptance is spilling over into schools. But if you’re thinking about electronic surveillance, Hibbert cautioned, it’s imperative that your community supports the idea.
School surveillance also can raise several legal issues, according to Matchett. The Supreme Court has consistently held that there is no “reasonable expectation” of privacy in public places, he said. This line of reasoning presumably would permit television surveillance in many school areas. But Matchett warned this rule does not apply to conversations, which are still considered private. He advised anyone considering surveillance to steer clear from audio recording.
Bathroom stalls and showers also are considered private, he said, but there are several places in schools–such as locker rooms and the sink area of bathrooms–that are less clearly defined. Placing cameras where they might identify special-needs children could also pose a problem, he noted. To avoid violating students’ rights, Matchett recommended that surveillance be limited to hallways, classrooms, and exits.
Another sticky issue: What becomes of the images caught on video tape? There are no clear laws to regulate the storage and use of surveillance tapes, security experts said. Digital technology now makes it possible to store such information almost indefinitely–a fact that has some school officials worried about images that could get into the wrong hands.
“Control of the system and the tapes should be restricted,” warned Matchett. “[They] should only be accessible to the designated security director or to a senior staff member of the school.”
Electronic surveillance and metal detectors can take a huge chunk of your technology budget. Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, recommended you do some self-assessment to determine just what kind of problems you’re trying to solve before you invest in any equipment.
“I’m really against going out and spending hard-earned dollars–education dollars–for a surveillance system and having it not do what it was supposed to do,” he said.
Hibbert agreed that surveillance often is unnecessary. There are other cautionary steps you should take first that may eliminate the need for surveillance, he said. Make sure all areas are well-lit and doors have good locks–you might want to consider electronic locks. Keep time between classes to a minimum. And encourage teachers and building administrators to maintain a high profile.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, underscored the importance of staff visibility. “The most effective strategy in keeping schools safe,” he said, “is the presence of an adult where young people are.”
Responding to a crisis
When news of the Columbine High shootings broke, the world watched as students trapped inside the building used cellular phones to call for help. One student even used a cell phone to call a local TV station before calling an emergency number.
Communication is vital in a crisis situation–yet many classrooms don’t have phones of any kind and have trouble communicating with the main office, let alone police. Portable classrooms are especially vulnerable, since often these temporary facilities are cut off from the main school building. Many schools are finding that wireless phones provide a quick and easy solution to communications problems.
In response to the Columbine tragedy, AirTouch Cellular of San Francisco said it would donate $7 million worth of phones and air time to teachers in the 456 high schools of Sacramento, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties. The phones will give teachers a way to call police quickly if violence suddenly breaks out, California Gov. Gray Davis said in a May 4 press conference announcing the donation.
“A simple cell phone can be the difference between tragedy and the avoidance of tragedy,” Davis said.
The phones, which are only to be used in an emergency, will be programmed to call an emergency number with one touch. That number, which could reach school police or local police or sheriff’s offices, can be determined by local school districts. AirTouch will pay the $1 million cost of the phones, plus three years of airtime worth about $2 million a year, according to the governor’s office.
Beyond clear and accessible channels of communication, schools also need to have a clear plan for reacting to a crisis situation. Some states have developed statewide crisis plans, while others, such as Indiana, require schools to write and submit their own detailed crisis plan each year.
CommCore Consulting Group of Washington, D.C., has developed a tool to help schools and other organizations write, implement, and manage a comprehensive crisis plan. After the Columbine shootings, CommCore president Andy Gilman said the company would make its Crisis Plan wRiter (CPR) software available to schools at cost.
“If cost is a reason for schools not to use this, then I want to take that away,” Gilman said.
With CPR, school districts can choose a crisis team, assign roles and responsibilities, identify and monitor potential issues, define specific policies, and create a crisis-response procedure that is specific to their needs.
“The whole goal of CPR is to plan for anything that could happen,” Gilman said. “There are other tools out there, but this puts it all on a server for remote access online.”
CPR makes it easy for a district to update and maintain its crisis plan, Gilman said, because all data fields are linked. Information only has to be changed in one location, and the change will be reflected automatically in the appropriate places.
CPR retails for $1,200 but will be available to a school district for $150, Gilman said. A demonstration version of the software can be downloaded from the company’s web site.
Guilford County Schools
Wausau School District
Mississippi Department of Education
Carter County School District
Center for the Prevention of
Prince George’s County Schools
National Alliance for Safe Schools
National School Safety Center
Security Voice Inc.
Comm Core Consulting Group