eSN Special Report: Focus on School Safety

Last year, when two students at a Clark County, Nevada, school tried to sneak out of gym class to smoke some cigarettes, somebody was watching.

As they glanced around to see if anyone had seen them slipping out of their high school building, they caught sight of the clear bubble eye of a security camera pointed straight at them. The digital camera, operated remotely by a campus security officer, swung its eye from left to right in the nonverbal signal mothers use for “no, no.”

“The kids looked up at that, threw up their hands, and went back into the building,” said Dale Scheideman, director of the Clark County School District’s planning and engineering division.

Unfortunately, it’s not cigarette, but gun smoke that prompted school systems nationwide to start investing in school safety technology. And it isn’t hard to pinpoint the date: April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slipped into Columbine High School, planted bombs in the building, and killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

Consciously or not, many school officials seem to be evaluating security purchases based on whether they could have prevented or reduced the carnage in Colorado. The lack of information inside the building during the attack, for example, has prompted some schools to consider web-based closed circuit television (CCTV) systems. If Columbine had owned such a system, the argument goes, officials outside the building would have been able to know that Harris and Klebold had gunned down all their victims within 16 minutes of their first shot and killed themselves just 49 minutes after launching their attack. Had officials known the attackers were dead, they might have saved teacher Dave Sanders, who was alive for up to 30 minutes after police officers reached him but bled to death before paramedics could arrive. New software that helps educators develop profiles of troubled and potentially dangerous students might have singled out Harris and Klebold before they started shooting. Electronic card-key systems that track students’ comings and goings might have prevented the two from planting bombs inside the building. Police found an unexploded propane-tank bomb in the cafeteria kitchen and many more bombs hidden throughout the school, and they now suspect the killers planted the bombs after entering the building at night. Local 911 telephone operators had no way of knowing where inside the building the perpetrators—or victims—were located. A new “enhanced 911” emergency service, developed specifically for schools, would have pinpointed a caller’s exact location within the school building automatically. The list goes on: better communications systems between classrooms and the front office; security cameras connected to local police departments; and software programs that aid in the sharing of data among social service, juvenile justice, and school officials.

But new security measures are bringing complaints from students, some of whom say the measures are turning schools into prison camps. Some efforts, such as attempts to identify troubled and potentially dangerous students with software packages, are triggering concerns that the programs might unfairly label students.

Experts agree that technology alone can’t prevent random acts of violence. Like many other security consultants, Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, says schools shouldn’t buy expensive high-tech security equipment unless the equipment is part of a comprehensive safety plan.

“We’re looking for that quick fix; we like the quick fix,” Trump said. Too often, he said, schools have resource officers and either don’t use them correctly or ignore their advice.

Trump cites the example of a school district that proudly pointed to its system of 20-plus security cameras. But the videotapes weren’t recording, no one was in charge of monitoring the cameras, and the cameras themselves weren’t turned on.

“Schools need to make sure, No. 1, that they’re not just doing something to say they’re doing something,” he said. Any purchase of security technology should “address a specific threat or concern.”

Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, a nonprofit alliance of school security directors, believes that safe schools require more attention to people, not technology.

“There is an overexpectation that technology is going to make schools safer,” he said.

One district he knew of “was talked into buying a closed circuit camera system” equipped with expensive cameras that could “count the hairs on a fly’s backside,” Blauvelt said. Unfortunately, nobody thought much about where to place the camera, which was aimed at a brick wall.

School officials should know what their problems are first before choosing technology to secure their buildings, Blauvelt added. If a school is having a problem with fights occurring almost daily in a hallway where administrators can’t get adequate adult supervision, that might be a good spot for a closed circuit camera, he said.

“You have to have an understanding of what the problem is and adapt technology to meet your needs,” he said.

Digital video surveillance

That’s just what the 220,000-student Clark County school system did. When the nation’s eighth largest school district went looking for security advice, it looked no further than its own backyard: the casino industry.

“Las Vegas hotels and casinos have the most sophisticated surveillance and monitoring systems in the world,” Scheideman said.

The district has installed or plans to install 44 cameras inside and outside each of its large high schools with enrollments of 2,000-plus students. Each system has two monitoring stations, one at the post of school security officers and another at the disciplinary dean’s office. Cameras can record for five to10 days before the recording medium must be changed or recorded over.

The key, Scheideman says, is the software guiding the system. The software enables an operator to control the camera. The all-digital cameras feature tilt-pan and zoom capabilities, and they switch from color to black and white when the light is dim, such as at night or dusk.

There are a few differences between casino cameras and the school cameras, Scheideman noted. Whereas the casinos put smoke-colored bubbles over their cameras to mask the fact that cameras are monitoring their patrons, the school put clear plastic bubbles over its cameras.

“We want students to know the cameras are there” so they can act as a deterrent, he said.

The cameras aren’t placed inside classrooms because the school system didn’t want students or teachers to fear being monitored, and they aren’t placed inside bathrooms. They only record images, Scheideman said, because of laws prohibiting surreptitious audio recording without the consent of those being recorded.

Some security experts aren’t convinced that such high-tech systems are necessary for schools. Alan Matchett, certified protection professional and director of, a security business based in Alexandria, Va., thinks such security systems, while common in the casino industry, are too expensive for school use.

“I think it’s pretty gimmicky,” said Matchett, who added, “With schools, you’re always going to have the invasion of privacy argument with cameras.”

Although digital, web-based CCTV cameras do cost more than their analog counterparts, Scheideman thinks digital systems can be comparable in price to analog systems. Because the cameras can tilt, pan, and zoom, staring first down one hallway and then another, the school doesn’t need as many cameras.

“That’s the advice we got from the hotels, that you’re better off to pay a little bit more for better quality,” Scheideman said. “It’s less expensive in the long run.”

The school system is also beefing up the lighting around its buildings. Like some other districts, Clark County uses walk-through metal detectors only at sporting events, but its schools do have handheld metal detectors for special circumstances.

Just as Clark County turned to the casino industry for security advice, a New Mexico school system has turned to another security-conscious local industry—federal nuclear weapons arsenals. Belen High School, south of Albuquerque, got a high-tech security system in 1996 through a $125,000 grant from the federal Department of Energy. Security experts at nearby Sandia National Laboratories helped design the school’s security system, which includes 16 cameras that continuously pan the 1,300-student campus, as well as movement sensors, a handheld metal detector, and five guards who patrol hallways and parking lots. The cameras’ tapes are erased and reset every 72 hours.

In the year after security was tightened, school administrators told reporters that violence dropped by 75 percent, vehicle theft plunged by 80 percent, and truancy declined 30 percent.

Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center, said cutting-edge security systems increasingly are putting school blueprints and CCTV images on the web, enabling law enforcement officials with a special access code to monitor various areas of the campus during an emergency.

In Massachusetts, for example, Tewksbury High School has installed an integrated digital video system from Motorola that can transmit real-time video images of strategic locations throughout the school to police headquarters and other off-site emergency service locations.

Like many other security systems, Motorola’s RemoteVU system originally was used in commercial settings. The Tewksbury system is the first of its kind installed in a school environment.

The cameras in the Motorola RemoteVU system remain dormant until activated by the police. In an emergency, a teacher or student can dial 911 from one of the newly networked phones. Using packet voice technology, the call will connect to the police station automatically over the school’s data network. The Tewksbury police can activate the video system from a PC at police headquarters to view and assess the situation. Using wireless devices, the video link also can be fed to a police car.

“If a student is injured at a sporting event or a fire alarm is activated in the school, we no longer have to wait until we’re on the scene to assess the situation,” said Tewksbury Police Chief John Mackey. “Now, we can view the situation and initiate our response without losing precious time.”

Tewksbury Superintendent Christine McGrath thinks the system was cost-effective because Motorola’s RemoteVU solution operates over computer networks now installed in her system and many other schools, eliminating the investment in new wiring.

“Students can continue to benefit from the educational programs available over the network, while only authorized personnel can access the emergency response information of RemoteVU” because it operates on a virtual private network, McGrath said.

Sometimes, though, the simplest technology works best. More important than web-based security cameras, Trump said, is equipping classrooms with two-way radios, cell phones, and telephones with callback features to enable swift communication within the school building.

Securing buildings and tracking students

Another top security concern should be controlled access to the building, experts advise. Schools historically have been wide open to anyone and everyone who wanted to come in, but security concerns have led school districts to control and restrict access to their buildings.

The Philadelphia school system, for example, is using a card-entry system that requires students to use their ID cards to enter and leave school buildings. Each student gets a laminated picture ID card with a bar code. If an unauthorized student tried to get into the building, an alarm sounds, alerting the front door attendant.

The Comprehensive Attendance Administration and Security System, or CAASS, also automatically tracks attendance, textbooks, and library books. Administrators say the technology makes it easier to monitor truancy problems accurately and efficiently.

The system uses a wireless bar-code device at the front door of the school, through which students swipe ID cards as they enter the building. The device automatically sends information about when each student enters the school to a master computer, eliminating the complicated process of taking attendance in homeroom and allowing administrators to see instantly who was late or skipped the previous day’s classes.

CAASS was developed in 1996 by high-tech expert John Amatruda and tested during the 1996-97 school year at Walbrook Senior High School in Baltimore. The system proved so successful that Amatruda’s company, School Technology Management, was rewarded with six contracts for the machines at other Baltimore schools. Schools in Massachusetts also are using the system.

Blauvelt thinks computer-generated photo ID systems, which allow the imprinting of a student number as a bar code, go a long way toward securing schools. Such access cards can help identify “those kids who belong on campus and those who do not.”

More schools are issuing student ID cards, says National School Safety Center director Stephens. Such cards can restrict access to school buildings and areas within the building, as well as track student attendance, identify those who qualify for free or reduced lunches, act as library cards, and provide internet access privileges through the school’s network.

Even global positioning systems, those devices that enable high-tech cars to find their way in unfamiliar neighborhoods, can track the movements of bearers within a school building throughout the day, Stephens said.

But schools’ increasing use of such tracking systems raises concerns about privacy, he added.

“That means you could monitor how many times a person goes to the bathroom,” Stephens said. “I think we’re going to have to be careful. What kind of information do we need, why do we need it, and why are we doing it?”

Software solutions

In the aftermath of Columbine, a plethora of software has emerged to help schools develop crisis plans, identify troubled or potentially violent students, and communicate with law enforcement officials. Among the recent offerings:

• PLANet, a web-based school crisis planner and manager developed by Strohl Systems Inc. of King of Prussia, Pa. Strohl Systems, which has more than 10 years’ experience developing crisis plans for government and business customers, claims its software can reduce the time it takes to build school crisis and safety plans by at least 70 percent. PLANet provides customizable response scripts, as well as training and certification for school safety coordinators.

• MOSAIC-2000, developed by nationally known violence prediction expert Gavin de Becker, predicts which students might be prone to violence, based on research, expert opinion, and the study of more than 350,000 communications and 24,000 cases. The case-screening results tell evaluators to what degree a case is similar to those that involve violence or other escalation.

• A software package from the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety in Heathrow, Fla., streamlines information sharing between law enforcement officials and schools. The package links to a school district’s database, using eMail to retrieve information and share it with police. It’s a read-only system, so users cannot manipulate the original data.

As with video surveillance technology, the trend in crisis planning and management is to put such software on the web. An online format gives school crisis managers immediate access to a plan at any time and from anywhere—which, according to Columbine Overview Committee member James McGinty Jr., is “crucial.”

McGinty, who served as commander of the Philadelphia Police Bomb Squad Unit for nine years, believes that online crisis and safety tools are necessary complements to existing modules, because a school-related crisis can occur anywhere. “You may be on vacation, at a conference, or in another building,” he said. “With an online plan, it won’t matter where you are or the situation, because crisis plans are literally seconds away.”

Pennsylvania’s Garnet Valley School District began using Strohl Systems’ PLANet crisis planner last year. The web-based system “has allowed us to consolidate our plans into one living, online document,” said Superintendent Anthony Costello. “It has also eased our concerns about liability, knowing we have access to state-of-the-art planning that is uniform from building to building.”

The internet also facilitates the swapping of information, and Stephens predicted that more school districts would use software that easily allows schools, juvenile court officials, social service agencies, and law enforcement officers to share information on juveniles.

“What we’re beginning to see is a transition in state laws to allow better information sharing regarding the criminal background of students,” Stephens said. Such sharing could benefit the students, he said, by helping educators and social service agencies “better provide family assistance, counseling, and social services.”

Florida State Trooper Wolfgang Helbig, whose company developed the information sharing software now in use in Florida’s Seminole County, said the exchange of such information between agencies is crucial. State and federal laws allow the freer exchange of such information, but the actual method of communicating the information has been slow. Until now, schools and law enforcement officials have traded faxes—not a particularly reliable or efficient way to exchange information, Helbig said.

“If you walk into any guidance counselor’s or school resource office and ask for a list of all students involved in the juvenile justice system, they cannot give it to you,” he said. And yet, that information is crucial to identifying troubled students.

In court, when a student professes to a judge that he’s been attending school regularly, the judge can go online and see for himself whether the student has skipped class a dozen times in the last month.

Trump, however, is skeptical of software packages that claim they can profile potentially dangerous students or develop safety plans. Such programs are poor substitutes for security expertise, he said.

“Schools are unique entities,” Trump said. “Who’s using the software, and what are their qualifications and experience? If you give someone a software program to do oral surgery, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Profiling software, such as MOSAIC-2000, also raises huge ethical dilemmas, Stephens said.

“The MOSAIC program is fraught with potential problems,” he said. “What parent do you know who would like to get information that your son is the next Charlie Manson?”

In fact, Stephens said, “it has been a continuing series of surprises with regard to who these various shooters are. It’s surprising the number who are successful academic students. It’s amazing how many were honor students.”

Experts also are divided on other security technologies. While most believe that walk-through metal detectors are inappropriate for routine screening of the general school population, many think they might be appropriate and very effective for athletic events, school dances, or other events in confined areas. Handheld metal detectors are best for searches when a school security official suspects that a weapon or threat is present.

Columbine High School, the grim benchmark for national school security measures, has beefed up its own security systems. When students were allowed to return to school last fall, they found 16 new video cameras, round-the-clock security guards, new student identification badges, and a card-key entry system for after-hours use of the building.

And still, some parents complained that the new measures wouldn’t have prevented the attack.

“Security technology may seem to some like an effective solution to violence control and prevention,” said Robert Macy, director of community services for Boston’s Trauma Center. “But metal detectors and video surveillance cameras, like fire alarms, act only as warning systems, indicating that trouble is about to—or is already—happening. Surveillance technology, however necessary in some violence-prone schools, may give a truly false sense of security if it doesn’t combine technology with human understanding.”

Clark County School District

National School Safety and Security Services

National Alliance for Safe Schools

National School Safety Center

School District of Philadelphia

National Institute for School and Workplace Safety

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