From mass-notification systems that can reach thousands of parents and other school stakeholders instantly in case of emergency, to internet-based video surveillance systems that allow local law-enforcement officials to view camera images from inside a school building in the event of an attack, school districts and colleges today are employing a host of cutting-edge technologies to help keep their students secure.
In this Special Report, we’ll examine a few of these technologies in greater detail, with an eye toward helping you decide if any of these systems might be right for your schools.
Emergency notification systems
Automated emergency notification systems are one of the fastest growing safety and communications applications for schools today, with several companies–from major players such as Honeywell Inc. and U.S. Netcom to lesser-known startups such as Saf-T-Net and the National Notification Network (3n)–now offering solutions.
These systems enable school administrators to broadcast an emergency message out to thousands of parents, students, and other stakeholders simultaneously through multiple channels, replacing the old-fashioned “phone tree” system with a more efficient and effective means of communication.
In October, the 1,100-student Broadview Middle School in Danbury, Conn., became one of the latest institutions to install Honeywell’s Instant Alert for Schools, a web-based notification service allowing school officials to deliver messages–both emergency and routine–to parents within minutes at the click of a button.
When school officials send out a message, parents are notified immediately via their communication method of choice: telephone, eMail, pager, cell phone, personal digital assistant (PDA), and so on. The system not only provides parents with peace of mind; it also could save Broadview up to $5,000 annually on postage.
“In the past, we’ve spent more than $10,000 per year on postage for school communication, and we’re hoping to cut that in half with Instant Alert,” said Edward Robbs, principal of Broadview Middle School. “By using Instant Alert to communicate with parents, we can be certain that the message will reach them within minutes, rather than hours or days. We can also direct our monetary resources to address our primary concern–the safety and education of our students.”
To use Instant Alert, the school’s designated representative initiates a message through a secure web site or by phone, and that message is instantly transmitted to all contact points that a parent or guardian provides.
Parents can update their contact information online, specifying how they would prefer to be reached. They can also provide their contact information to school officials at parent nights throughout the year.
The school can set up an unlimited number of subgroups, such as parent organizations, clubs, and sports teams, to receive customized messages. Teachers also can use these subgroups for their classes, allowing parents to stay current with their children’s assignments, absences, and other issues.
“The initial concept behind Instant Alert for Schools was to use it in emergency situations, but during testing our school customers remarked how they could use it in day-to-day situations,” said Laura Schultz, vice president of marketing for Honeywell Building Solutions. “The technology does not limit the system to emergency uses alone.”
For instance, the Wakefield School in Virginia signed up for Instant Alert last January and has used the system for timely reminders of important events or deadlines, said Peter Quinn, the school’s headmaster.
Quinn said the Wakefield School chose Instant Alert because of a health hazard that occurred at the school several years ago involving an oil delivery spill that filled the school with dangerous fumes. Several hours elapsed before all the parents came to pick up their children, he said. Phone-tree confusion led to a rumor that a child had ingested petroleum fumes, which didn’t happen–buses were just arriving as school officials discovered the problem, so no children were harmed. Using a system like Instant Alert helps avoid rumors and allows school leaders to reach parents quickly and efficiently, Quinn said.
Schools pay varying yearly subscription fees for the service based on their size, but Schultz said the most a school would pay would be $15 per student.
National Notification Network (3n) of Glendale, Calif., offers a similar service. The company’s new 3n System 3.0, which launched in October, uses sophisticated geographic targeting features and a new universal messaging interface. The targeting features allow users to hone in on message recipients based on geographical categories such as zip codes, neighborhoods, or a radius surrounding a specific point.
Schools pay a yearly subscription fee of $5 to $15 per student, said James Keene, executive vice president and co-founder of 3n. “The system is easy to use, largely because of its self-administrative qualities,” said Keene. “There is no hardware or software. Instead, an application service provider handles all the data, similar to a cell-phone service provider.”
The database containing contact information is secure in case of computer failure, because it is hosted on multiple platforms and is duplicated, Keene said.
Kathy Ramirez, director of Bethel Lutheran Early Childhood Education Center in Encino, Calif., began using 3n’s system a year ago and has used the system to inform parents of water main breaks, bomb scares, and non-emergency situations.
“The system is so easy to use, and teachers can [set up] their own subgroups to let their students’ parents know things that pertain to certain classes,” Ramirez said. Parents can designate emergency and non-emergency contacts, and if parents have listed multiple contacts in emergency situations, they can turn off the majority of these contacts when receiving non-emergency messages, she said.
3n will help schools set up a contact database for the system, or it can integrate with a preexisting database, Keene said. The system also features a voice-conversion tool if school officials type a message online.
Parents can use a password-protected web site to update their contact information, as well as prioritize multiple contact numbers or eMail addresses. The system will keep sending messages automatically until recipients confirm they have received the message.
School officials can go online and view an administrative log that records who has confirmed receipt of a message and also where a message has been sent. If a parent claims he or she didn’t get a message regarding a PTA meeting or school field trip, officials can look in the log to confirm whether the message was sent to each contact point. They can also follow up with parents who have received messages but have not confirmed the receipt. This feature helps to protect schools in emergency situations where liability issues are concerned, Keene said.
North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System has installed an emergency notification system from Raleigh, N.C.-based Saf-T-Net. Called ALERTNOW, the system enables authorized staff to contact every emergency number provided to the school simultaneously with a single phone call. ALERTNOW can make 6,000 calls at once and is activated by calling a toll-free telephone number instead of using the internet or a personal computer.
Video surveillance systems
The development of Internet Protocol (IP)-based surveillance systems and the use of digital video cameras have made video surveillance a much more compelling option for schools and colleges. Using their existing network infrastructure, school administrators now can monitor high-risk areas of their buildings from a desktop or laptop computer through a live internet feed. Networked security cameras and digital video feeds also offer a cheaper and easier way to store and search through archived material.
A small but growing number of schools are taking the capabilities of today’s surveillance systems even further by providing access to surveillance camera images to local law enforcement officials through a secure network link.
The arrival of network video systems and digital recordings is a significant advancement over older closed-circuit television systems, said Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.
With the proliferation of network and streaming video applications, Trump said, first responders and emergency personnel now can link up with schools to monitor crisis situations from afar. Before, if a school came under siege, he said, law enforcement officials would have had to base their intelligence solely on hunches and theories–not an easy task, considering that no one really knows how or when a crisis will occur.
“No type of emergency situation can be scripted,” Trump explained.
Last month, the Merrillville, Ind., school board unanimously approved a plan to link its schools’ video system directly to the Merrillville police and fire dispatch center with duress buttons located in strategic locations throughout school buildings.
The plan was the idea of Tim Moore, president of IBT Video Systems Inc., an Indiana-based video surveillance manufacturer that reportedly provides video surveillance technology to numerous schools and businesses across the country. IBT Video Systems currently has digital video recorders in each of the schools in the district.
Under the plan, the schools will have duress/panic switches installed in various locations. When these duress switches are activated, the schools’ video systems will automatically begin streaming live video from their cameras into the police dispatch center, along with an audible alarm.
“The dispatcher can then dispatch the proper authorities and begin to assess the situation inside of the school while attempting to make contact with school personnel,” Moore explained. “Depending on the nature of the emergency, the police can know where the crime is occurring and assess the danger to the students, staff, and to law enforcement [officials]. By knowing the situation inside the school, the police can better determine the correct tactical approach to the situation.”
He added: “In the event of fire or natural disaster, the fire department can assess whether there is smoke in the building or students or faculty are trapped, and the extent of the emergency. This allows the fire department to respond to the appropriate area of the school and determine the amount of equipment and firefighters needed.”
Moore concluded: “By providing our emergency responders with the knowledge of the situation inside of the school, we help keep our students, teachers, police, and firefighters safer and better prepared. It is a proven fact that preparation saves lives during emergency situations.”
The dispatch center also will have access to the system if there is reason to believe that a crime is taking place or will occur on or around school property, as well as during after-school hours, weekends, holidays, and any other times that regular school classes are not in session.
Under the plan, IBT Video systems will provide all of the equipment for the Merrillville Police Department, as well as training, at no cost. The high school will be the first school connected, followed by the middle, intermediate, and elementary schools.
“This, along with your other security measures and procedures, will place your schools among the best-protected and prepared schools in the country,” Moore told the school board.
Unlike fire alarms, the panic buttons will be located only in administrative offices, not in hallways, where mischievous students might activate them, said Tony Vargas, vice president of technology for IBT Video Systems.
The actual streaming technology itself is powered by the school system’s existing T-1 line, and there are no additional monthly or yearly costs for the service.
Vargas said Merrillville already has IBT cameras installed throughout the district. What is being added, he said, is the streaming video component that links the schools together, letting administrators and emergency dispatchers tap into the network so they can see what is happening at the different schools.
The cost of installing the cameras differs for every school, depending on the size and scope of installation, Vargas said. The viewers that enable officials to see the camera images from remote locations will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 apiece.
Opening its surveillance system to local law-enforcement officials also is the plan of the Elmwood Park Community School District 401 in suburban Chicago.
After the brutal 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and the swath of violent incidents that followed in schools across the county, Technology Director Jim Nelson began looking at ways technology could help make Elmwood Park’s schools safer.
After tossing around numerous ideas, his team eventually settled on a two-part plan.
At the crux of this plan is a separate computer network, or “security ring,” dedicated to hosting and monitoring security devices ranging from tiny, egg-shaped surveillance cameras to be installed at each of the district’s five school buildings to the use of motion and heat sensors, among other high-tech gadgetry.
When the project is complete, Nelson said administrators will have access to digital surveillance recordings from any location in the district. He envisions the cameras, which are motion-activated, will be used not only to help stop crimes, but also to dissuade students from pulling pranks that can often lead to injuries.
Nelson recalled a time not more than a month ago when a couple of pranksters conspired to spill cooking oil in the hallways. The jokers obviously were looking to get a couple of laughs, he said. But when the afternoon bell rang, the thought of humor was replaced with chaos. As the unknowing students rushed from their classrooms, many slipped and slid on the artificially slick surface and fell to the ground, some of them injured.
“Had the security cameras been working then, we would have caught them,”
Nelson said. But, at the time, the district had only just begun installing the cameras, and they were not set up to record.
Another feature Nelson plans to install on the network is an emergency response system that will enable law enforcement officials to control the cameras via a virtual private network, so officers can see inside the school in the event of a hostage situation or other crisis. Though the district has yet to draft a policy describing how and when emergency response teams would have access to the cameras, Nelson said, access likely would be granted on an honor policy, where law enforcement officials would agree to use the cameras only in the event of an emergency or some other potentially criminal act.
Nelson also is considering adding other features to the security ring, including heat and motion sensors capable of detecting human presence in classrooms. While some of these innovations are still only in the concept stage, he said, it’s important to have the infrastructure in place so that when new technologies become available, schools can use them.
To support the more robust security ring, Nelson first had to find a way to build out the district’s existing infrastructure so it could support the bandwidth needed to power the remote security cameras and alarms.
Through the district’s contract with technology reseller CDW-G, Nelson began looking at a number of high-powered Cisco switches that could be used to power part of the new security network, as well as the school system’s existing computer infrastructure.
He found a way to increase traffic on the schools’ wide-area network by installing wireless radio transmitters atop the buildings to lessen the load on the district’s existing T-1 data and voice lines, which he said cost the district an average of $250 per month, per line to maintain.
By going wireless and providing additional switches for the security ring, Nelson says he’s been able to increase bandwidth across the district exponentially, from an estimated 760 kilobits per second to 40 megabits per second.
“Increasing the bandwidth is going to enable us to do a lot of things,” he said. “By my calculations, this system will pay for itself in under two years.”
Other school systems are using video surveillance systems to save money in different ways–such as on insurance premiums.
When San Diego’s Torrey Pines High School installed a security video management system by D3Data LLC, school officials hoped the wireless cameras would help them remotely monitor the building and, in doing so, cut down on vandalism. The system did just that, with an unexpected result: The school’s vandalism-related insurance claims reportedly have dropped by six figures since implementation, including a savings of $65,000 over the holiday break alone.
And Canton High School in Canton, Miss., also has found an unexpected benefit from its surveillance system. The school is using a network video system from Axis Communications in every classroom to improve student behavior. CameraWATCH, an Axis partner specializing in network video systems for schools, connected roughly 60 cameras to Axis video servers in the school.
An IP-based system enables Canton High to record video and audio from every classroom to a hard drive. One unexpected benefit is that students now have access to the recorded classes over the school’s network–so students who miss class time or who cannot attend school still can access the instruction. The system also is used to record some of the school’s best teachers while teaching, and their techniques are used in teacher training sessions.
Student, employee, and visitor tracking and ID systems
Student safety not only in emergency situations, but also in day-to-day operations is of utmost concern to school leaders. Increased awareness of school safety in recent years has led to stricter school visitor guidelines, and many school districts have started to track their visitors and employees to ensure constant student safety.
Raptor Technologies Inc. of Houston offers web-based software called V-soft to help keep schools safe by tracking students, faculty, visitors, school contractors, volunteers, and others who might enter the school building. The software scans a driver’s license or other form of identification, and visitors receive a badge with their picture on it.
The software reportedly makes use of all states’ sex-offender databases to screen for registered sex offenders, and it also screens for parents with restraining orders or custody disputes. Information contained in the V-soft database is kept off-site to preserve it in case of a mechanical failure or other problem–and to keep schools from being held liable in the event of a security breach.
School visitors have their pictures scanned when they visit a school for the first time, and that picture is kept in the database so they do not have to go through the whole check-in process a second time, said Carol Measom, marketing director for Raptor Technologies.
“The system keeps visitors’ pictures in the database so they do not have to be scanned in each time they visit, but they are checked against all the states’ sex offenders databases each time they visit,” she said.
If a visitor’s name comes up as a registered sex offender, the name is accompanied by a mug shot of the offender to avoid false identifications. If a registered sex offender enters a school building or campus, school administrators can use the V-soft system to notify school police or other officials.
V-soft also keeps track of tardy students by having students sign into the system when they arrive late. The system prints out a tardy slip for the student, and administrators can set a tardy level at which to penalize students, such as three instances of late arrival. The system automatically alerts school officials when a student reaches the designated level.
Aldine Independent School District in Texas uses Raptor’s V-soft to help secure its schools. Aldine recently began a district-wide effort to strengthen its entire security system, which included adding surveillance cameras in school buildings and parking lots, said Clarence Johnson, director of the district’s Safe and Secure Schools department.
“We have had alerts on sex offenders, and all schools have standard procedures in reporting sex offenders, including an administrative policy,” Johnson said.
The district’s Safe and Secure Schools department met with school principals and administrators to discuss the implementation of Raptor’s software, and parents were informed through news releases and letters. Procedures regarding the use of V-soft are posted in each school’s main entrance, Johnson said.
While early comments on Raptor’s V-soft have been mostly positive, Johnson said the school plans to conduct a survey about the system at the end of the school year.
Parents and school leaders are able to keep tabs on children while they are in school fairly easily, but the safety and location of kids who ride the bus to school also is a concern. Some enterprising school systems are using a technology called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)–which has existed for some time and works through a tiny computer chip that transmits information to an outside database–to accomplish the objective, while others are beginning to experiment with fingerprint-scanning systems and Global Positioning System (GPS) locators on school buses.
A company called First Student Inc. uses RFID tags to ensure that children are not left behind on school buses. The tags verify that school bus drivers have completed a “student check” at the end of their route.
The Spring Independent School District in Texas is using computerized RFID identification cards for its students. As they board and leave school buses, students scan their cards against a reader device located at the front of the bus.
Law enforcement officials can monitor where students board and leave their school buses using this technology. The RFID signal is sent to a control room, and each student appears as an icon on a computer screen.
In California’s Ontario-Montclair School District, school officials have installed a GPS device combined with a fingerprint scanner that tracks the bus and the students riding on it for each of the district’s 34 vehicles.
“If there’s a hijacking or bus accident, we know exactly where that bus is and who is on that bus,” said Stefanie P. Phillips, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services.
“We foresee great benefits when it comes to field trips. We know who got back on that bus,” Phillips said. “It’s far more accurate than a head count and gives us a far better handle on our precious cargo.”
The Ontario-Montclair district uses a system from Millco Wireless called sweetFinger, a wireless real-time tool that uses fingerprint matching to ensure that students are on the correct bus at the beginning and end of the school day. Each student scans his or her fingerprint when boarding or leaving the school bus into a wireless mobile device.
The Windows-based software that drives the system is supplied by a company called Atsonic. Employing the same type of engineering used for its line of military computers, Tallahassee-based Talla-Tech designed the handheld reader used to scan students’ fingerprints when they get on and off the buses.
The system cost the district about $176,000, said Joe Pirzadeh, president of Atsonic. He added that the price might vary for other school systems. Schools and districts in Nevada, Arizona, and California reportedly are evaluating the sweetFinger system for use on their buses, too.
The GPS tracking system allows school transportation officials to view a map and see where each school bus is at any given time. Officials can narrow their inquiry to one specific school bus and can select individual students. Clicking icons on the database screen lets administrators view detailed information about each student, such as where the student boards and leaves their school bus, Pirzadeh said.
The GPS system also can determine bus arrival times, whether traffic has interfered with an arrival time or a specific route, and the location of the bus in case of emergency.
But tracking systems like these aren’t free from controversy. At press time, the Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union was fighting a resolution passed by the city council that urges the public school system to install GPS devices in its entire fleet of school buses as a safety and efficiency strategy.
Referring to the GPS systems as “contentious spy devices,” the drivers’ union maintains the devices’ real purpose will be to track the city’s bus drivers and further advance their portrayal as speeders and scofflaws.
If the city council is really concerned about safety, Union President Steve Gillis said, it should use the money to hire human monitors who can stop fights and make sure students get off at the correct stop. Currently, the city has about 100 human monitors who help on buses with special-needs students. “A global positioning system won’t ever deal with a safety problem on a bus, but a human can,” Gillis said. (For a full report, see “Bus drivers’ union broadsides GPS plan,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/ news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5408.)
Fire protection systems
Fire safety and protection systems have come a long way in the last few years, with today’s systems giving administrators the ability to monitor, maintain, and repair smoke-detection devices more easily than ever before. The result is these systems are much more accurate and are less apt to fail.
When the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Groton, Mass., built a new high school in 2003, officials there installed an advanced fire protection system by Silent Knight–a division of Honeywell Inc.–that is flexible and can be customized as the school expands or changes.
The system can be accessed remotely for routine maintenance work, and working on the fire panel from a remote location results in fewer false alarms during the school day, officials say. The system also provides an alarm history that can be helpful in troubleshooting problems. This feature can identify potential trouble spots by revealing whether the same device–a specific smoke detector or pull station, for example–is continually causing the problem.
Groton-Dunstable uses an IFP-1000 intelligent “addressable” fire code panel to control its fire safety devices. The basic IFP-1000 system contains a single Signaling Line Circuit (SLC) loop, which can support 127 detection devices. The system is expandable to 1,016 detection points (eight total SLC loops with a maximum of 127 devices per loop) using simple expansion cards. Each detector can communicate back to the control panel digitally through the SLC.
An “addressable” control panel means each detector has its own specific address, or identification, on the system–giving administrators immediate knowledge of which specific device is setting off the alarm.
The control panel features six on-board circuits that can be configured for notification outputs or for conventional smoke detector inputs. The entire system is password-protected, allowing administrators to grant access privileges to designated on-site maintenance workers if desired.
Groton-Dunstable uses a local company, National Fire and Security Inc. of Shrewsbury, Mass., to service the panels. Employees of this monitoring company can dial into the system from their offices to check the status of each detection device on the system. They can also control the settings of each device–such as its sensitivity, alarm threshold, clear-air value, and so on–using special software and can troubleshoot the system if necessary.
The smoke-detection devices that are connected to the system also have the ability to send a warning signal to system administrators via the control panel, alerting them that a particular device needs cleaning or is about to fail. This enables administrators to be more proactive in keeping the system functional.
The IFP-1000 fire panel is connected to a central fire station receiver through two dedicated telephone circuits–a main line and a redundant line in case the main line fails. In the event of an alarm, the system would send a signal directly to a radio master box, which then would relay the signal to the closest fire response unit.
“It’s working well,” said Joe Bosselait, Groton’s fire chief, who added that he is particularly impressed with the system’s remote-contact capabilities. “So far, it has been reporting quite accurately.”
The Buffalo Public School System in New York undertook a $6 million project last spring with Johnson Controls to update the fire safety equipment in its schools with equipment similar to Honeywell’s. In addition to updating security features, the schools’ public-address systems and clocks reportedly will be integrated with an assisted learning system to help hearing-impaired listeners better understand the broadcasts through headphones.
The Buffalo schools’ fire systems were quite outdated, and the installation of this updated system is a complete modernization that has so far yielded no problems, said Roy Rogers, chief operations officer for the district. Nine schools will receive the updated systems in the first phase of the project, and the first three schools were completed in September. By the spring, Rogers said, all nine schools should be operating with the new fire and security systems.
Evaluating security technologies for use in schools
New advancements in technology like the ones described in this report have the capability to help keep students more secure. But rather than view technology as a panacea that will one day eliminate the threat of danger in the nation’s schools, these high-tech systems are simply one more piece of the school security puzz