As school leaders struggle to comprehend the tragic March 21 shootings that left 10 people dead at Minnesota’s Red Lake High School, many are asking how technology might be used to help prevent–or respond to–such violent attacks in the future.
Red Lake sophomore Jeff Weise is believed to have killed his grandfather, Daryl Lussier, 58, a sergeant in the Red Lake Police Department, and Lussier’s companion, Michelle Sigana, 32, at Lussier’s house before storming the school just before 3:00 p.m. and killing seven others–including a teacher and an unarmed security guard. He then took his own life after exchanging gunfire with police.
The rampage at Red Lake Indian Reservation in far northern Minnesota was the nation’s worst school shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 that left 13 people dead. It demonstrated both the limitations and potential for technology to help keep students safe.
Red Lake High School has a metal detector, but the device did little to prevent the attacks. According to news reports, Weise blasted his way through the entrance, killing security guard Derrick Brun, 28, before setting his sights on students.
As the tragedy unfolded, however, several students reportedly used cell phones to call police or family members. Police responded immediately to 911 calls, and the whole horrific incident was over in less than 10 minutes, according to reports.
"Technology can play a role" in helping keep students safe, said Kenneth S. Trump, president of Cleveland-based consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. But it must "supplement, not substitute for" other measures.
As the Red Lake tragedy showed, metal detectors are somewhat limited in their ability to keep students from bringing weapons into the building. Part of the problem is they don’t provide enough warning if a student is determined to breach them. Security cameras positioned outside the building, such as in the school parking lot, might help–and the British technology group QinetiQ has developed another potential solution.
QinetiQ, which used to be part of the research division of the British defense ministry, makes a system that reportedly can scan beneath people’s clothing to spot not just metal but other potential threats, such as hidden drugs. The system relies on a technology known as Millimeter Wave, and the company says it soon could be used outside airports to scan people for explosive devices or other weapons before they even enter the terminal.
The advantage is obvious–to identify potential attackers without letting them know, gaining valuable time for security officials to prevent an attack. But is there a market for such a technology at schools?
QinetiQ did not respond to requests for an interview, but Trump believes the technology is not financially feasible for the vast majority of U.S. schools. "Look at how much money we’ve pumped into airport security–and we’re still doing searches by hand in many places," he said. With funding for school safety and technology initiatives already being cut, he added, it’s not realistic to think many schools could afford these types of systems.
As well as school leaders can prepare for a crisis, Trump said, not all instances of violence will be preventable. "The best thing school leaders can do is to be prepared to manage a crisis," he said.
School leaders should work closely with local law-enforcement officials to prepare for such an occurrence, Trump said–and technology can play an important role in this effort. For instance, some schools are installing internet-based video surveillance systems that allow law-enforcement personnel to view camera images from inside a school building in the event of an attack.
Though it’s impossible to say whether such a system could have saved lives at Red Lake, proponents of the technology–which uses schools’ existing technology infrastructure–say it can help first responders take control of an emergency situation more quickly.
In December, 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. Under the plan, Merrillville schools will have panic switches installed in various locations. When these switches are activated, the schools’ video systems will 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: "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."
(For more information about this and other technology-based school security initiatives, see http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStorysr.cfm?ArticleID=5449.)
Regardless of how much schools invest in security, Trump said, technology can only be part of the solution.
"Any technology is only as good as the human element behind it," he said. More important than technology is a well-trained staff who can recognize the early warning signs of violence and who know how to respond in the event of a crisis.
According to news reports, Red Lake’s Weise, who was 16, exhibited several of the classic warning signs that should have alerted officials that he needed help. For instance, Weise had been placed in the school’s Homebound program for violating school policy. He also reportedly professed admiration for Adolph Hitler and doodled swastikas on his high school notebook, and the FBI said it is looking at a possible connection between Weise and entries posted on a neo-Nazi web site.
Technology can help secure schools, but it’s "not a panacea" for school safety, Trump concluded.
eSN Special Report: School Safety and Security
Red Lake High School
National School Safety and Security Services