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Districts turn to tech to prevent school violence

Technology plays an important role in mitigating threats that could turn into security incidents

School violence regularly occupies news headlines, turning students into activists as they demand gun control and call on lawmakers and education stakeholders to drastically improve school safety.

This disturbing trend, including the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School in Great Mills, Md., has prompted many districts to turn to technology solutions to put an extra layer of safety measures in schools.

Tools that monitor social media for threats, anonymous reporting systems, and databases to track and identify potentially preventable patterns among shootings are growing in popularity as educators recognize the importance of technology in preventing school violence.

“We have so much advancement in technologies, and we protect a lot of our prized assets, but we don’t do much to protect our students,” says Rob Bridges, president at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. “We’re still kind of protecting them the old-fashioned way. After the Parkland shooting, I said there has to be more we can do than just lock ourselves in our classrooms and hope for the best.”

That’s when Bridges began communicating with DMI, a mobility solutions provider launching EndZone for Education, a mobile app and platform for real-time response management in the event of a security incident.

“The primary attraction for us is the communication capability, including a pop-up SOS button, video capabilities, and staff communication tools to get word to first responders in seconds rather than minutes,” Bridges says. “We hope we never have to use it, but we want to have the best technology available to protect our students.”

Spotting patterns to help prevent violence

Researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York have created a national open-source database tracking K-12 school shootings. The goal is to provide a platform to help gather and analyze data surrounding risk factors of school shootings, explains Professor Joshua Freilich, the project’s principal investigator and a member of the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College.

“The dearth of empirical data on school violence in the United States and the almost complete absence of quantitative data on perpetrators and incidents will be remedied by the production of this database and the analysis of data on the risk factors of school shootings,” Freilich says.

Researchers hope the database will help stakeholders document the nature and types of school shooting incidents in schools, and identify intervention points that could be used to reduce the harm school shootings cause.

Making it safe to report threats

Lightspeed Systems announced a new component to its Relay student safety and filtering solution. The new element, called Threat Check, is designed to give schools a place to track information that helps identify high-risk behaviors and prevent incidents such as school violence, self-harm, and bullying.

Threat Check draws from models of students’ typical online behavior and uses online analysis and data points to convey information to school administrators. Educators say it gives them another tool to track and address threats.

“Technology has become a tool to work with and can help us monitor situations closely and provide additional alerts,” says Jordan Beveridge, administrator for technology services for Oregon’s Beaverton School District.

Beaverton uses Relay to filter and monitor student activity. Tools like filtering and monitoring solutions offer an important window into student’s current state of mind and whether a student could be a threat to themselves or others, Beveridge adds.

“We already use Relay to filter, monitor, and protect our students,” says Gary Brantley, chief information officer of DeKalb County School District in DeKalb County, Ga. “[Relay] will give us even more insight and tools to do that.”

DeKalb County is not alone. Schools have indicated their need for increased safety measures, according to Brian Thomas, chief executive officer of Lightspeed. As Lightspeed helped districts become CIPA-compliant, “we started tracking things like suspicious search-engine queries and other activity on the internet that might cause alarm for a school district.”

With the increase in mobile devices, Thomas says Lightspeed decided to add an offline-monitoring component to take monitoring a step further and help districts build a story around if a student is trending toward a higher risk for very specific behavior.

The software can highlight students who look to be at risk, but school personnel also can choose to watch a student’s data based on offline observations. School personnel can use Threat Check to flag high-risk students and input offline activity, including violence or threatening speech, into the system.

“Are there data points that help us believe he or she could harm themselves or others?” asks Thomas. “We’re not saying the software alone is the answer. We believe with these data points and alerts, we can give districts an opportunity to investigate further.”

Efforts also focus around reporting mechanisms that help educators, students, and community members track and report potential threats or alarming incidents.

The Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, launched by Sandy Hook Promise, lets students submit secure and anonymous safety concerns to identify at-risk individuals before they hurt themselves or others. Students can submit via a mobile app, a website, or a 24/7 crisis center.

“We know from research, data, studies, and history that people talk about violent acts first,” says Mark Barden, Sandy Hook Promise’s co-founder and managing director. Barden lost his son Daniel in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. “We see the proof points of that following these mass tragedies just about every time. With our anonymous reporting system, people are trained on what to look for and to identify those warning signs. The reporting system is a safe place for them to record that information.”

Calls are routed to a call center staffed with trained professionals and experts who triage the information into two different categories: immediate life safety, which connects with law enforcement, and the other category that addresses important concerns that are not immediately life-threatening.

The free reporting system joins Sandy Hook Promise’s other programs, including a suicide prevention program, safety assessment and intervention, an outreach guide to encourage community connections, and a “Know the Signs” program.

“We know this is preventable. We have four programs and all of them are evidence-based or evidence-informed and effective at preventing a tragedy, whether it’s a self-harm or an act of mass violence. I absolutely feel this would go toward building a more secure feeling in a community,” says Barden.

[Editor’s note: Part 2 of this story will examine social media monitoring tools, whether they infringe upon student privacy, and civil rights groups’ claims that racial and ethnic minority students experience increased scrutiny when schools implement such tools.]

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