How Traditional School Security Options Fail Us

Here are three common school security points of failure and five ways to avoid them.
Published: May 25, 2020

School districts across the country implement various methods to respond to emergencies on campus, but as technology innovates so should the solutions implemented to protect students and staff. Truly effective school security solutions must protect against the most extreme crises as well as more common incidents school staff respond to every day.

Districts also must prepare for the increased occurrence of medical and behavioral situations when students in remote learning environments during COVID-19 quarantines return to campus. All such incidents demand fast, reliable responses with complete and accurate information.

Traditional approaches fall short, creating weak links and blind spots that leave students at risk. Let’s look at three potential points of failure in school incident alarm and communication systems today:

3 Points of Failure

#1: The Mobile App Gap in School Security

Ever use the fingerprint authentication on your mobile phone? Then you know how maddening it can be when it doesn’t recognize your print because your “finger moved too fast.”

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Now imagine a panicked teacher trying to keep her finger still enough to open her phone and launch an alert app while a threatening incident unfolds in the classroom. During a frightening crisis, gross motor skills are challenged.

Or consider a teacher rushing to attend to a student who has a seizure. The teacher’s phone, the trigger to alert the school and responders for help, is across the room in her coat pocket or purse or locked desk drawer. She either has to leave the student’s side or try to direct a scared classmate to scramble to retrieve her phone.

Mobile apps have other limitations. A phone’s GPS cannot precisely identify the room or office where an incident is happening. Is the battery charged? Will a coach have cellular coverage in the gym or on the practice field if an athlete suffers a serious injury? Lastly, the onus to own the mobile phone falls on the teacher or staff member. Is it fair to expect teachers and staff to pay for a device required by the school?

Mobile apps introduce too many dependencies and delays to be reliable as the first point of alert in a school incident.

#2: Wall Mounted Panic Buttons Don’t Work if You Can’t Reach Them

Safety and security incidents in schools don’t always accommodate your systems. A wall-mounted panic button in a classroom might be more reliably connected than mobile apps, but connection is irrelevant if a staff member can’t reach it.

We have already considered situations where a coach on the field or a teacher attending to a student might not be able to get to a wall-mounted unit. That also goes for a staff member who sees a fight in the cafeteria or student with a weapon in the parking lot. Or, what if someone enters a classroom and threatens a teacher alone at his or her desk? That wall unit might be impossible to reach from just feet away.

Alarm triggers must be accessible immediately when a safety or security incident occurs. Just like with mobile apps, wall mounted units only work if circumstances align perfectly—not often the case in a crisis.

#3: The Two-Way Radio is a Complement, Not a Complete Solution

“Radios were like bricks, they weren’t working.” Those are the words of Lori Alhadeff, mother of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old victim of the tragic Parkland shooting. Many states are enacting or considering versions of Alyssa’s Law, named in her memory, to require alert systems in schools.

Two-way radios or walkie-talkies can provide fast connections for people in many useful ways. The technologies have evolved with different methods and protocols for on-demand communications between pairs or among groups.

But in a school crisis, they present limitations that can delay or prevent critical response.

The devices themselves can be bulky and impractical for every teacher and staff member to carry and have readily accessible in an emergency. Many radios do not provide critical location information. All the systems and responder organizations might not be connected to effectively communicate across needed channels and jurisdictions. Even the push-to-talk function of hand-held radios can be tough to use in the chorus of voices during an emergency, particularly with half-duplex systems that only allow one speaker.

Two-way radios can serve as a valuable tool for quick verbal communications in general use or in emergency protocols, especially for schools that have already invested in the equipment. But they don’t provide a complete safety response solution.

Knowing the gaps in traditional systems helps define the characteristics of an optimal school emergency response system. The most capable solutions that best secure the safety and well being of students and staff meet the following criteria:

5 Criterion to Consider

#1: Address All Types of Emergencies, Daily Incidents and Crises

An optimal security solution will entail both audible and visible cues both inside and outside on campus.

We tend to think first about how best to prevent and respond to tragic school shootings, but school shootings remain statistically rare. Schools have a less than 1% chance of ever being in an active shooter situation, according to nonprofit campus safety organization Safe Havens International.

But schools do face a variety of health and safety incidents every day. Accidental injuries, fights, weather emergencies and fires are more common events that require unique, rapid responses to keep students and staff safe and sometimes save lives. According to the CDC, more than 200,000 students under the age of 14 are treated in the hospital for playground injuries each year.  High school athletes alone account for an estimated 2 million injuries as well as 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year.

According to the National Institute of Health, 68% of school nurses manage life-threatening emergencies. This is why schools should choose emergency notification solutions that best address all school safety incidents, as well as provide the greatest protection and response in the worst-case active shooter situation. Some questions to consider:

  • Does the emergency notification solution let staff quickly respond to a student medical emergency or a fight on the playground?
  • Does it enable the front-desk personnel to request help without escalating a situation with an irate non-guardian demanding to see their child?
  • What if a domestic dispute erupts in the parking lot during a student pickup?

Schools also can gather real crisis scenario examples from teachers and staff to ensure that their emergency notification solutions will address all incidents they will likely face. Given limited funding, this helps schools to prioritize their investments to cover and respond to more of the most likely incidents.

#2: Make It Available to Everyone, Everywhere

An emergency notification system can only save lives if it’s available. Staff must be able to request help or initiate a lockdown from anywhere on campus, whether it’s the classroom, the playground, the parking lot or the stadium. As the Center for Homeland Defense and Security has reported, nearly half of school shootings occurred outside the school building. Accidents, injuries, fights and other response events occur in all corners of the school grounds.

This best practice of “anyone, anytime, anywhere” was cited in 2013 after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and repeated in the MSDHS Safety Commission’s report following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. To maximize accessibility and coverage, every teacher and staff member should wear a mobile panic button (such as a badge) at all times and be able to trigger a response without depending on wifi or cellular connection.

#3: Be Easy and Fast to Use

Every second saved in an emergency—whether in requesting help or providing critical information to responders—improves the chances for a positive outcome. An analysis of 41 school shootings between 2008 and 2017 by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center found that two-thirds of attacks lasted less than 2 minutes. Nearly half were over in less than 60 seconds. Time is also critical when responding to an allergic reaction, an altercation, or an athlete’s injury.

An alert system should require very few steps for any staff member to request help. One-touch activation by clicking a single button on a body-worn device is simpler and faster than retrieving a phone from a drawer or pocket, turning it on, authenticating and launching an app—especially under duress. Those seconds are precious when a safety incident or threat unfolds.

#4: Quickly and Accurately Communicate Information

Technology can automate the rapid sharing of information critical to responders and everyone affected. For a teacher in the panic of an emergency, relaying even “simple” information such as name and location verbally can be difficult. Alert devices and apps should be assigned to specific users, identifying them automatically when they request help.

Notification solutions should also be able to pinpoint and communicate the exact location during an emergency. GPS solutions are not able to identify locations to the exact room. Solutions that include an IoT mesh network that can relay the exact floor and room where an incident has occurred is imperative for responders to be able to react quickly and effectively.

#5: Communicate Clearly to the Entire School Community

An effective response solution must include multi-sensory input in order to reach everyone involved in a campus-wide emergency. An optimal security solution will entail both audible and visible cues both inside and outside on campus.

Intercom announcements often inform and direct people during these types of events. Automated, pre-recorded announcements specific to each type of incident ensure a clear, complete and concise message. They also eliminate potential confusion or delays of a manual message, particularly if administrators are not able to get to the intercom.

Interior and exterior strobe lights can alert people on playgrounds, in restrooms or arriving to campus that an incident is under way. Instructional messages displayed on computers and phones can also be extremely beneficial to those on campus not well versed in protocols (substitute teachers, volunteers, visitors) who require more complete information.

Administrators often receive incident information from local authorities when they are away from the campus, so they must be able to initiate communications and proper responses to incidents remotely. Any system should be linked to quickly provide key information to local police, paramedics, EMTs and other certified first responders. The key is maximizing awareness and information to all those affected.

School emergency alert systems can get crucial help to the scene quickly, no matter the nature of the safety event. Ask the right questions to ensure the solution you choose is fast, ready, and available anytime, anywhere in or outside of the school building. Ensure that students, administrators, parents, teachers, and emergency responders get informed quickly in every possible way during any type of school safety situation. Ensuring prompt, appropriate responses will save lives.

Matthew Stevens

Matthew Stevens is the CEO of CENTEGIX, the IoT firm behind CrisisAlert, a security solution that utilizes mobile and desktop applications along with a proprietary mesh network to provide campus-wide protection. To learn more visit

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series