School Security Technology: The Emperor’s New Clothes?

The misalignment of protection technology’s abilities with the operational reality of running a campus can turn the use of security equipment into security theater.

School violence in general and “active shooters” in particular have captured the attention and resources of school districts across the country.

School boards and administrations are under intense pressure to improve school safety. This unrelenting pressure to “do something” can skew decisions toward a showroom full of technology-driven solutions.

Every educational security publication bristles with advertisements, vendor demos, white papers and case studies that trumpet technology as the cure. Everything from electronic access control, HD surveillance cameras, smartphone-based visitor management to the latest in emergency response apps are available… for a price.

In many cases, we are pitched solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. We can purchase the idea of a safer school, but never realize the effects.

Frequently in the course of the security assessment process, we encounter schools with a significant investment in a particular technological solution but with no improvement to the security profile. An unhappy conversation often ensues, and despite the dollars spent, the school is no safer than it was before the purchase. Too often the emperor has no clothes.

How is this possible? Normally at issue is a misalignment of the technology’s abilities with the operational reality of running a school. This misalignment tends to fall into four general areas that turn the use of security equipment into security theater.

1. Access Control: Often during assessments we find $30,000 access controlled doors propped open with rocks that cost nothing. Another weakness is when an amiable conversation leads to an unauthorized person being allowed to follow a staff member into a secure facility. Easiest of all of the types of unauthorized entrances involves a student who lets an adult in who knocks on the door and has a pitiful expression.

Each of these situations have been with us for as long as we have had doors. Technology solutions cannot remedy ineffective operational practices, and occasionally it magnifies them.

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2. Video Surveillance: A camera system cannot intervene in student conflicts, investigate an incident or deter misbehavior. These advantages are the purview of staff… actual people who can take action, ask questions and manage student behavior. In the K-12 environment, people deter children’s misbehavior while cameras usually only record it.

Video surveillance certainly has a place in schools, but not as a replacement for active student supervision. Supervision is proactive, surveillance is reactive. While cameras generate excellent evidence, staff members actively promote appropriate behavior. Technology can only support, not supplant active student supervision in a school.

3. Visitor Management: Visitor management software is another technology that schools are embracing. In general, the programs scan a driver’s license, check it against a prohibited person list and then print a visitor badge. Some systems can calculate volunteer hours, partial-day attendance and validate child custody arrangements. Any one of these features can be valuable in a school environment.

However, unless all visitors are checked in and each staff member is willing to approach and confront individuals who don’t have credentials, the value is lost. An unsecured, unmonitored perimeter door as described in No. 1 above and staff members unwilling to confront an uncredentialed visitor are the two elements needed to allow anyone access to everyone in the building. Neither of these situations are remedied by technology. Technology divorced from institutional commitment to effective implementation is an empty promise.

4: Emergency Response Apps for Mobile Devices: The intended benefit here is to provide readily available emergency response information to school personnel in a crisis. This is the high-tech version of the classroom emergency flip chart.

While there is value in creating a common, deployed plan for all staff, it is no substitute for effective training. Emergency responses are fast-moving and require a degree of internal understanding of roles and responsibilities. Overdependence on technology leads to underperformance in an emergency.

Undoubtedly technology has a place in school safety and security. When it is supported by solid operations, trained staff, institutional commitment and a clear understanding of its limitations, technology can make us safer. Without these elements, security technology is often nothing more than a very expensive, worthless gesture.

Guy Bliesner and Mike Munger are regional school security analysists for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security. Bliesner formerly served as the school safety administrator in an Idaho school district, and Munger formerly served as the Boise School District security manager.

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