School safety solutions advance

New tech strengthens defenses for students, staff and schools
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 18, 2015

Three years ago, Tom Brabson, business manager of Plain Local Schools in northeastern Ohio, heard the superintendent of a district 60 miles away describe how his life had changed in 22 seconds. In those seconds, a troubled 17-year-old sprayed the Chardon High School cafeteria with bullets, killing three fellow students and creating widespread panic.

Since then, galvanized by the nearby tragedy, Brabson’s 6,000-student district has spent more than $150,000 on security, choosing some of the same technology-based devicesÑsuch as portable panic buttons and cloud-based crisis management systemsÑthat school administrators across the country are turning to in the search for new ways to keep students and staff safe.

The price tag can run from a few thousand dollars to well into six figures, but administrators appalled by the prospect of becoming the next Columbine or Sandy Hook say the cost is worth it. “We just thought this was an investment about security,” Brabson says. “We did with a little bit less in some areas to make sure this all happened the right way.”

Assessing risk

Before buying anything, experts say, school officials should take a hard look at the risks their schools face and the vulnerabilities in their current security systems.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the 31-year-old National School Safety Center, a non-profit set up by President Reagan that issued some of the earliest guidelines for school safety planning and crime reporting. “It should be based on the needs and risks and threats in the local community.”

That initial assessment may reveal small ways to quickly enhance security, says Curt Lavarello, executive director of the Florida-based School Safety Advocacy Council.

Quick fixes might include ensuring that school telephones can reach 911 directly (in a crisis, panicked callers may forget to dial an extra digit for an outside line), or reconsidering labeled parking spaces for school administrators (an empty spot for a principal or school safety officer tells would-be intruders that leadership is absent).

Security shopping tips

Security experts and school administrators offer these tips to districts shopping for technology-based school safety devices:

Assess your district’s individual risks and needs before buying: Schools should do due diligence to ensure they are not looking for the “cookie-cutter approach to their technology solutions,” says Curt Lavarello, executive director of the Florida-based School Security Advocacy Council. “Every school is its own community. Technology that works in one school may not necessarily work in another school.”
Get input from local first responders: Build rapport and ask for advice. In a crisis, it will be important that schools and law enforcement understand each other’s procedures. “Use their resources because they do this every day,” says Ken Donovan, facilities and security manager for Connecticut’s Stonington Public Schools.
Do your homework: Check a vendor’s references, visit districts that already use the products you’re considering, and ask companies for free samples.
Prevent technical snafus: “Before you get into any of these systems, talk to your technology people to make sure they’re compatible, or what it would take to make them work in your district,” says Tom Brabson, business manager of the Plain Local Schools in Ohio.
Remember to budget for maintaining new systems: Typically, capital budgets pay for security equipment, while ongoing operations, or keeping the new systems running, are funded separately. Consultant Patrick Fiel says he’s seen too many districts that buy security cameras and, years later, can’t afford to fix them.

“While technology is very good, oftentimes a district is missing the very basic, simple, free things” that make buildings safer, Lavarello says.

A school safety program should create layers of security, each designed to backstop failures at the previous stage, says North Carolina-based security consultant Patrick Fiel, who spent six years in charge of security for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Fencing and signage should first steer visitors to a single, locked entry points for each building, where the main office can be contacted via video intercomÑa device that “every school in America should have,” Fiel says.

Once buzzed in, visitors to Florida’s School District of Palm Beach County will soon have their photo IDs scanned into a visitor management system, by Raptor Technologies, that checks names and pictures against a nationwide sex-offender database.

Campus visits from parents who turn up in the database will be carefully managed to ensure that no sex-offender roams the grounds unsupervised: their teacher conferences will be held in the main office and they will be escorted to their in-school destinations, such as classrooms or the auditorium, says Lawrence J. Leon, chief of the police force in the district with 180,000 students.

“You ensure that they aren’t anywhere on the campus by themselves,” Leon says.

Security via smartphone

Inside school buildings, districts are turning to an array of devices to provide additional levels of security.

Digital cameras monitoring buses and school hallways are commonplace. Newer cameras connect to networks so central office administrators and outside law enforcement agencies can view the feeds.

“We explained to the parents, ‘Look, we’re not snooping on your children, it’s not a Big Brother thing. We’re trying to keep your children safe,'” says Ken Donovan, facilities and security manager for the 2,500-student Stonington Public Schools in Connecticut. “And the parents are really, really understandingÑin fact, they welcome it.”

Fiel also recommends automatic locking mechanisms on classroom doors that permit exit but not entryÑthey keep intruders out but allow in police or school officials equipped with keys. And increasingly, districts are giving principals and teachers panic buttons that alert school administrators and local police departments to unfolding crises.

For example, every classroom in Stonington will soon have a big red button hardwired to one wall. When pushed, the button will lock the door, bar access to other floors of the building, issue an audible warning that an intruder is present, and send an alert to the radios of police cruisers, Donovan says.

Balancing security and privacy

School administrators hunting for technology-based security solutions face a challenge: keeping schools safe without turning them into armed camps or setting up surveillance regimes that invade the privacy of students, staff and visitors.

As technologies improve, “you get to the point where you have overshare, overreach,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the non-profit National School Safety Center. “The opportunities that technology provides will continue to exceed, perhaps, our ability to absorb, in terms of how much monitoring we want.”

Teacher unions have traditionally been wary of classroom cameras, unless their use is tightly controlled. And school officials also must ensure security cameras are not in private areas like bathrooms and health clinics.

But administrators say privacy concerns seldom surface in conversations about school security, especially in the wake of horrific shootings in apparently placid communities like Newtown, Connecticut.

“There are cameras everywhere,” says Lawrence J. Leon, chief of the police force in Florida’s School District of Palm Beach County. “If you go to the gas station, there’s a camera. If you go to the store, there’s a camera. You drive down the road, there are cameras. I think that issue has been breached by now.”

In Plain Local Schools in Ohio, the panic button hangs on a lanyard around the principal’s neck. When pushed, the button launches a series of automatic emergency calls from the school’s landline telephone and activates an exterior strobe light and announcement warning visitors not to enter the building, Brabson says.

In Palm Beach, teachers wear Audio Enhancement pendants with wireless microphones to ensure that students can hear their lessons. The pendant also has an alarm button that connects the teacher to the building’s front desk, and Leon, the police chief, hopes to test an upgrade offering video recording, as well.

School administrators also praise cloud-based crisis management systems, which consolidate information about emergency procedures and give police and administrators remote accessÑsometimes via smartphone appÑto camera feeds in hallways and stairwells. Such systems put crucial information within easy reach when needed, administrators say.

In the Plain schools, the NaviGate emergency system integrates crisis plans, camera feeds, photos of every classroom and such details as who to call about a gas leak or where to find each building’s electrical shutoff. Stonington uses a similar system, CrisisManager, to replace the hundreds of hard-copy booklets containing emergency contacts and crisis procedures that Donovan used to print and circulate each year.

“Someone doesn’t have to constantly look through their drawersÑwhere’d I put the plan, it’s buried somewhere,” Donovan says. “They can just go on their smartphone and the plan is right there.”

The price of safety

The new technology-based school security solutions vary in cost. A front-door video intercom, which controls access at the front door, is less than $2,000 per school, says Fiel, the consultant. A panic-button system with a handful of pendants could cost less than $10,000. The giant Palm Beach County district, with nearly 200 schools, spent $390,000 on its visitor management system, says police chief Leon.

Ohio’s Plain schools paid $3,000 for a cloud-based crisis management system, plus another $1,000 per year to maintain it, Brabson says. Upgrading Plain’s school cameras cost $50,000; installing emergency strobe lights was another $100,000.

In Stonington, placing hard-wired panic buttons in every classroom in the district’s six buildings will cost $30,000, Donovan says.

Even with tight school budgets, security measures tend to win quick approval from school board members, administrators say.

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“They don’t mess with it too much,” says Donovan, whose Connecticut district is a two-hour drive from Newtown, site of the 2012 school shooting that took the lives of 26 children and staff members. “Putting new grass in the baseball outfield is another story, but security measures are pretty important around here.”

Still, experts note, technology is less important to maintaining school safety than that most old-fashioned of methods: the visible presence of responsible adults who keep their eyes open for trouble and cultivate close relationships with students.

“Everybody has to take an active role in providing safety and security on the campuses, from the teacher to the custodian to the cafeteria worker,” says Leon of Palm Beach schools. “The person is always the first line, no matter what technology you have.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.