The convergence of technology and physical security systems — and E-rate funds — is giving schools new ways to improve the safety systems used to protect students and teachers on school properties.
The evolving approach comes at a time when school administrators across the nation are fighting an uphill battle to fund basic improvements in their facilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics Survey of School Districts, out of the approximate 100,000 K-12 public schools in the U.S., the average age of the main instructional building is 44 years and 53 percent need to spend money on repairs. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. public school system a D+ on its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.
At the same time, school districts face a growing responsibility to guard against acts of violence and terrorism that have put schools into the national spotlight.
The challenges have brought together a variety of special interest groups, along with schools and security companies, to look for ways to help schools improve the physical security of their facilities.
“We don’t view this issue as simply an education issue. We think education has enough issues to deal with, and to focus on classroom preparedness. We think this is a homeland security issue,” said Robert Boyd, executive Director for the Secure Schools Alliance (SSA), a nonprofit advocating for funding infrastructure improvements for safer schools.
Littleton Public Schools, in southern Denver, is one district demonstrating how technology — and E-rate funds from the Federal Communications Commission — can help school districts narrow their safety and security gaps.
Guy Grace, director of public safety for the Colorado district, has found ways to use networking gear that can also support physical security systems, and tap the E-rate program to help fund the equipment.
Grace told EdScoop he was able to draw on the funds, for instance, to help establish Power over Ethernet systems within his district.
POE systems allow both data connections and power to cross through a single cable, and can be used for security equipment such as IP surveillance cameras and VoIP phones. POE systems can also support other technology not traditionally meant for safety such as wireless access points.
“You’re now using that same infrastructure for your security systems as the learning departments are using for teaching and learning in the classroom,” said Grace.
“In the past, when we didn’t have the POE infrastructure or the type of layout, we were kind of stuck with things for many years. The way we deploy now, we are constantly evolving and meeting the needs of our community,” he said.
Technology systems can also be used to better monitor and manage access to school facilities that once were mostly the domain of physical security system providers, say safety advocates.
Grace said, for instance, that his district is working with a division of Stanley Black & Decker and its shelter technology system “that allows our classroom doors … to lockdown immediately just using the existing locks with an electronic function.”
Groups like SSA and the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), however, say the most important factor enhancing school security is human capital.
Educating those working within school districts on what security measures they need, how to act in threatening situations and how to use the technology they are acquiring goes a lot further than providing funding alone.
PASS, formed by the Security Industry Alliance (SIA), provides an assessment of education facilities, along with a tiered system of recommendations to advance their security based upon resources that are available, guiding school districts to advance their security addressing critical needs first.
“The human element I think is so critical in our discussion about securing our schools because there is a temptation to press the easy button,” said Michele Gay, co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools.
Gay, a mother and former teacher, lost her daughter in the 2012 Sandy Hook, Connecticut, school shooting, and has since dedicated herself to school safety. She urged safety education over the ease of technology alone as a false substitute.
It is important to not let strong technology trump training and awareness, for the two are integral to protecting lives, said Gay.
But funding for safety-related infrastructure improvements remains elusive.
SSA and PASS recently co-signed a letter to President Donald Trump with SSA and others calling for greater school safety infrastructure funding, Boyd said.
“There’s no money for implementation,” Boyd said in an interview with EdScoop. “We’re not suggesting that the federal government should bear all of the costs. We’re saying a third from the feds, a third from the state and a third from the local.”
“Schools are covered under the National Infrastructure Protection Plan,” he said, which attempts to focus federal attention on protecting critical infrastructure. But “it is buried under government facilities, in a sub-sector. For the last 15, 16, 17 years we have focused on high value targets.”
“Well guess what? The name of the game has changed. It’s about soft targets with high probability of mass casualties … and the No. 1 soft-target issue that most governments are concerned about is schools.”
Wyatt Kash contributed to this report.