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As districts grapple with how best to protect students and staff in an age of lockdowns, many are looking to advanced communications systems and facial recognition software.
Emily Tate is a reporter and technology editor for EdScoop. She writes about the latest developments in technology, applications and digital learni...
As the national conversation intensifies over what schools can and should do to reduce the risks of mass shootings, educational institutions are finding some answers in a trend they embraced years ago.
Many school districts, having long accepted the presence of hardware and software in their buildings, are now exploring applications that promise to protect against what has become every educator’s worst nightmare: an active shooter on school grounds.
At a time when “Parkland” and “Santa Fe” connote not just the names of towns but the settings of tragedies, most schools have some safety-related technology in place — typically low-tech equipment such as surveillance cameras, PA systems and metal detectors. But in the same way they received more pervasive and sophisticated learning technology, they also are looking at high-tech systems to increase security, such as mobile apps that allow real-time head counts during emergency situations, facial recognition technology that identifies individuals who have been placed on a school’s “blacklist” and tools that recognize and alert officials to exposed guns.
Some school districts, like Lockport City School District, located outside of Buffalo, New York, are looking into more comprehensive systems that include facial recognition, weapons detection and back-end forensic tools. Others, like Wa-Nee Community Schools in rural Indiana, are rolling out an advanced communications platform being tested by a variety of districts, including the Connecticut one overseeing Sandy Hook Elementary School, a site that has come to symbolize how tragedy can strike at any moment.
“It’s been interesting to see the transitions taking place,” said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a California-based nonprofit that assists schools with safety planning and violence prevention. “Technology certainly does have a role in school crime prevention, as well as in school crisis management, but it’s really up to [the school districts] how much they embrace the technology.”
At the same time, many school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, are grappling with how to deploy technologies across huge, far-flung jurisdictions.
“There’s lots of things I’d like to do, lots of technology I’d like to try, but everything is done with scale in mind — we’re a big district,” Derek Root, Charlotte-Meckenburg's chief technology officer, said about the district’s safety plan.
With so much advanced technology available, there’s no question it has a place in deterring school shootings and responding to incidents, educators and experts interviewed for this story told EdScoop. It's also generally apolitical, operating outside the broader debate over gun safety. The question, then, is exactly what place the technology has, and how much it’s worth to already budget-strapped school districts.
Equipping every school district — even the small ones
With each passing school shooting — and they occur about once a week in the U.S. — fear among students, teachers and staff grows, said Amy Rosa, director of transportation and school safety at Wa-Nee Community Schools, a district in northern Indiana with about 3,000 students. So, too, does the feeling that their school could be next.
“I don’t believe that any school should look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s never going to happen here.’ That’s a dangerous place to be,” Rosa said.
So Wa-Nee staff, determined not to be defenseless in the face of an attack, sought out a safety preparedness plan. And although they didn't go looking for a solution involving technology, that's what fit.
“We know just because we’re a small rural community that anything could happen and to prepare for all hazards that could come along,” Rosa added. “Obviously there’s bad people out there that plan to do harm, and if they intend to do harm on our schools we want to be prepared.”
Wa-Nee has just five schools — one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools. Some are as far as 10 miles apart and in two separate towns, but all share a single school resource officer.
“The distance is an issue,” Rosa said. “Any technology we can have to increase communication and bridge that gap — we have looked for that kind of opportunity.”
When Rosa and other school administrators began to consider what it would actually be like for Wa-Nee to go on lockdown, to evacuate the student body and to reunite students with their parents after an emergency, they realized they were not prepared.
“How does the data go with them? If we are in a lockdown situation, sometimes those can last a very long time,” she said. “How do we communicate in the classrooms or wherever students and faculty would be? How do we communicate with them? How do they communicate with us? How do they take attendance?”
Compressing response time
At first, Wa-Nee officials set up an email address for that very purpose: firstname.lastname@example.org. In the event of an emergency, staff were instructed to send a message to that address saying who they are, where they are and who is with them.
Then Wa-Nee’s school resource officer heard about a company, Raptor Technologies, that had just launched an emergency management system that seemed to check all the boxes on what Wa-Nee needed. They quickly signed on with the company.
Raptor’s emergency management system integrates with Wa-Nee’s student information system and updates automatically. Then, through any internet-connected device, including the company’s mobile app, school staff are able to access class rosters, students’ emergency contacts, building maps, incident-specific emergency plans and — during a crisis — students’ location and status.
The idea is that during a school shooting — or another emergency, such as a gas leak or a natural disaster — teachers will become aware of the incident immediately.
“The response time is critical — teachers get alerted right away,” Eileen Shihadeh, senior vice president at Raptor, said. “No shooter has ever made it through a locked classroom door. The most important thing is for teachers to know they’re under lockdown right away — lights out, out of sight.”
From there, teachers can open the mobile app and account for the students in their care, marking who they’re with and whether anyone has been injured or needs medical attention.
“Sometimes schools are on lockdown for hours. Often neighboring schools are put in lockdown as well,” Shihadeh said. According to Raptors’ research, during that lockdown time, “these mobile devices are being pulled out. Some people are videotaping. When you’re huddled in a room and feeling kind of powerless, this is what you go to.”
Then, when the time comes to reunite students with families, administrators know exactly which students were with which staff members, as well as which family members and guardians have permission to pick up students and sign them out.
“An event doesn’t happen at 9 a.m. in home room. It could happen at lunch, at recess. You could have 20 kids with you that aren’t your kids, you just grabbed them and ran to the science room,” Rosa said. “Raptor allows you to account for yourself, your status, your location, anyone you have with you. That’s all happening live through the app.”
Rosa believes Wa-Nee’s school resource officer provides a service and a value that no technology could ever replace, but on the other hand, she said, some technologies provide a level of protection and efficiency that humans cannot.
“Technology can’t solve every problem — we have to have people involved — but technology certainly can help,” she said.
Of the districts using Raptor’s emergency management system, which became available in 2017, none have experienced an active shooter incident, Shihadeh said. Several, however, have had emergency evacuations (due to gas leaks or otherwise) that required use of the mobile app and system.
Connecticut’s Newtown Public Schools, which oversees Sandy Hook Elementary School, is currently in the process of implementing Raptor’s emergency management system, according to Shihadeh. Sandy Hook experienced one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history in December 2012, resulting in the deaths of 20 children and six teachers, along with the shooter and his mother, who was a teacher at the school.
Raptor Technologies has a presence in more than 20,000 schools across 3,100 districts nationwide, including Santa Fe Independent School District.
Santa Fe uses Raptor’s visitor management system — a point the Texas district’s superintendent emphasized in a reminder about security procedures sent out in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people in February. A few months after that reminder was sent, in May, 10 people at Santa Fe High School were killed by a fellow student. Officials from the district declined to comment for this story, but Raptor confirmed that Santa Fe does not use the company’s emergency response technology, only the visitor screening.
The guinea pig for a new safety system
Lockport City School District, located outside of Buffalo, New York, will soon be the first school district in the world to try out a new comprehensive safety and security system from Ontario-based SN Technologies. The technology resembles that which you might find in an airport or at some government facilities.
The three-part Aegis system includes a facial recognition tool, a weapons detection tool and a forensic search engine.
The facial recognition component, which SN Tech calls “Sentry,” alerts school staff to any unwanted individuals on school property when those individuals’ faces come into view of one of the 300 high-resolution digital cameras on Lockport’s premises. The list includes registered sex offenders and anyone with a violent criminal conviction, but it may also extend to students who have been suspended or expelled, employees who have been fired, parents who have lost custody or anyone else who may pose a threat and whose photo has been programmed into the system.
Tony Olivo, a security consultant for SN Tech who specializes in school risk assessment and mitigation, acknowledged that the Sentry tool is not foolproof and will not catch every potentially dangerous individual. However, in the case of the shooter who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, it might have helped, he said. The Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a 19-year-old former student who had been expelled from the school.
“The minute he walked into that school building, our alert would’ve identified him as a potential threat,” Olivo said. “Maybe the 30 seconds it took him to walk in and get to the second or third level of the building would’ve mitigated the tragedy.”
SN Tech’s “Protector” technology is a shape recognition tool that can identify any of the 10 most common weapons used in school shootings and alert school and/or law enforcement officials when it gets a positive match. The weapons in the database — revolvers, assault rifles, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons, to name a few — include the types that were used in the school shootings at Sandy Hook, Parkland and Santa Fe.
Though the Aegis system can spot unwanted visitors or weapons in hand, it is not the final judge, Olivo said. “The system is the traffic cop to get it to a human element and then they would take the appropriate action. The system merely identifies a threat.”
The third and final tool in the package, called “Mercury,” allows school officials to search video and digital images to locate specific individuals almost instantly. It expedites the existing process officials use for combing through hours or even days of videos to find a single 20- or 30-second clip. “This can be done in moments once the videos are uploaded to the system,” Olivo said.
The Mercury system will not upload and analyze every student’s and staff member’s face — only those suspected of doing something wrong — nor is it meant to be used to chastise every person who takes an extra 15 minutes on their lunch break, Olivo said.
“There should be no misconception that this is a 'Big Brother' system. It’s a forensic system that enhances what schools are already doing manually,” he said.
In the case of Lockport, which is using its Smart Schools funds from the state to ramp up security, video footage will only be stored for up to 60 days.
Olivo wouldn’t say how much Lockport is paying to have all 10 of its district buildings outfitted with Aegis software this summer. But reports estimate the district is spending somewhere between $1.4 million and $2.75 million of its $4 million Smart Schools grant from New York.
Referring back to the example of Cruz, Olivo said all three Aegis tools could have been helpful for school and local government officials at Parkland.
“With this technology, we would’ve locked in on him, followed him everywhere, followed him out of the building. It’s going to be a system where, if a kid carries a sawed-off shotgun in a hockey bag, is it going to stop that? No. But it’s part of the overall security package,” he said. “No one tool is 100 percent going to solve all the problems. I think that these tools – and again, they’re tools – are part of the overall risk management, threat assessment management and risk mitigation [for schools].”
“It just has to save one life to be worth it,” he added.
While Lockport is the only district that has officially signed on with the Aegis software, more are “in the pipeline,” Olivo said. Other districts in New York, as well as some in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Virginia, have expressed interest in the technology.
A piecemeal approach to safety technologies
Though it has not invested in a comprehensive package the way Lockport and Wa-Nee have, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — one of the largest districts in the country — uses a diversity of technologies in its safety plan.
Like most districts — especially large, urban ones — the North Carolina district has cameras set up in the hallways and outside the buildings of all of its schools. But unlike most districts, the camera system at Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been fully integrated with the local police department, according to Root, the district’s CTO.
District officials just have to “flip a switch” to give law enforcement access to their cameras, he said.
This fall, one pilot school in the district will expand its camera system into classrooms.
These cameras will have dual functions. Like the ones in the hallways, the cameras will record high-definition footage that feeds back into the district security system. But they’ll also have a function that gives teachers control of camera access. If a fight breaks out in class, for example, the teacher can press a button on their badge or lanyard that, when held down for three seconds, begins to record the scene in the classroom. The recording ends when the teacher presses the button again. They can press another button to request help.
Root said he didn’t see any privacy concerns with the pilot because teachers will have ownership over when the cameras are recording. They’ve even heard from other districts that some educators use the classroom cameras as a learning tool; they record themselves and later listen back for ways to improve.
If that pilot shows positive results, the district will quickly move it into other schools, Root said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg also monitors the posts, emails and pictures students send on G Suite, its cloud and collaboration platform. That’s still primarily a manual process for staff, but Root said the IT department is looking at ways to automate it.
He’s also considering monitoring students’ social media for words that may raise alarms. “The school-age students now are very vocal on social media,” he said. “And there are some great technology tools out there for [filtering through] that.”
At a previous district, Root used Social Sentinel to tune into students’ social media spheres. It allows school staff to track where combinations of words like “school” and “gun” or “school” and “bomb” come up.
The district has also deployed a system that allows front-desk employees to lock and unlock the front doors of school buildings from their desk phones. It’s already in place in nearly all of their high schools and will soon expand to middle schools, too.
Root said Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which uses a visitor screening system from a company called LobbyGuard, has looked into facial recognition technology similar to what SN Tech offers and researched its applications in school safety and security. At least for now, he said, he didn’t think that was the best fit for his district because “logistically, it seems pretty tough to manage.”
But he’s continuing to keep his eye on new technologies for safety and security as they are developed and rolled out.
“All of this is driven by funding for us,” Root said. In the near-term, the district will actually be increasing the number of staff on its police force and doing more staff training for active shooter scenarios. In light of recent events, he said, “it feels more necessary.”
Weighing the costs and benefits
Although all of these tools and apps could have additional utility in schools — Raptor's system could be deployed during a natural disaster, for example, or Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers could use the in-class cameras to improve their instructional techniques — experts say the core decision is really about whether the price tag makes sense relative to the risk of a shooting happening in any given district.
Jeffrey Sprague, director of the Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior at the University of Oregon, is more cautious about the role technology should play in protecting students and staff. Sprague’s view is that tech certainly could aid in a school shooting, but that it may not be a practical investment for school districts when the equipment is costly and, all things considered, it’s extremely rare for any given school to experience a shooting — the probability is "about once every 12,000 years," he said.
The number of students and school staff who die each year in a school-associated violent crime has remained fairly stable over time, Sprague said. Over the last 25 years, about 35 to 50 violent deaths have occurred in schools annually, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s totally unacceptable to lose even a single life,” he said. “And my values would suggest yes, if the technology is available we should adopt it and use it. … But one of the challenges is whether one will invest in a technology to prevent against something that has a very low likelihood of happening in your school. Do we want to make our schools like an airport?”
And even if schools do go the way of airports — as Lockport is planning to do this fall — it won’t be a failsafe for school shootings.
“If somebody wants to do it, and they actually get to the school site, they’re gonna do some damage before they’re stopped,” Sprague added. “I know parents don’t want to hear that — I’m a parent myself — but … that’s just a depressing reality.”
Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center, agreed that no matter what technology is in place — from metal detectors and bullet-resistant doors to facial recognition technology and visitor alert systems — “that still is not going to prevent a committed shooter from coming on campus.”
The technology can only go so far in prevention. It really comes into play, they said, during an active shooter incident. In such an event, systems that alert school and law enforcement officials of a crisis could shorten emergency response times and reduce the number of victims. Still, though, that assumes a district is willing to put up big bucks to address a situation that remains highly unlikely.
“If people want to invest in the technology, invest carefully,” Sprague said. “And understand that you’re not going to eliminate the risk, but you might mitigate it.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @ByEmilyTate.