Oct 12 2006

School Safety

Safe Haven

School districts around the country use a variety of technologies to protect their students.


GONE ARE THE DAYS WHEN THE playground bully was the biggest risk students faced at school. The combination of 1998’s Columbine High School tragedy and subsequent violent attacks on campuses across America, in addition to September 11, has forced districts nationwide to explore a variety of measures aimed at keeping students safe.

Though no single solution is fail-safe, an increasing number of schools are relying on technology to help deter violence, thefts, vandalism, drugs and other problems.

Click HereAt the Bristol Borough School District in Bristol, Pa., a network of surveillance cameras monitors activities inside the halls of the shared junior/senior high school building that serves approximately 700 students. Driven by the results of a state security audit performed two years ago, the cameras are part of an overall plan designed to ensure student safety.

“They allow us to see who’s coming into the building and what’s happening inside,” explains Rosemary Parmigiani, assistant principal of the district’s 646- student Snyder-Girotti Elementary School. “The cameras have also deterred a lot of students from getting into trouble.”

Brian Bray, director of technology for Oregon’s Lebanon Community School District, agrees that surveillance devices have helped thwart bullying and intimidation in his 4,500-student district.

Like many administrators, Bray and Parmigiani believe that one of the greatest benefits to cameras is the deterrence factor—both to outsiders who do not belong in the building and to students and staff who do. Most students are not going to step out of line if there is a likelihood they will be caught, Bray points out, adding that keeping a school’s top offenders at bay has a significant effect on overall discipline and safety problems.

“If you monitor the leaders, a large group of followers will tend to swing the other way,” he explains.

A Growing Trend

Of the 950 new public schools that opened across the country in 2002, architects estimate that three-quarters were equipped with cameras. Advocates add that cameras free up personnel to concentrate on educational work.

Furthermore, the devices preserve evidence that may help resolve or corroborate an event. At Lebanon, for example, at least 48 hours worth of video is saved from each of the 48 cameras located in the district’s nine schools. This provides insight into specific events. “You can often unwind an incident by showing who was where when,” Bray notes.

At Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville, N. Y., Principal James Boglioli maintains a video log in his office for six months. “It’s a safety net in case issues turn up at a later time,” he says.

Boglioli’s decision to install video cameras on all 16 entrances to the school, which is home to about 1,650 students and 111 staff members, was prompted by the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“After September 11, I started to think about what our school could do to make our students as safe as possible,” he explains. “To make our kids feel secure, we needed a way to monitor the school grounds.”

All of the school’s entrances are monitored on a 24/7 basis. Each of the three main entrances has a dedicated camera that is focused on it at all times. The rest have cameras that rotate among the entrances on a 30-second basis. The principal, assistant principal and the principal’s secretary have monitors that enable them to watch for any unusual activity that might pose a threat to students.

Boglioli is quick to point out that the surveillance mechanisms, which were financed through parent fundraising and an alumni donation, were not put in place to monitor students, but to spot suspicious individuals lurking outside the building.

“Our kids know that we didn’t install the cameras to watch them,” he says. “We did it to be on the lookout for anyone who might be a danger to our students. We want them to feel safe at school so they can concentrate on what they’re here for— to get a good education.”

Using Various Technologies

A growing number of districts are relying on various technologies to ensure that only authorized personnel gain access to schools. In Virginia’s Tazewell County Public School District, which serves some 7,000 students, photo identification cards with bar codes are required for all staff members entering any of the 17 buildings, a move that has been duplicated in many districts across the country. The Tazewell district has also tightened access by designating certain school doors as “entrance only” or “exit only,” and bolstering others with programmable devices that accept electronic keys only from predetermined personnel within set hours.

“We’ve restricted the number of points by which people can enter or exit,” explains Stephen Peery, director of educational technology. “And we’ve programmed our locks so they open only for specific people during certain hours.”

Lebanon’s Bray concurs. “Part of keeping kids safe is keeping kids in the building,” he says. “Our security emphasis is on our facilities.”

Preparing for Emergencies

While security cameras, electronic locks and identification mechanisms seek to prevent a dangerous situation from occurring, schools also have to be ready in case an emergency does strike.

To that end, the Lebanon district has made communication a top priority. “Anytime there’s an increase in the level of the communication system, there’s an increase in the level of safety,” Bray asserts. With a telephone now connected in every classroom, and enhancements made recently to the schools’ paging and intercom systems, as well as easily accessible e-mail and Internet capabilities, Bray believes the district is well-prepared to respond quickly, should the need arise.

“All of these things open up the channels of communication,” he explains. “A lot of times, it’s the information exchange that keeps kids safe.”

Technological tools such as these would enable teachers to immediately call 911 or a school nurse should a health issue occur. And multiple communication conduits allow schools to disseminate information throughout a campus. For example, if there were a restraining order issued against a parent, that information should be disseminated to appropriate personnel. Open communication would also be critical in the event of a large-scale threat, such as a terrorist activity, or weapons being sneaked into a building.

“It’s important to have multiple ways to communicate out,” Peery concurs, noting that cell phones are available within every school in the Tazewell district, along with pagers and Internet access. The district’s administrators have contact information and photos of all students programmed into their handhelds for ready access.

Technology does not solve all school security issues, but it does enhance safety and response levels, so districts can better formulate plans to protect students.

Melissa Tamberg is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

Checklist: Protecting Students With Technology

To reduce the threat of crime or violence to students, districts need to eliminate the opportunities for security infractions to occur; increase the likelihood of a perpetrator being caught; and ensure that consequences are established and enforced. Because no two schools are exactly alike, there is no single approach to security. However, when choosing the appropriate technological aids to protect students, a district should consider these factors:

1. Understand whom and what it is trying to protect. Is the device aimed at protecting assets or people? Whom is it designed to defend against?

2. Define a school’s assets. While the protection of students and staff is always foremost, officials should identify the most likely targets for theft or vandalism. For example, is it the new computer lab, vehicles in the parking lot or the expensive instruments in the band room that pose the greatest security issue?

3. Define a school’s threats. A school needs to understand what or who its biggest potential foes are. Is it gang activity? Drugs hidden in lockers? Outside intruders? Fights in the parking lot? Weapons on campus? Understanding the threats will help determine the most appropriate technological aids.

4. Characterize a school’s environment. A security solution must incorporate facility constraints, such as the age of the building, vulnerability of windows and access to keys, as well as the openness of a campus to outside intruders.