Nov 14 2022

K-12 IT and Security Leaders Lean on Technology to Shore up School Safety

Cameras and access control technology aid well-trained teams in emergency response.

School safety is always top of mind for school administrators, and with most students back on campus today, districts are keeping a sharp eye on their facilities.

Onsite security challenges run the gamut, from a well-intentioned parent trying to enter the school to drop off a forgotten lunch to students smoking in the bathrooms — and even the unthinkable.

All this has prompted school technology leaders and their teams to take a hard look at their physical security environments and ask themselves a question: Are we doing everything we can to keep our students safe?

EdTech spoke with veteran school technology and security leaders including Diane Driggers, chief technology and infrastructure officer for Berkeley County School District in Moncks Corner, S.C.; Steve Ellis, director of student safety and security for the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Norco, Calif.; and Chris Jenks, technology director for Tuscaloosa City Schools in Alabama.

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EDTECH: Keeping schools safe, especially when spread out over numerous campuses, is a huge job. What’s the most important first step to getting it right?

DRIGGERS: The top priority for everyone in our district is the safety of students and staff. This is truly a team effort. The technology tools are in place for support, but they are only one part of the security picture.

The critical component is that security officers, IT team members, school and district administrators, and law enforcement work together to ensure training is provided, drills are implemented, audits and reviews are conducted, adjustments are made, etc.

We can have all the right tools in place, but we recognize that success is the result of the commitment and diligent implementation of everyone in our organization.

KEEP READING: What do schools need to know about next-generation security cameras?

ELLIS: A school district must have the commitment of its board of education, its elected officials and its superintendent to have safety and security at the forefront.

We’ve also had conversations with the sheriff’s department and the chief of police and his command staff. We have an officer assigned to every one of our 52 schools. That presence serves as a reminder and a deterrent.

JENKS: Know that you can’t do it by yourself. This is far too important of a job to do it all by yourself, because you’re going to miss something.

When it comes to safety, and probably because of our track record, our school community trusts us. We don’t want to jeopardize that trust, so we’re continually having these conversations.

We have safety meetings with first-responder stakeholders. We have a social worker in every school. We hired a mental health social worker to direct resources to students and adults.

We also partner with the Tuscaloosa Police Department, have school resource officers at our secondary schools and contract police officers who fill gaps at the other campuses.

EDTECH: What are some basic steps that your district has taken to shore up campus security this fall?

JENKS: We assessed our campuses from top to bottom. We just put security to the test, and we asked where our potential gaps were. More important, we looked at where we needed to treat those gap with additional resources.

91%

The percentage of schools that used security cameras during the 2019-2020 school year, up from 61 percent during 2009-2010

Source: nces.ed.gov, “Safety and Security Practices at Public Schools,” May 2022

ELLIS: Process is important. When a school day starts and a building opens, several gates also open. In every case, we need to educate our teams so that there’s a trained supervisor, teacher or administrator there. This prevents unwanted guests from coming onto campus.

We create a secured, one-entrance, one-exit environment and everyone must sign in. So, we have accountability for who’s on campus at any time.

EDTECH: What are some unique technologies you’ve found particularly helpful with physical security?

DRIGGERS: We’re a one-to-one district, so all our students have Chromebooks. We use a content-filtering software to monitor student email or documents created, or anything that they’re working on that has certain alarming keywords or pictures in their search queries.

The software flags if they’ve made threats against other students or are looking up suicide-related content. I think that has been helpful as well.

MORE ON EDTECH: Software keeps students' mental health at the forefront.

JENKS: All our employees and local police have badges that allow them to enter school buildings. They also have master keys available to them should they need to get in during a heightened alert.

We have our radios and other methods of communication that connect us, to let us know that we might need to secure a campus or send people on lockdown because of something in the community surveillance video.

EDTECH: What is one part of your security process that you refined?

DRIGGERS: This year, we’ve received more requests for additional access controls than we’ve had in several years. When we started with access control in 2014, not many principals requested the schedules for the doors.

Now, most of the 800 doors are all scheduled. We’ve also added video intercom systems on the doors, so that if all the doors are locked and a visitor comes up to the door, employees can see that person and they can buzz them in or not.

During our budget meetings this year, there were a lot of requests for fencing. With access control on the doors, we have been able to eliminate the distribution of keys, which has saved the district money by reducing costs related to re-keying buildings.

JENKS: It’s very important for us to have a way to discern the bat signal from the city lights. Alert fatigue can exacerbate things.

So, how do we make sure that emergency notifications for, let’s say, a medically fragile student ride a different conduit and receive priority in a different way from safety communications?

We can send specific notifications. We just need to make sure through our pre-incident decision-making that we are sending the right messages to the right people at the right times.

RELATED: Digital signage improves real-time district communications.

EDTECH: As more physical security tools fall under IT, has there been a melding of departments? Any advice for handling this shift?

DRIGGERS: There was not a melding, per se, because the technology office chose to implement cameras and access control through the IT department during its initial inception. These devices are just one more point on our network, and both systems (camera and access control) require software for user access.

Technology takes care of the mechanics of some systems, but we rely on our security office to perform all the drills and exercises for schools.

The only advice I would give to fellow technology directors is that this is a true team effort that requires participation and coordination with a security office, technology and school personnel. A one-size or solution won’t work for everyone, but collaboration will.

JENKS: With the advent of IP-based surveillance cameras and VoIP phones, IT teams began to own a much larger chunk of physical security. Adding door access controls and HVAC controls made the environment even more complex.

My advice concerning these items is this: Be willing to set boundaries, but talk about what you and your IT team can do. Be solutions-oriented. The message needs to be, ‘We can work together to resource the plan we build.’ That statement insists that there be a plan. Safety is not optional. We need to support clear why, how, and what solutions.

EDTECH: How important is it that nonsecurity personnel also get emergency response training?

ELLIS: We need to make certain that parents, teachers, staff and students are aware of security and safety issues and procedures. It’s not just the principal. It’s not just me or the superintendent. It’s everybody. We need to let them know if they see something or hear something that concerns them, they need to say something.

Because of the size of our district — We’re the ninth largest in the state, with nearly 51,000 students — we have two different primary law enforcement agencies that we work with. They come onto our school sites and they conduct active-shooter training. Our administrators are invited to attend and that happens two or three times a year.

Chris Jenks
This is far too important of a job to do it all by yourself, because you’re going to miss something.”

Chris Jenks Technology Director, Tuscaloosa (Ala.) City Schools

JENKS: I believe when it comes to safety and security, you can have all the latest and greatest tools, but if people don’t use them properly, if they’re not trained on how to use them, they’re not familiar with them or they fail, then what happens?

People have to be equipped mentally, emotionally and psychologically in advance of trying to address whatever issues may come up. In an emergency, you don’t want people making a lot of decisions. You want them to know what to do and be able to do it.

EDTECH: Any final words for other school leaders taking a hard look at their physical security this year?

DRIGGERS: While the funding for technology expansion is provided in our general fund budget and in our capital budget, we are always looking for grants or awards to augment our funding.

Safety should be a communicated priority. Because our board and district leadership, as well as our community, has made this a priority, we have included access control expansion in our routine technology budget.

ELLIS: In some cases, schools may need to reallocate funding for physical security in their budgets. I’d go as far as to say this has to be the priority.

You need to be aggressive, and you need to be prepared. Get those great relationships established on a personal level. There’s not a time I can’t pick up the phone to call the fire chief, the police chief or any of his command staff.

JENKS: I recommend that people don’t start with the technology solution; start with the why. Think of what you’re trying to treat. With technology solutions, one of the things that you can depend on is that they will change.

Hopefully, your strategic concepts don’t change as much. So, if we’re talking about safety and security as values, good communication is going to be good communication, no matter how you accomplish that or what tool is in place to make sure that happens.

DIVE DEEPER: Digital transformation leads to a need for enterprising IT leaders in schools.

Alena Ivochkina/Getty Images

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