Real Talk About School Security

By Andrew Elvish

It’s graduation time for high-schoolers and college students alike. The streets here are awash in young people in suits, prom dresses, and graduation garb. I love to see those fresh faces full of excitement, and a little apprehension, about the future. But it is not lost on me that, in response to recent events, while so many young people are experiencing this important rite of passage, many of us are having —or not having— difficult conversations about school safety.

For anyone avoiding the conversation, it might help to know what the research about gun violence in schools is telling us. The current debate around school safety is centered on mass shootings. But research to be published later this year by Professor James Alan Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel shows that mass school shootings are rare events. They have found that, on average, mass murders in the U.S. occur between 20 and 30 times per year while, on average, only about one of those incidents takes place at a school.

In their research, Fridel and Fox, who is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University and a former visiting fellow with the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, looked at overall fatal school shootings rather than focusing only on mass murders. They worked with data collected by the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, Congressional Research Service, Gun Violence Archive, Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries, Mother Jones, USA Today, Everytown for Gun Safety, and an NYPD report on active shooters.

They found that the number of students killed in fatal school shootings in the 1990s was 4 times higher than it is today. Whereas .55 children per million were killed during the 1992-1993 academic year, in 2014-2015, it was .10 children per million. And, while there have been spikes in fatal school shootings in some years, the research shows an overall decline.

Today’s schools are safer for our kids than ever. This should make us feel relieved. But, as parents and community members, we still worry. And, worse than that, our kids are starting to worry.

Studies have shown that students have a harder time learning when they don’t feel safe, and, with the constant media attention around a very small number of school shootings, it is not surprising that kids are increasingly apprehensive. This apprehension is one of the reasons we need to be more proactive in our discussions about and strategies for school security.

The problems of a reactionary approach

Schools, more than almost any other part of our community, benefit from being connected to the broader first responder and security infrastructure in a real-time manner. However, for senior administration, principals, and officials alike, physical security systems can seem like expensive and complicated undertakings.

Whereas other sectors, like retail, airports, and stadiums, have spent years developing physical security strategies, most educational facilities have taken a much more haphazard and frequently reactionary approach.

Unfortunately, when it comes to physical security systems, school officials and administrators often make the wrong decision at the wrong time. Namely, they react to a high-profile event by throwing what little budget they have at someone else’s problem. Reacting to past events elsewhere is no way to protect your schools for the future.

In addition, their existing security systems are also beset with problems. They are not tested enough, and the schools frequently opt for low-cost off-the-shelf equipment that does not actually meet their needs.

Schools at every level must start thinking about security the way that businesses and governments do. In other sectors, physical security systems are part of a larger picture that includes daily operations and ease-of-movement in addition to safety. When school administrators are able to stop focusing on a single, unlikely threat, they will be able to see that a comprehensive strategy can help improve the learning environment as a whole.

Changing the way we think about school security

In the security industry, we understand the importance of both being and feeling safe. Having a physical security system makes us feel more secure. But, when that system intrudes in our daily lives or ordinary activities, this can make us apprehensive. We have to strike a balance and must be especially mindful of this balance when it comes to thinking about school security. We don’t want to run the risk of turning our educational institutions into airports or prison complexes all in an effort to protect future generations.

Despite the fact that schools benefit from being connected to first responders, many still fear that, if you create a system that will allow police and other law enforcement officials access during times of crises, that same system will be open to whoever wants to get in. Given how important issues of privacy are, especially in relation to young people, it is easy to understand why they might worry. But, of course, this is not the case. Security systems are designed to allow and restrict access.

Developing the system that’s right for you

So how do schools get the security systems they need? First, we have to be prepared to engage in serious conversations about how best to meet the realities of our individual districts, schools, and communities. School officials and administrators must start by assessing the requirements of their specific facilities. For some schools, it is not violence but vandalism, theft, and mischief that are the persistent challenges. And the right physical security system can help reduce or eliminate many of these problems as well.

Administrators will also have to recognize that, in addition to helping students, faculty, and staff feel safe, physical security systems can play an important role in a school’s daily operations. They can help keep track of where students are throughout the day, prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing sensitive areas, including labs, and help manage the flow of vehicular traffic around facilities.

And when it comes to the all-important question of student privacy, particularly in video surveillance, school administrators are going to have to find solutions that have privacy features built in. Privacy must be top of mind both when it comes to monitoring students within facilities or sharing video footage with local law enforcement.

Security personnel need to be able to recognize movements, actions, and events in video streams, but this must never come at the expense of student privacy. Likewise, sharing footage with law enforcement should never be avoided because of fears around compromising anyone’s privacy. The answer is that, in order to facilitate collaboration and protect privacy, a school needs to implement a solution that can easily anonymize the identity of any or all individuals both in real-time and in archived footage.

And, finally, school administrators have to be careful not to limit their focus to video management or access control. They also need to think about managing threat-levels and automating responses. Reaching out to physical security experts may seem daunting, but finding a good consultant is an important step in shifting the way they view security.

Ultimately, school officials need to understand physical security the way that businesses and governments do. They must assess their specific requirements, recognize how a security solution can improve daily operations, and then design a strategy that safeguards the learning environment by improving the safety and security of faculty, staff, and students.

About The Author
Andrew Elvish is a columnist, explorer, and the Vice President of Marketing and Product Management at Genetec. Andrew has over 20 years’ experience in the software industry and will surprise you with his knowledge of great restaurants all over the world.