Boosting Technology and Communication in Big Apple
Security issues continue to be a top concern in New York City's 1,300-plus schools, highlighted by the recent arrest of a high school principal accused of tussling with a police officer stationed in the building.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have made security a top priority. Last year, 16 of the most violent schools were placed on an "impact" list, meaning intense security efforts focused on them. These efforts reduced major crime 43 percent last year, says Rose Albanese-DePinto, senior counselor in the Office of School Intervention and Development.
But this increased police presence, coupled with overcrowding, led to tension between administrators and the police in many schools. "Who is in charge when an incident takes place--the principal or police?" asked Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Jill Levy.
DePinto says her office works closely with CSA, noting that part of the impact school protocol requires principals to meet with safety officers daily.
The education department has allocated $120 million to add cameras in 145 schools; so about 155 now have cameras. Plans are also in place to add 50 new X-ray screening devices to the 90 already in use. Some $500,000 went to make the discipline code available in nine languages and an eight-week theater arts program aimed at reducing bullying and violence for 5,000 6-9 graders. In addition, DePinto is expanding her department's 13-point comprehensive safety assessment beyond the impact schools and looking at other troubled schools in the system.
Despite these efforts, New York's City Council has clashed with the department on the issue of school security. Recently the council overrode Bloomberg's veto of three laws involving school security, establishing new education department requirements:
Post information about school crime and disruptive behavior on school "report cards."
Report how many school safety officers are assigned to each school, and how those assignments are made.
Review every city school to determine if security cameras are needed, and issue a report of which schools have cameras and which do not, and why by the end of 2006.
Taser Tag is Serious in Schools
A battle is brewing over the latest defense in school security in some communities--use of the Taser gun. About 1,700 police departments have equipped school resource officers with Tasers, which can halt students in danger of harming themselves or others by delivering a five-second, 50,000-volt shock.
Typically, Taser use in schools begins when the local police department buys Tasers for its officers. School resource officers are police employees that also receive the device.
Proponents claim the Taser is an effective, non-lethal option. "The Taser is an alternate strategy in the use of force continuum. In many cases, it is a viable solution," confirms Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. For example, if a student is about to commit suicide or threatens others with a weapon, a school resource officer may resort to a Taser if verbal commands fail to defuse the situation.
Unlike Tasers, pepper spray can affect innocent bystanders, particularly if used in crowded halls or cafeterias, and firearms are a last resort.
Others disagree. Amnesty International says some police departments may use the electro-shock weapon as a routine option for subduing unruly school children rather than a final step before lethal force. In Miami-Dade County, Fla., a school resource officer used a Taser on a glass-wielding 6-year old, a case that stirred considerable controversy because of the child's age. That and other incidents spurred Florida State Sen. Tony Hill to sponsor a bill that would ban Taser use in Florida schools. Hill admits the measure is unlikely to pass, but says it has spurred lawmakers to plan town hall meetings to develop a statewide Taser use policy.
Currently, Taser guidelines are limited. There are no federal recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education or Department of Justice, and maker Taser International says it is the responsibility of local agencies to set policies.
"School and law enforcement officials should have a dialogue that covers 'what if' situations prior to equipping officers with Tasers," advises Trump. "It's also a good idea to educate staff, students and parents on the front end to prevent uninformed and emotional reactions," continues Trump.
In Olathe (Kansas) Unified School District, school resource officers in all junior and senior high schools began carrying Tasers in September 2004. Olathe police developed a community education program that covered policies, and all police and a few administrators were zapped to gain an understanding of the device.
"Tasers have been a non-issue with students and parents," says Nancy Keith, executive director of student services. Keith attributes the smooth implementation to the district's solid relationships with the community and police.
Officer training is another key to successful deployment. A dash of common sense also helps, says Trump. Zapping kids without hall passes is unacceptable. Although a few eager administrators have inquired about personal Tasers, Trump says their use should be limited to trained peace officers, like school resource officers. Hill suggests teacher and administrator training to help them better control unruly behavior.
New Speed Limits on Cyber Highway
The idea that teachers--and administrators--need more formal assistance in protecting students and computers from the hazards of the Internet has gained traction in the past few months, with Microsoft and a handful of other technology companies investing millions in a venture to expand awareness of Web safety and security issues.
"The biggest gap that we see right now, though no fault of the teachers ... is in the teachers' ability to execute on a safe computing environment," says Microsoft spokeswoman Beth Jordan. "They don't know where to start [and] this is really a gap we're trying to help fill."
There are no national statistics about districts' attempts to improve cyber security, but those who work in the field call the efforts "spotty." "We don't see it as consistent from district to district," says Ken Watson, president of the National Cyber Security Alliance. "It often depends on the individual teacher, and the support from the administration."
There are plenty of cyber safety rules but experts say the only way for districts to adequately protect kids, along with certain hardware and software, is to create a top-down commitment to a security culture.
"When you look at cyber security and what makes cyber security effective, generally speaking, education and building a culture of security rank number one and number two," says Jim Teicher, executive director and CEO of Cybersmart Education Company, www.cybersmart.org.
Teicher says cyber security lessons need to be integrated into the curriculum in the same way that character education or anti-drug lessons are often embedded.
"You can hand out rules until you're blue in the face," he says. "Cyber security in K-12 is about continual, repetitive education in the context of teaching and learning."
To that end, an increasing number of free or inexpensive cyber safety curriculums and activities are available, including a free, non-sequential, 64-lesson module from Cybersmart.org, and similar content on Microsoft's Webwatchersonline.com site. There are also professional development programs geared to help teachers, and administrators, understand and navigate cyber security and safety issues.
The Consortium for School Networking offers free professional development materials, including a checklist, "Eight Questions A Superintendent Should Ask The Chief Technology Officer", and answers to the "Top 10 Questions Superintendents Ask" about cyber security at its site.
Linked to Police
An Indiana school district recently became one of the first districts in the nation to link its school's video system directly to the local police and fire center.
Merrillville High School is directly linked to the Merrillville Police and Fire Dispatch Center with duress/panic buttons located in strategic areas throughout the school building. IBT Video Systems, Inc., provides video surveillance technology to schools and businesses nationwide.
When the duress switch is activated, the school's video systems will automatically begin streaming live video from the school's 64 video cameras into the police dispatch center along with an audible alarm.
"The dispatcher can then dispatch the proper authorities and begin to assess the situation inside the school while attempting to make contact with school personnel," says Tim Moore, president of IBT.
Biometrics Goes One Step Further
A leading security company is developing technology that would verify if a computer user is a child or adult by analyzing a bone in a person's finger, according to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
RSA Security, Inc., a developer of authentication technology, says the technology, which won't be on the market for another year or two, is useful in keeping young children, roughly under 14, from adult sites. Operators of chat rooms designed for children could use the technology to ban adult predators.
It works like this: Users would place a middle finger against a device that attaches to a computer. Ultrasound waves are used to check more than a dozen biometric attributes, including how much calcium is present. Children have less calcium than adults. From there, the device can determine if the user is an adult or child.