You are here


Seeing is Believing

School districts are using high-tech, and low-tech, approaches to make sure students are safe

When parents of students at New Egypt Elementary School in Plumsted Township, N.J., need to pick up their child for a doctor's appointment during the school day, many pause at the front door. They are prompted by a gentle, computerized voice and gaze upward into what may be the future of school security technology.

In just a few seconds, a wall-mounted camera takes a picture of the parent's iris--the colored ring surrounding the eye's pupil--and matches its 247 distinct points in the school's database of registered parents. If a match is found, the front door unlocks and the parent can proceed to the office to check in.

New Egypt's pilot program to test the iris-recognition access control system, used in tandem with a video camera-buzzer system operated by an office secretary, is perhaps the most advanced school-security technology installed today. And the nearly $300,000 price tag on the system, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, is a new high-water mark at New Egypt in terms of security investments.

But school security experts and administrators across the country agree that as the demands of school security increase by the week, with fears of terrorism, bio-warfare and other attacks, technology is only one of the three main ingredients needed to create the safest schools possible. The other two--comprehensive written crisis plans and the invaluable boost in security that comes when adults develop positive relationships with students in their schools--aren't as sexy, or visible, but are perhaps more important.

"Today's school administrator faces safety threats ranging from daily issues of bullying and aggressive behaviors, to potential extreme incidents of school shootings, sniper incidents and potentially being the target of terrorism," says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. "Every school administrator must be able to answer two questions: What steps did we take to reduce the risks of crime and violence, and how well prepared are we to manage those incidents which cannot be prevented?"

From James Bond to telephones

Iris recognition falls into the "James Bond-ish" category of new technology being used to enhance school security. But there are a whole host of more mundane devices that are being installed, or combined with existing systems, to give school security directors intimate knowledge of what's going on at any time, in any building, in the district.

The Spokane (Wash.) Public Schools, which have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to planning for school security, recently received voter approval for a $165 million bond measure that includes nearly $3 million for security up-grades at each of the district's 55 sites. The technological component of the plan calls for closed-circuit television cameras, new door and window alarm systems, and a card-swipe system that will allow staff to gain keyless entry into all facilities after hours. And while none of these systems alone are groundbreaking, Joe Madsen, director of safety, risk management, security and transportation, has a plan to tie all three systems together on the district's wide-area network. His vision is that if an alarm goes off at a building, school officials and local police will be able to go online and view which alarm is ringing, see the video from the cameras at that building, potentially hear audio from the building, and see which staff members have recently entered or left the facility. Staffers in the building might have noticed something suspicious, for example, or be in danger themselves.

Some districts may go even farther than that. New Jersey-based Honeywell, known for its energy management technology, is working with one district in Indiana to combine the security, fire alarms, heating and air conditioning systems--along with smart cards to be used for building access--for each of that district's 90 schools all onto one computer network. This type of system costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Honeywell prefers to discuss cost in terms of how much a district can save on energy and staff expenses.

"From a productivity and efficiency standpoint, we're freeing up the staff to do other tasks," says Greg Taylor, a security solutions specialist with Honeywell.

On the other hand, some very good technology solutions can be bought relatively cheaply. Robert Bruce Campbell, superintendent of Pitman (N.J.) Public Schools, spent a total of $15,000 over two years to install cameras and intercoms along the main entryways of his district's five schools. "We try to do everything humanly possible to make the schools as safe as [we] can, without bankrupting the taxpayers," says Campbell, who speaks nationally about how to make school security cost-effective but still effective.

And while these systems help administrators deal with who, or what, may be in their buildings at any given time, other devices help manage student security. At Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., some 3,800 students and a 65-acre campus directly abutting the Universal Studios theme park create a complex security environment.

Assistant Principal Susan Averill uses golf carts, walkie-talkies, cell phones, pagers and the recent addition of Palm Pilots with TruSmart student locator software to cover the campus. The handheld devices hold not only student schedules, but also photographs and medical and contact information for each student. Locker combinations, license plate numbers, bus numbers, parking privileges, and other data can also be stored. Aside from helping staff to escort would-be class cutters back to their appropriate classes, the handheld student database would prove invaluable in a situation where buildings had to be evacuated and students accounted for, Averill says.

This multi-layered communication scheme is typical of a trend toward making communication capabilities a first priority in terms of security-related equipment purchases. This includes phones in classrooms, two-way public address systems, two-way radios, cell phones for crisis team members, and even charged bullhorns in the event of an emergency.

And while many of these technology investments provide both real and perceived security improvements, their effectiveness at this point is mostly anecdotal. In fact, the highlight of the New Egypt iris-recognition pilot project is not that the tiny district received such a large amount of money to invest in security. Rather, it's the adjacent $150,000 grant that went to an independent Maryland consultant to review the results of the project, for evaluation both by the Justice Department and the New Egypt school board. The report is due to be available this month.

"The biggest problem I have with technology is a lot of time it's designed without a good understanding of schools," said William Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary of newly created Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. "We really need to take a look at everything we're putting into schools, making sure there is some science behind what we're doing."

The best plans go unused

But more important, and much cheaper than investing in the latest security technology, is making sure the district has an all-hazards plan that is both comprehensive and practiced, experts say.

"Every school in the country needs to have a disaster plan," says Modzeleski. "And it needs to cover not only what we found out after Columbine, but reviewed and expanded to deal with the possibilities of a terrorist attack."

The Spokane schools embrace this all-hazards approach, breaking their emergency management plans into three categories: crisis response, emergency response and disaster response. Though they are not mutually exclusive, each has its own communications protocol. The other advantage to the all-hazards approach is that it is the same at each facility district-wide.

The plan is updated and republished every summer; each administrator and crisis team member receives two copies, one for school and one for home. And though this approach has been in place for more than a decade, in 1997 the district hired an outside consultant to evaluate security and facilities at each school, including the surrounding environments, and then make recommendations. This gave administrators a coherent road map to follow when making improvements.

At Pitman schools in New Jersey, students practice the procedures and precautions necessary in the event of a lockdown, like moving to the center of the room and closing shades and windows, several times each year. "We make the lockdown procedure as routine as a fire drill," says Campbell.

As crucial as they are, creating and practicing effective crisis plans are perhaps the cheapest component of creating a secure school environment that's prepared for emergencies. Updating the plans requires staff time, energy, and duplicating costs, plus "$20 a month to buy the coffee and doughnuts for the monthly meeting," Modzeleski says.

The Antidote

A compelling public service announcement on TV these days preaches that parental involvement in teenagers' lives is the anti-drug; by the same logic, administrative and staff involvement with students may be one of the best antidotes to school violence, experts say. Administrators and teaching staff have known this for ages, but now many districts are supplementing this approach through adding school resource officers to their security plan. The federal office of Community Oriented Policing Services has funded more than 6,000 cops in schools since 1998, the year the program began, and recently announced another $20.5 million in funding for the hiring of additional officers, says Tim Quinn, chief of staff at COPS.

"We have heard of a number of different [positive] results where situations have been averted, or a SRO has intervened in a situation that may have escalated because of the communication and the positive nature of the interaction" between students and cops in schools, says Quinn.

At Pitman, Campbell requires his building administrators to walk the grounds around their building each day and encourages all staff to be on the lookout for unusual events or potential intruders.

But no single tactic is the magic pill to increase school security.

"It cannot be just about the school security officer, he or she will not be able to do it all. It cannot be all about discipline," says Madsen. "Safe schools require the integration of building design, parking lot design, policies and procedures, relationships with students."

Other Realities

Perhaps the two greatest political realities attached to school security is cost, which can run into the millions depending on district size, and the perceived need. The good news in the cost arena is that there are many federal grants available to fund security initiatives. But more importantly, parents and voters have come to realize, and even emphasize, the importance of school security.

"One of the compelling things that has changed is that security has gone from being a negative sell to becoming a requirement, very much like lighting and heating now," says Joe Zeigler, marketing communications manager at Honeywell.

The other issue is fear that schools will come to resemble prisons and students will feel like inmates.

"First and foremost, it's a school," says Madsen of Spokane. "It has to look like a school and feel like a school and education has to take place."

That said, many parents are willing to make sacrifices. Now, the perceived importance of security even trumps privacy concerns that would have taken center stage a few years back. In New Egypt, project organizers were expecting about 100 parents to volunteer to participate in the iris recognition program. In short order, they had more than 300 volunteers. Parents were heard commenting that they'd sacrifice just about anything to improve the safety of their kids, says Phil Meara, assistant superintendent.

"The hardest part of the whole security issue is to continue your vigilance even though nothing happens," Campbell says. "The biggest mistake we could ever make is thinking, 'It can't happen here.' "

Rebecca Sausner,, is a contributing editor.