Can technology stop tragedy?
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Nov 05, 2000
One morning last spring, a security officer remotely monitoring the grounds
of a California high school through a video camera noticed a young man
approaching the entrance.
The officer couldn't see the man's hand; it was tucked inside his jacket.
But to the officer, it didn't look right. It looked like something else
might have been in his pocket. Maybe even a gun. Because the school had
no metal detectors, the officer immediately called in a warning.
They caught the man in a school hallway. He had a gun and was on the
way to shoot his ex-girlfriend.
With more than a dozen high-profile school shootings across the nation
in the past three years, shock and alarm, and possibly a sense of helplessness,
have become commonplace among parents, students, educators, law enforcement
officials and legislators trying to cope with the issue. Technology, some
say, is a tangible coping mechanism.
It begins with surveillance cameras
and metal detectors, which have been staples for years in many urban schools.
But many school districts are now looking at more innovative safety technologies.
These include smart cards — which would be issued to students, faculty and
administrators and restrict access within school buildings — cellular phones,
"panic buttons," walkie-talkies and even biometric entry systems.
And some districts are looking for more preventive measures, such as
developing Web sites where residents can anonymously report potential threats
to a school's safety or having violence- prevention programming beamed to
classrooms from satellite feeds.
Experts have no statistical data on how many schools use or are considering
using some form of technology for safety purposes, only anecdotal evidence.
For instance, Sandy Calabrese, director of marketing communications
for Sensormatic Electronic Corp., the manufacturer of electronic surveillance
and security equipment that made the cameras that helped prevent the California
gun incident, said it seems more schools than ever are turning to technology
to stay safe.
And a September 1999 report by the National Institute of Justice, "The
Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools,"
says that in the wake of the recent high-profile school tragedies, communities
have pushed their school districts to incorporate security technology.
Not surprisingly, schools often begin with more hardware-intensive solutions.
The Chicago Public Schools system has about 430,000 students and 601
schools. Every high school has a walk-through metal detector, and all elementary
schools have handheld metal detectors, but only 55 schools have surveillance
cameras, said spokesman Jeff Burdick. Individual schools have the option
to be innovative with additional security technology.
For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, which has 1,600
students, has a security system that reads fingerprints to allow access
between its two buildings. The principal, Charles Kyle, said fingerprints
of 137 teachers, teachers' assistants and administrative staff members have
been scanned into the system and are identified by fingerprint readers at
the two doors. The system logs the time of each use, and each reader has
a small camera that photographs users.
"An advantage to the biometric system is that besides not having a ton
of keys to pull out that could get lost or stolen, you also have the opportunity
to take someone off your database who may not be with the school any longer,"
Kyle said. Only he and his administrative assistant can add or delete approved
fingerprints. Students cannot use those entrances.
About 18 months ago, security experts evaluated Kyle's school and outfitted
it with the biometric device, an X-ray scanner and metal detectors at no
cost to the school. Stowe became a demonstration project that has been closely
observed by other schools and the city's Board of Education, he said.
Although Kyle said the school is in a "dangerous" community, there have
been no violent incidents.
Kyle, who calls himself an "apostle" of security technologies, said
the enhancements have created a safe haven for students and have been supported
by parents. "No question about it," he said. "It works and the children
know it works." The board is planning to install biometric devices in two
high schools this year.
Edward Ray, director of safety and security at Denver Public Schools,
is also a firm believer that security devices act as a deterrent.
Denver schools, which enroll about 70,000 students, have closed-circuit
television cameras monitored by personnel, intercom systems and cell phones
or two-way radios in the 127 elementary, middle and high schools and 15
other district buildings. And they use handheld and walk-through metal detectors
for certain athletic events.
Ray says last year the district had roughly 1,200 to 1,500 incidents,
ranging from minor disruptive behavior to shooting incidents, though no
one was hurt.
"We're always looking for ways to utilize existing or new technology
to make our job more efficient," said Ray, a retired police officer who
spent 26 years on the force. But having a well-trained and aware security
staff is probably the "most high-tech of all" systems, he said. "It's a
good mixture of machine and man."
Not One Answer
School security experts say technology is not the whole solution for
school violence. It is just one facet of what schools putting together a
comprehensive safety program should be doing, they say.
"It's a piece of the puzzle, but the puzzle is bigger," said Kenneth
Trump, president and chief executive officer of National School Safety and
Security Services, a Cleveland-based national consulting firm. "Any equipment
is a supplement to and not a substitute for a school safety program."
Calabrese said Sensormatic also advocates a comprehensive approach —
one that empowers parents and students in addition to tapping technology.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), technology is part
of the game plan, but not at all a central part. In the district, which
enrolls about 760,000 K-12 students at about 720 school sites, handheld
metal detectors are used on a daily basis but only with just cause. Those
are used in conjunction with two-way radios and intercom systems in every
classroom, and teachers in isolated areas, such as classes in temporary
bungalows, get cell phones as a safety measure.
"By and large, it's an extremely important deterrent to keep out weapons,"
says Buren Simmons, director of the district's youth relations/crime prevention.
But Wesley Mitchell, LAUSD's police chief, who oversees a 250-member
uniformed force, said the school district makes limited use of technology.
There hasn't been a drive for such security measures, and because most of
the school buildings are old, it's difficult and expensive to retrofit them
"The thing with technology in old schools is it's so expensive," Mitchell
said. "You purchase it at the sacrifice of what? In lieu of textbooks? In
lieu of hiring a teacher?"
With a $200,000 federal grant, Denver is installing one camera-and-intercom
system at the entrance of each of its 80 elementary schools. Ray said it's
not unusual to spend about $30,000 to install a simple camera system. A
more advanced system may run hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said,
adding that a school district would also have the ongoing expense of up
to $20,000 for a person to monitor that system.
Both Simmons and Mitchell said LAUSD has focused its time and resources
on effectively training security and police staff members, administrators
and faculty to deal with violent situations. The curriculum is also geared
toward teaching children alternative responses to conflicts.
"We're really working on the people who serve and who are served so
they can work more harmoniously," Mitchell said. "An over-reliance on school
technology will make a school vulnerable. [People] become complacent."
Opinions vary on how much impact security technology has on school safety.
"While there is a lot of discussion about the use of technology and security
equipment in making schools safer, we find that there is no evidence, at
this point, that these tools are effective in curbing incidents," said Carlos
Sundermann, director of the National Resource Center for Safe Schools.
"Even the schools that have had shootings in [Littleton,] Colo.; Springfield,
Oregon; Paducah, Ky.; and Jonesboro, Ark., have not rushed to use technology
in increasing security," he said.
The April 1999 shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton
is considered the deadliest of school shootings in recent years. Seniors
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded
23 others before killing themselves.
"Columbine did already have video surveillance and armed officers on
site before the shooting occurred," Sundermann said. "This school was considered
"state-of-the-art' in design, and yet this is where the worst shooting occurred.
As a part of their remodel, they are adding card swipe systems at entrances,
and they will also be issuing ID badges to all students."
Safety consultant Trump said some companies are "seeing big dollars
and, in essence, attempting to capitalize on the tragedies in recent years."
But Calabrese said, "That's absolutely wrong."
When it comes to keeping schools safe, such actions as addressing the
climate and culture, identifying early warning signs, adding preventive
programs, increasing parental and community involvement, and improving staff
training hold more weight than technology, Sundermann said.
"In summary, yes, many schools and districts are looking at security
technology options in reaction to the recent highly publicized shooting
incidents," he said. "But this response, especially if this is the only
thing the school chooses to implement, is often seen as a knee-jerk reaction
that has not been shown to be effective in violence reduction."