Can technology stop tragedy?

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

for technology.

"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."

Technology Doubts

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."

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