School safety tech at center of fierce debate after Uvalde shooting

As details emerged of the deadly mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas last month – which left 19 children and two teachers dead – questions were raised about the effectiveness of the security technology used at the school, experts told ABC News.

In Uvalde, a school employee used a security app on his phone to trigger an internal alert system before the shooter entered the school, a company spokesperson said last Friday. behind the warning system, Raptor Technologies.

The employee pressed a “lock” button which triggered a cascade of emergency text messages and emails to co-workers, the company said. But at least one teacher, third- and fourth-grade teacher Arnulfo Reyes, who was injured in the attack, said he did not receive a message through the Raptor security system.

Additionally, a teacher who saw the shooter approach the school armed with a gun, closed a door to the school but the door did not lock, allowing the shooter to enter, authorities said. Law enforcement is investigating why the door did not lock, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

The tragedy has again shed light on the role of security technologies – such as alarms, surveillance cameras and metal detectors – and their potential to help prevent and mitigate mass shootings. It also comes as many Republicans and some Democrats have called for stronger protective measures in schools, such as bulletproof doors, while others have dismissed school security measures and technologies as a key solution to the mass shootings.

School safety technology and its push have become increasingly mainstream despite the lack of conclusive research that it makes schools safer, some experts told ABC News. While the technology provides schools with additional means to identify and combat threats, its success largely depends on the skill of the people using it and can harm a school’s academic offering, experts said.

Concerns have also arisen about the possibility of disproportionate negative effects of school safety technology for black and brown students, who are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, according to a study published in 2018 by the US Government Accountability Office.

What is School Safety Technology?

School security technology encompasses a multitude of products that protect a campus from unwanted or dangerous visitors, as well as weapons and other prohibited property.

Schools often protect their main entrances with deadbolt or heavily latched doors, which can be equipped with a remotely triggered automatic lock in an emergency, according to a report by the nonprofit National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

Further monitoring of traffic inside and outside the school is often done through the use of visitor ID badges and surveillance cameras. To uncover weapons or other illicit materials, some schools deploy metal detectors. Communication devices, such as walkie-talkies or public address systems, allow staff to alert each other or alert students to potential threats.

Advanced school security technology incorporates artificial intelligence, such as surveillance cameras programmed to detect firearms or identify potential shooters.

Some experts have highlighted the value of school security technology, noting that additional lines of defense can make the difference in preventing or slowing down a potential attack. But they stressed that technology solutions cannot stand alone. Instead, schools face the challenge of training staff and students to effectively deploy technology and respond to it in an emergency.

“When properly used to meet specific needs, school safety technology can be an additional tool,” Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, told ABC News. “But any security technology is only as strong as the weakest human link behind it.”

Another expert went even further, describing technology as a crucial part of school safety.

“School safety plays an important and key role,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit that consults with school districts and other stakeholders on safety precautions.

Stephens pointed to the value of surveillance cameras, metal detectors and schools’ forward-thinking design that allows for easy student supervision. The technology offers schools an additional set of safety precautions against the difficult threat of a hired shooter injuring students or staff, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, he added. But the school’s safety depends on the people overseeing it, he acknowledged.

“There’s still no such thing as having this responsible adult or team of adults watching,” Stephens said. “It’s something that needs the support of the whole community.”

A study commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2016 found that security technology can be helpful, but effective deployment requires specific measures tailored to a given school. Districts may need a layered approach that implements amenities inside and outside of a school, the report adds. But high-profile events often trigger actions that don’t make sense in the long run, he noted.

A growing industry

Security technology, at least in some form, is nearly ubiquitous in American schools.

As of the 2017-18 school year, 95% of public schools said they controlled access to school buildings by locking or monitoring doors, the National Center for Education Statistics found. Eighty-three percent of public schools reported using security cameras, a significant increase from the 1999-2000 school year, when only 19% of schools had security cameras, according to the survey. the organization.

The prevalence of security technology has helped the sector grow into a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2017, the security equipment and services industry generated $2.7 billion in revenue, according to analysis by market research firm IHS Markit.

Despite recent industry growth, research into the effectiveness of school security technology has proven inconclusive, and an increase in school shootings in recent years suggests that the equipment has only little or no effect on protecting schools from attack, Odis Johnson Jr., the executive director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News.

The report commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2016 found a lack of evidence that school security measures – such as access control, alarms and CCTV – make schools safer. “There is limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology,” the report states.

Similarly, a study that year by the research firm RAND of school safety technologies – such as door locks, video surveillance and emergency alerts – found that “rigorous research into the effectiveness of these technologies are practically non-existent”.

Johnson said there remains a lack of clear data demonstrating the effectiveness of school safety technology. “I don’t think the literature is where it needs to be, especially as it relates to strong evidence that there is benefit in fortifying schools,” he said.

Members of law enforcement from various departments outside Robb Elementary School on the day of the mass shooting, May 24, 2022, before entering the classroom and confronting the shooter, in Uvalde, Texas.

Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

Response to school shootings

The increased use of school security technology has coincided with an increase in school shootings and shooting deaths, raising new questions about the effectiveness of the equipment, Johnson said.

During the 2020-2021 school year, 145 school shootings took place at U.S. public and private elementary and secondary schools, of which 93 resulted in casualties, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. It marked the highest number of school shootings in any given school year, having set records each of the previous three years, the organization found.

“The nation fortified schools by adding law enforcement and more safety measures,” Johnson said. “While we are still seeing an increase in injuries and fatalities, this suggests to me that these technologies are not an appropriate response to the problem.”

Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit that consults with school districts, disagreed, saying enhanced security can only help schools protect themselves from shooters. .

“My view is that it’s always better to be prepared,” he said. “Do everything you can, knowing that you can’t do everything.”

But Johnson and Stephens agreed that school safety technology forces schools to make compromises that can hurt academics. Stephens cited the example of a single-entry metal detector, which he says can delay students from reaching their classrooms at the start of the day for up to two and a half hours.

“What about the educational process?” Stephens said. “You have to see the price. »

Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, said he’s noticed an increase in calls for additional technology following mass shootings.

“After every high-profile incident, over the years we’ve seen an explosion of experts, gimmicks and gurus popping up overnight,” Trump said. “People want something tangible.”

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