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November 10, 2015

How Can Technology Improve School Safety?

Incidents of extreme violence at schools both in the United States and abroad have resulted in increasing public and political scrutiny and a call to reassess ways to secure our classrooms and campuses more effectively. Incidents like those at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as other instances of crime and violence in schools, led the U.S. Congress in 2014 to create the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, and allot targeted funding to the Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to conduct scientific research and evidence-based studies using measurable and proven means to improve the security of schools, students, and staff members.

An important research project under the initiative examines how technology is used to prevent and respond to criminal violence in kindergarten through 12th-grade schools. This project is currently under way at the National Criminal Justice Technology Research, Test and Evaluation (RT&E) Center, established in 2014. The NIJ selected two Johns Hopkins University (JHU) divisions—the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and the School of Education, Division of Public Safety Leadership—for a five-year cooperative agreement to establish a new research center, based at APL in Laurel, MD. In this study, a third JHU division, the Bloomberg School of Public Health and its Center for Law and the Public’s Health, has been included to provide legal and policy insight and analysis.

“Simply put, we’re looking at what technologies are currently being used, how they are used, how well they are working, and how those technologies were chosen by the user,” explained Richard “D.J.” Waddell of APL, director of the Technology RT&E Center.

“This study is a small piece of a large effort to improve school safety in this country,” said APL’s Steven Taylor, task lead for the study. “It’s a topic that’s near and dear to almost everyone. Our children are precious and important and that makes this work especially meaningful.”

One of the most important aspects of the study, say team members, is engaging school districts, and being aware of the multiple communities with viewpoints on the topic of safety. These include the internal school community (students, teachers, administrators, school resource officers, and staff); the external community (parents and surrounding neighborhoods); and the political community (school systems and districts, legislative and executive bodies). “The project team is attending school safety conferences, seeing what’s out there, and meeting school system administrators, decision makers, and vendors,” said Waddell.

According to Sheldon Greenberg, Professor in the School of Education and Deputy Director of the RT&E Center, “Research shows repeatedly that schools are safe places. Our job is to advance this track record thereby enabling schools to prevent heinous incidents from occurring and reduce and manage fear through the effective use of technology.”

School safety and security technology covers a very broad range of things. It can include low-tech items such as lights, doors, locks, and door pins. At the other end of the spectrum, it can include metal detectors, surveillance cameras, social media, infrared detection, and sophisticated school-to-police communications systems.

A major challenge is determining what’s out there and what’s working. “Part of the complexity is that we’re taking a centralized focus on one of the nation’s most fragmented systems,” explained Greenberg. “There are 15,000 school systems, and there’s no single go-to place for information, and no correlation between need for technology and access to it. In many systems, the decision about what technology to implement rests with a school’s principal. You could have three neighboring schools with three versions of the same technology supplied by three different vendors with three different maintenance schedules.”

“We’re reviewing the landscape and looking at criteria to select nine school districts to study in detail, in a case-study-oriented approach,” said Waddell. The information from that study will inform further studies and policies to improve safety.

Part of the RT&E Center team is looking at legal issues. Each state has laws and regulations designed to make schools safe places, but the law differs across the states. A comprehensive review of the law within each state is under way, as well as a systematic review of media coverage of school safety policies. Stephen Teret, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Law and the Public’s Health at the Bloomberg School, comments that “this analysis will reveal how the law enhances or possibly hinders state and local efforts to provide the safest environment for school children.”

The four components of the research—literature review, technology review, case studies, and legal review—will come together to provide school districts with information to make better decisions about the purchase and implementation of security technology.

“If security tech is managed well,” Greenberg said, “schools can create secure learning and development environments without being obtrusive. Students, teachers, and staff shouldn’t have their fear and anxiety levels raised because of the implementation of technology and other means to prevent and control crime and ensure their safety. That’s not a reasonable or acceptable byproduct.”

Said Taylor, “The information we provide will, we hope, have a real impact and do much to make kids’ lives safer.”

Photo on home page by Manuel Broussard/FEMA

Media contact: Geoff Brown, 240-228-5618, geoffrey.brown@jhuapl.edu