I’m in Charge of School Safety. Where Do I Start?

Liz Alton

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or student, school safety is top-of-mind these days. Traditional school security measures haven’t kept pace with today’s physical and digital threats. As the risks to students and educators become more complex, school leaders want to do more to protect their school communities from threats of violence, intimidation, crime, and cyber-attacks.

New technologies are helping educational leaders with everything from incident prediction and prevention to effective emergency response. Let’s take a closer look at how the right technology supports safer schools.

Today’s Educational Landscape: Always On Guard

The biggest school safety threats break down into four key categories:

  1. Student Safety PlanningThe Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that in 2017, of students ages 12–18 who reported being bullied, about 41 percent reported that they thought the bullying would happen again. Districts need a plan for everything from the day-to-day challenges of responding to a bullying incident and verifying visitors to implementing effective strategies during security emergencies.
  2. Cyber Threats—The risk of cyber threats, from student data breaches to cyberbullying, increases as schools adopt 1:1 technology and implement more systems. An IBM study found that education institutions are slow to identify breaches. In 2019, the breach cost was $242 per record. A district-wide breach of 62,000 students faces $15 million in associated costs.
  3. Teacher Victimization—It’s important to remember teachers face threats of violence in the workplace. Did you know that 80% of teachers in a 2014 nationwide survey said they’d been victimized at least once? Teachers often suffer silently instead of reporting incidents. Apart from the obvious emotional impact, results are missed work days, turnover, early retirement, medical care, and workman’s compensation claims.
  4. Digital and Physical Threats Converge—One superintendent reported a cyber-attack threatening stolen personal information, and a ransomware demand for $150,000 in Bitcoin. The attack threatened physical violence if the ransom wasn’t paid. The attack was thwarted by law enforcement, but it’s a preview of the complex threats school districts face.

Taking Action: From Threat Prevention to Effective Response

Most districts have already made investments to create a safer environment for learning. Thirty-five percent more schools have school resource officers and sworn law enforcement officers in their schools today than they did 10 years ago according to BJS, and that’s growing daily. Technology investments are up, but those systems face a range of challenges. Often, solutions are a hodge-podge of disparate systems. The quality of videos and analytics may be poor. And schools rarely have the IT expertise on staff that’s needed to effectively use technology to combat complex threats.

What if instead of a grainy video, the office staff could clearly see who is asking for entry and quickly identify them as a threat or not? Imagine having the ability to broadcast an emergency message to law enforcement, parents, and teachers simultaneously, using video boards in the classrooms to indicate the security risk and reinforce the appropriate staff actions based upon the threat. Administration would know where all teachers and kids are from a simple heat map. Today’s schools are using technology to help support prevention, prediction, mitigation, response, and recovery. Solutions such as Cisco’s Solutions for Safer Schools use your existing IP network as the platform for delivering the features needed to support:

Threat Prevention and Prediction: Emerging technologies are helping schools adapt to the changing threat environment. New technologies use machine learning to identify threats on social media and in public records—for example, databases of known offenders.

Video analytics, as well as facial and license plate recognition, help schools monitor crowds, identify unwelcome visitors, and assess potential violent behavior, while protecting personal identity. Apps exist to let students, teachers, and parents alert security personnel quickly and reliably that there’s an on-campus threat. These technologies take our schools from reactive to predictive.

Threat Mitigation: Advances in automated technology, sensors, connected devices, and analytics can now detect unusual behavior, like unexpected motion in areas with restricted access, unusual activity such as lights on or doors opened after hours, or even sudden sounds like a loud argument or gunshots. This automation provides orchestration between systems that may be siloed and minimizes the impact in the case of an unforeseen occurrence. Cisco Physical Security combines wired and wireless IP cameras, Cisco Video Surveillance Manager, and access controls into a single system that makes it easier to manage these challenges.

For example, one school district installed 2,000 security cameras. One day, the video picked up a student bending down in the doorway of a back door. This door was an unusual exit, and the bending motion was also odd. The video triggered a spot check on the door. During the inspection of the door, authorities found a small rock, which stopped the lock from engaging. Later police found objects that suggested a potential threat, which was averted thanks to this system and the school’s fast response.

Threat Response: Other systems can send mass notifications that keep teachers, students, and parents updated in the face of a threat. Cisco’s mobility and wireless features, for example, enable access to emergency information anytime and anywhere—and can accelerate mobile threat notifications. Digital signage features make it easier to post instructions on what to do in case of an emergency. Desk phones, mobile and desktop devices, intelligent whiteboards, and social media can all be synchronized into a single platform to deliver critical safety updates and information. These coordinated responses mitigate threats to save lives, protect property, and ensure collaboration between school staff, the community, and law enforcement.

Recovery Strategies: It’s not enough to respond quickly to an event. It’s also important to process and share information afterwards, and foster a return to normalcy. The same technologies can help report, follow-up, and communicate recovery details such as revised schedules or counseling opportunities. This is absolutely critical, and helps everyone learn from a single event to increase overall basic preparedness across the district. 

Creating a Safe School Technology Plan

Existing investments often provide most of the basic platform to improve school safety. If you’re wondering how it’s possible to invest in these technologies, you’re not alone—but there’s good news.Everything described here can typically be built on the foundation you’ve already laid in your district. Adopting safe schools technology doesn’t require the wholesale replacement of all your legacy systems. Instead, focus on connecting and enhancing them. By taking this into account, many schools can move forward with solutions like Cisco’s Solutions for Safer Schools to prioritize safety and leverage the technology that’s already available.

A technology plan starts with providing the basics—like access control, video surveillance, collaboration, notification, and a cyber-secure network. With these in place, schools can further extend to advanced video analytics, cloud-based apps, and machine learning to improve school safety and lower operational costs. It’s also important to ensure that these individual systems are properly networked and communicate effectively with each other.

Use the Same Platform to Drive Educational Innovation

Schools with tight budgets don’t need to choose between safety and quality education. From a technology perspective, the two go hand in hand. Your next-generation safety investments can also fuel your next-generation learning environment. First, fewer threats mean less anxiety, more engaged students, and more focused teachers.

But these tech investments don’t just contribute to the overall feeling of safety within the district. They offer new ways to enhance the classroom and overall learning experience. Consider one school district that wanted solutions to track their bus fleet more effectively, including GPS and video surveillance. The same devices that deliver always-on connectivity—the foundation of the connected school bus solution—also led to educational innovations. Students now have on-the-go Wi-Fi to complete homework on long bus rides. 

New technologies exist to make your school more resilient to threats—and they don’t require a full system overhaul. You can layer new infrastructure, devices, and apps on top of the IT infrastructure you already have to ensure staff and student safety. Even better, these investments can also be used to drive better educational outcomes. Don’t delay: Get started exploring what technologies can help you create a safer learning environment.

Liz Alton is a B2B technology and digital marketing writer and content strategist. She has worked with a variety of brands including Google, Twitter, Adobe, Oracle, and HP, and written for publications including Forbes. She is a regular contributor to Connected, Connection’s official blog.