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Technology to mitigate school safety incidents

School safety

When properly integrated with people and processes, technology can play a vital role in preventing, detecting and mitigating school safety threats. Bruce Canal, Segment Development Manager for Education at Axis, together with input from a panel of school safety experts, provides an updated view on relevant technology to secure any school environment – from K-12 to higher learning campuses.

Our panel of experts includes Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe & Sound Schools, Paul Timm, an active member of the ASIS School Safety & Security Council and Kevin Wren, former Director of Risk, Security and Emergency Management at Rock Hill School District in the USA. Read more about Bruce and the panel at the end of the article.

Threat prevention

Schools world-wide are becoming more mindful of personal safety vulnerabilities and locking exterior doors to prevent an outside threat from entering their buildings. Unfortunately, this means that late-arriving students and visitors are also locked out. Without the benefit of technology, a member of staff would be expected to physically open the door for all visitors - an impractical solution in a K-12 school, and a near impossibility on college campuses where class schedules vary and visitor traffic is high. Alternatively, leaving main entrance doors unlocked for convenience, creates an obvious safety vulnerability.

There are different solutions for preventing an outside threat from entering a school, one being using automatic locks on doors.

In contrast, an automatic access control solution limits building access only to those authorized to be in the building at any particular time. Although not a widely used technology in K-12 school environments, a growing number of college campuses are adopting this technology to improve campus safety. Automatic access control also alerts if a door remains propped open and provides an audit trail of all access attempts – both approved and failed. This is valuable insight that school administrators can use to e.g. optimize HVAC systems, improve campus facility planning and follow-up on access request irregularities. 

And for efficient visitor screening, a video intercom such as our network door station, combines automatic remote entry, two-way audio, and high resolution video, giving school staff the ability to visualize and communicate with the individual(s) requesting entry, to better assess a potential threat. It’s a technology that’s effective and affordable for schools of all types – from the smallest K-12 schools to student housing facilities on the largest university campuses.

Threat detection and verification

To qualify a threat from a human perspective is subjective; a loud explosion might just be a chemistry experiment gone awry.

Should a threat enter a school building, there is an inevitable period of time that passes before it is detected and identified. Qualifying a threat from a human perspective is very subjective and it requires time for our senses to process the information in our environment. It’s human nature to be curious, and we are tempted to see for ourselves if we hear glass breaking, a loud explosion or raised voices  – an obvious personal safety risk if it puts people in harm’s way.

On the other hand, technology has no subjective criteria. A sound detection analytic immediately sends an alert and triggers connected automated systems when it detects pre-configured acoustical patterns. In a high-risk security event, this can save lives and valuable response time. 

But what about an abundance of nuisance false alarms that such a system could generate? The commotion from students between classes, the slamming of dorm room doors or lockers, the person shouting down the hall to get his friend’s attention… Relying solely on this type of technology to directly alert law enforcement, campus police, and first responders is probably not a good idea. A better strategy might be to use this technology to first alert school administrators or safety officers to a possible threat. They in turn, can then safely verify or dismiss the threat using high resolution video surveillance technology and make a more qualified determination as to what further action is required. 

Emergency messaging

Once the determination is made that danger is imminent, it is important to notify law enforcement and communicate the threat school or campus-wide. Traditional emergency phone calls are time consuming. Shouting has limited range. Both responses can focus unwanted attention to the person sounding the alarm.

To ensure that the message reaches everyone – both inside and outside the school building – an announcement over the school’s PA system is the best alternative. Using an Axis public address solution, it’s possible to also access the system remotely from a mobile device – a distinct advantage if the front office has been compromised. In addition to live messaging, the system can also deliver pre-recorded messages to communicate complete threat protocols and instructions in a calm and pragmatic way.

To communicate a threat, using a public-address solution has many advantages, such as accessing the system from a mobile device.

In terms of communicating campus-wide and beyond to the outside world, a duress alarm (or an “Amok” alarm) instantly, and covertly, sends an emergency signal to first responders and law enforcement, alerting them to a possible active assailant threat in progress.

Using connected technology, these systems may have additional automated integration with electronic signage or strobe lighting at the school, as well as parent and mass notification systems to warn people away from the danger zone.

Locking down

Schools world-wide are increasingly “locking down” in response to active assailant threats. But it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and schools continually strive to improve safety protocols and equipment. Realistically, it is not possible to lock down all areas of your school or campus. Open spaces like parking lots, playgrounds, athletic fields, cafeterias and libraries are particularly challenging. But theoretically, all closed school environments with a door that locks can prevent a serious threat from entering that space.  The biggest challenge to this system today however, is that many schools are still using traditional locks and keys. Before examining the possible benefits of technology, let’s evaluate the typical lock and key scenario during an active threat.

There is currently no global standardization for doors and locking mechanisms, and the variation between countries is significant. For example, classroom doors in the US are one-step egress and open out, whereas in Europe, doors are 2-step egress and open in. Also, in the US, door locks are often on the outside of the door and require a key. While it’s possible to set the door in permanent locking mode from the outside, it’s disruptive when teachers are forced to interrupt a lecture to open the door for a late arriving student. Therefore, it is common practice to leave doors unlocked for convenience. In addition, teachers are expected to wear their classroom door keys on their person - another example of where theory and reality are disconnected. It’s a system with some obvious safety vulnerabilities and protocol gaps.  And what happens when there is a substitute teacher or guest lecturer? Do they have a key? Are they trained on protocols?

In the context of a real emergency lockdown using traditional lock and key, teachers must first find their classroom door key. They must then step out into the hallway – potentially in the direct path of an active assailant. They must insert the key into the lock while scared and likely shaky, lock the door, and remove the key, all before stepping back into the relative safety of the classroom and closing the door.

Network-based access control on interior doors can eliminate personal safety risks – and are quite economical.

Network based access control on interior doors addresses many of these challenges as classroom doors can be centrally closed and locked at the push of a button. Automating this process eliminates both unnecessary delay as well as personal safety risks associated with lock and key technology. The solution also remains fire code compliant, provided that the doors can still be manually opened from inside the classroom. In terms of system cost, a network-based access control system is quite economical when compared to the expense of re-keying doors whenever a key is lost or a member of staff leaves. 

Ensuring the best outcome

These are just a few ways that technology can improve school safety when integrated with people and processes.  But if people are to trust technology, then product security and reliability are paramount. That’s why at Axis, we are meticulous about product quality and our solutions offer three layers of cyber protection. More importantly, we work with a global network of safety and security professionals who can help schools create safer learning environments by assessing safety vulnerabilities, developing emergency plans, designing security systems and training students and staff. Independent experts who can help you find the right technology for your specific needs.


Our panel of school safety experts
  • Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe & Sound Schools, is all too familiar with how school safety vulnerabilities can be exploited, having lost her daughter Josephine in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Subsequently, Michelle has become a passionate advocate for school safety, speaking frequently with law enforcement, educators, parents and communities.
  • Paul Timm, a board certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), is an active member of the ASIS School Safety & Security Council and author of the book “School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program”. He is also certified in Vulnerability Assessment Methodology and has helped numerous schools with safety planning and crisis assistance support.
  • Kevin Wren, former Director of Risk, Security, and Emergency Management at Rock Hill School District, has a long history in law enforcement and school security.  Named by Campus Safety Magazine as K-12 Director of the Year in 2016, Kevin uses technology to improve school safety and extend the effectiveness of a lean security team.
  • Bruce A. Canal, Segment Development Manager, Education brings over 20 years of education-related security experience to the Axis organization. A former director of physical security for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in Orlando, FL, Bruce is a Certified Protection Professional and an active member of various school safety and law enforcement associations.
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