By Andrea Lebron - February 18, 2021
The demand for school security software has never been greater due to parents, school leaders, and politicians wanting to better protect students from the risk of danger. However, the range of options to choose from is immense. Therefore, to help school leaders make well-informed decisions, we look at ten popular types of school security software and discuss their merits.
At the time of the Columbine school shooting in 1999, only 19 percent of schools in the US were equipped with CCTV surveillance systems according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Over the next twenty years, the utilization of CCTV surveillance systems increased substantially to 85 percent; and, to better protect students from the risk of danger, schools also implemented physical access controls and deployed more School Resource Officers.
Sadly, none of these deterrents prevented the school shootings at Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Santa Fe; and, since these tragic events, school leaders have been evaluating additional software solutions to enhance existing systems and develop a multi-layered approach to school security. But which solutions are the most effective at preventing security events, can mitigate the consequences when first line defenses fail, and accelerate emergency response? Let's take a look.
School visitor management systems have replaced paper-based logbooks in a number of schools to better record the details of who comes onto the school campus, where they go, and when they leave. Some systems can also monitor the whereabouts of students and staff to support attendance and punctuality records and so administrators know where the occupants of the campus are located in the event of an emergency.
However, school visitor management systems have been criticized for creating bottlenecks at school entrances – which, in the current climate, makes it difficult to enforce social distancing policies – plus concerns exist about data privacy and security, particularly with regards to the Children´s Online Privacy Protection Act. Furthermore, school visitor management systems that conduct identity checks can make mistakes – as one Colorado parent found out to his cost.
AI-based surveillance software is the next generation of school security software for CCTV systems. The logic behind this particular development is that schools don´t have the resources to constantly monitor CCTV images for wrongdoing and intruders, so images of students and staff are uploaded into the software, which then looks for anomalies, and alerts school security teams when an unrecognized individual is identified.
The issue with this type of school security software is that if the perpetrator of a security event is an existing student at the school (as happened in the Santa Fe High School shooting), the software will fail to flag the student as a threat. It may also be the case the software flags multiple false positives due to students wearing head coverings or changing their appearance. As such, the software can create as many issues as it resolves.
Automated door locks and door locks that can be activated remotely evolved out the report into the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. During the event, first grade teacher Victoria Leigh Soto had tried to conceal her students from sight before locking the classroom door. Unfortunately, Soto was unable to reach the door before Adam Lanza entered and killed her and several of the children she was trying to protect.
Had Soto been able to activate the door lock from her mobile phone, it would have saved her life and the lives of her students. However, had all the classroom doors been automatically locked at the start of the shooting, teachers would have been unable to guide other students to safety. It is also the case that in both the subsequent Parkland and Santa Fe school shootings, the perpetrator activated a fire alarm to evacuate students from classrooms before the shooting started.
The fact that school security software has been developed to detect internal gunshots is an indication of how seriously school leaders take the threat of an active assailant. The software works by validating acoustic bangs and infrared flashes to confirm the triggering event is a gunshot. The software then activates an alert for an immediate response - providing first responders with accurate information about the location of the gunshot, floor plans, and access points.
Fortunately, this type of school security software has not been greatly utilized since its deployment. However, this makes it difficult to evaluate the software's effectiveness; and although it is clearly an excellent solution for accelerating emergency response, it is not known how effective the software is at mitigating the consequences of a security event involving an active assailant. Naturally, it is not effective for mitigating the consequences of any other type of emergency event.
Following the Columbine school shooting in 1999, it became apparent that the two perpetrators gave multiples warning signs of their intentions and that some of these signs had been reported to police and school authorities without appropriate action being taken. To address the risk the scenario may be repeated elsewhere – and to enforce accountability - the state of Colorado set up the Safe to Tell anonymous tip texting service.
The service currently receives more than 11,000 tips per year - mostly related to suicide threats, drugs, and bullying – and is proven to prevent incidents of self-harm and illegal activity. Due to the success of Colorado's service, a number of school districts have invested in anonymous tip texting software that correlates tips so security teams can prioritize reports according to their number and threat level, and take the appropriate action where necessary.
Mobile panic button apps like the Rave Panic Button are considered to be one of the fastest and most effective ways to alert 9-1-1 to an emergency. The apps consist of a user interface offering users the choice of alerting 9-1-1 to an active assailant, a fire, a medical emergency, or other security event that requires police intervention. As soon as the app is activated, call center dispatchers and key personnel are aware of the nature and location of the emergency to initiate an immediate response.
Although the apps have to manually activated, this type of school security software is more effective than gunshot detection sensors as the app can be activated as soon as the threat manifests – rather than waiting until after shots are fires. Furthermore, because most people keep their mobile devices on them at all times, mobile panic button apps are much safer to activate than wall mounted panic buttons that may place staff in the line of an active assailant's sights.
Mass notification systems have evolved significantly since the first commercial texting services of the 2000s. These days, the immediacy and connectivity of text messaging can be integrated with other warning systems to alert as many people as possible to an emergency in the shortest amount of time. The software can also be integrated with non-emergency platforms to enhance communications between schools, students, teachers, and parents.
The benefit of using a text-based mass notification system in an emergency rather than just an audible warning system is that those in danger can be informed of the nature and location of the emergency so they respond in the appropriate manner. It is also the case that contact databases can be segmented into an unlimited number of groups, so that – when necessary – different messages can be sent to the occupants of different buildings or key personnel.
Some states mandate frequent security assessments and usually provide online tools for assessments to be completed. However, there are also commercial platforms for completing school security assessments that use risk intelligence to include threats to school security that manually completely assessments may overlook. The platforms usually include additional modules that can be configured to manage risks once the assessments are completed.
Although a good idea in principle, the issue with this type of school security software is that it is only as good as the risk intelligence available to it. It is well chronicled that violence in schools – particularly violence against teachers – is underreported; and, if an assessment is completed based on inaccurate data, the algorithm with which risk is managed will also produce bad results. Like AI-based surveillance, this type of school security software can also create as many issues as it resolves.
Student activity monitoring platforms monitors what students write on school computers and in social media posts. If the platforms' machine learning algorithms detect a word or phrase that raises a flag, the content is sent to human reviewers, who then decide whether or not the school should be alerted. It is claimed by one vendor that, of 5,100 flagged events between July and December 2018, 577 involved students planning an attack or violence against themselves or others.
Aside from the privacy issues (the platforms can also record details of student browsing history), there are well chronicled technical issues with what the platforms discover and what they don´t. Furthermore, students have not been slow in finding out how to circumnavigate and disable the software – making the platforms virtually useless for detecting a potential arsonist or active assailant. While a good idea in principle, this isn´t a solution to rely on.
While school leaders might not place cyberattacks in the same risk category as active assailants, there is a much higher likelihood of a cyberattack impacting a school than any other security event. Effective anti-virus software, anti-phishing mechanisms, and network controls have become even more important during the coronavirus epidemic due to the risks associated with remote learning and the evolving strategies of cybercriminals.
One particularly increasing strategy is to hack into a school network, copy confidential student data, encrypt the original files, and then demand a ransom – not only to unencrypt the original files but also to prevent the publication of the confidential data. This strategy – known as Maze ransomware – has already been used against school systems in Virginia, Nevada, and Ohio this fall, and has implications for any of the school security software solutions listed above that store personal data.
All school security software has its benefits and its limitations, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What may be good at preventing security events may have its limitations exposed when it comes to mitigating the consequences of an event or accelerating an emergency response - and vice versa. Therefore, the best way to protect students from the risk of danger is to develop a multi-layered software approach rather than using one software type to support existing hardware.
From the ten popular types of school security software listed above, an ideal selection would include anonymous tip texting software to help prevent security events, mobile panic button apps to accelerate emergency response and thereby mitigate the consequences of an event, and mass notification systems for schools with two-way communication to enhance situational awareness while an event is in progress. If you would like to find out more about these solutions, do not hesitate to get in touch.
Andrea is Rave's Director of Digital Marketing, a master brainstormer and avid coffee drinker. Andrea joined Rave in August 2017, after 10 years of proposal and corporate marketing at an environmental engineering firm. You'll find her working with her amazing team in writing and producing blogs like this one, improving your journey to and through our website, and serving you up the best email content. When she's not in front of a keyboard, she's chasing after her three daughters or indulging in her husband's latest recipe. Andrea has a Bachelor's degree in Marketing/Management from Northeastern University and an MBA from Curry College.
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