Physical Security | April 2013 Digital Edition

After Newtown, Schools Turn to Technology to Keep Students Safe

Following a rash of school shootings, districts around the country are deploying a variety of technological solutions to help protect their campuses.

keeping schools safe sign

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's April 2013 digital edition. This is the second part of our series on security. You can read the first part, about data security, here.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, many K-12 districts took quick action to increase the security of their schools. But none were quicker than Orange Beach Elementary, which now provides wearable panic buttons to every employee. The Alabama Gulf Coast resort community also upgraded the school's security camera system and assigned an Orange Beach police officer to guard the campus during the entire school day. But it was the implementation of an oh-so-familiar medical alert device (remember "I've fallen and I can't get up!"?) in this new context that grabbed the attention of school districts around the country--even of Sandy Hook itself.

"I was called by the father of a Sandy Hook student who serves on the parents' advisory committee," says Orange Beach Elementary Principal Lori Brocato. "He called right after the story went national, and I was glad to talk with him about what we are doing."

Providing for the physical security of K-12 students is certainly not a new challenge, but attacks like the one in Connecticut have brought security questions to the forefront. Fortunately, a range of network-connected security technologies and inventive uses of those technologies are helping districts to keep students and teachers safe.

Alerts at the Touch of Button
It was, in fact, the Sandy Hook shooting that moved one of the owners of Coastal Security to suggest that Orange Beach Elementary use its panic buttons--and to provide them at a discount. It didn't hurt that one of the owners' granddaughter attends the school. Coastal Security also reportedly helped to upgrade most of the school's video security cameras at no cost.

Schools across the country have begun considering and/or installing panic buttons designed to alert police of an emergency instantly. Most are talking about stationary buttons mounted under desks and counters in reception areas and administration offices, but the devices used at the Alabama school are wireless fobs that resemble automobile keyless-entry remotes. They're designed to be worn around the neck on a lanyard, and can be activated from anywhere on campus.

Connected Cameras
Surveillance cameras have long been a popular security tool in K-12 environments. The old analog systems, with their fuzzy images, have been on their way out for years, giving way to a new generation of internet protocol (IP) cameras designed to transmit high-definition video via a computer network and the internet. And now, thanks in part to those high-def images, some versions of these cameras actually have the ability to analyze suspicious behavior.

"You have to think of them, not just as cameras, but as integrated systems," says Ralph Jensen, editor-in-chief of Security Products magazine (an 1105 Media sister publication). "They often have storage and analytics capabilities built in, and they can send alerts and high-quality images to virtually any screen, from a security guard's tablet to an administrator's smartphone."

Video analytics is one of the latest innovations in this technology category. Motion detection is a simple example of this feature, Jensen explains, but the more sophisticated systems are able to notice a person acting strangely or identify something that doesn't fit the environment--say, two kids in a parking lot sitting in their car when they shouldn't be there, a student carrying an odd package, or someone entering the school through an exit. The system then notifies a school official, who can see the video feed in real time.

"The world of IP camera technology has exploded," says Roger Shuman, marketing manager for Exacq Technologies, an Indianapolis-based provider of video management systems (VMSs). "The cameras themselves are amazing. We work with partners making 20-megapixel cameras that produce incredibly useful images from a security perspective."

Exacq Technologies' flagship product, exacqVision, is client-server software for managing real-time and recorded video that can be, as the company puts it, "viewed, managed and configured from any location on the network." Shuman says, "This isn't the old world of analog video and time-lapse VCRs, where you had a security guard watching a fuzzy screen on a regular basis. No one has the budget for that, anyway--especially not K-12 schools."

Josh Coseo, security systems engineer at the Thompson School District R2-J in Loveland, CO, remembers those bad old days. When he joined the district about nine years ago, many of the security cameras installed around the district were part of a closed-circuit television system recorded in black-and-white.

"That video was all but useless," Coseo says. "I don't know why they even bothered to record it. But the high-definition stuff is more than just pretty pictures. You actually need it to make the analytics work."

About five years ago, the district began replacing its analog video system with a network of IP cameras from Axis Communications, many of them HD. The cameras (187 as of this writing) send video to exacqVision IP Camera servers, where it is stored and managed by the VMS software. Coseo chose the Exacq VMS because the district needed an open platform to accommodate a staff using both Macs and PCs.

At first, the district used the video security system primarily to "accumulate evidence of behavior" to combat what was then a growing vandalism problem. ("We were spending a lot of money on fixing things," Coseo recalls.) The district's goal was not only to catch perpetrators, but to gather data that would help them to predict and prevent vandalism. The system comprises a mix of external and internal cameras covering entrance points and trouble spots. Cameras are also installed on buses, and the Exacq system allows the video network to be tied into the district's keyless entry and intercom systems for both door controls and motion sensors.
"We don't have a full time security staff, so we rely on recorded video to monitor vandalism and other types of incidents," Coseo says. "Now we have a system with decent enough picture quality to make it useful for that. And the police department just loves them."

Coseo says the district has provided the local SWAT team with a laptop tied directly into its video system, districtwide. "If we ever have an incident," he says, "they can open the laptop and access the video feed in real time from anywhere in the world."

Informing First Responders
The idea that our increasingly networked technology should be able to help first responders gain immediate access to critical information is the core value proposition of Lauren Innovations. The 4½-year-old technology company's flagship product, NaviGate, uses web-based technology to provide police and firefighters with maps, floor plans, call lists, and real-time video.

The platform has been designated an anti-terrorism-level technology by the US Department of Homeland Security, and has been installed in about 1,200 locations around the world. It's a well-known product in markets including healthcare, manufacturing, commercial real estate, large public venues, and higher education. But until recently, the platform was too expensive for K-12.

About a year ago, spurred by the Feb. 27, 2012, shooting at Chardon High School in Chardon, OH, that resulted in the deaths of three students and the injury of three others, the company, which is based in Ohio, met with local public schools and first responders to talk about customizing NaviGate for K-12.

"The idea was to find a way to harness the technology we've already developed in a way that's so efficient, intuitive, and easy to implement and use that it would be cost-effective for schools," explains Bennett Fierman, president of Lauren Innovations. "We needed to make something simple and effortless to keep down the cost of training and support."

In January, the company launched a version of its emergency response platform customized for pre-K through  high school campuses within the state. Dubbed NaviGate Prepared, it provides first responders with access to critical information about a school via any internet-enabled device, including handheld devices and onboard computers in police cruisers.

"You can have all sorts of elegant technology around security and safety on a property," Fierman says, "but if it's not accessible to the responders during an emergency it has limited impact. Almost every state is adopting legislation that requires that schools provide site plans and floor plans and emergency plans to some agency. So far, to my knowledge--without fail--those repositories are only marginally available to first responders during an actual emergency."

The first schools in Ohio to test NaviGate Prepared were in the Strasburg-Franklin Local Schools district in Strasburg. The district includes an elementary school (K-5) and a junior/senior high (6 to 12). Curtis Clough, superintendent of Strasburg-Franklin, says the district began testing the system at the end of November. "After the Chardon High School shooting, we started working with local law enforcement on redoing our plan," Clough says. "Ours had always been hard copy, and we asked local law enforcement what would make it easier for them. They liked the idea of digital copies, and just about then we became aware of the NaviGate program. So it was very good timing for us."

The district is still working with Lauren on ways to improve the system. One hoped-for enhancement: the ability to provide more frequent updates of student information. Student data at Strasburg-Franklin is updated every 24 hours. Being able to include information about class schedules and where students are at any given time would mean even less guesswork for first responders, Clough says. "I guess you could say it's a work in progress."

A Layered Approach
Testing the NaviGate system gave Strasburg-Franklin a chance to take a hard look at its emergency procedures--and its assumptions. "It has opened up our discussions and sparked some good conversations about how we should respond to these types of situations," Clough says. "We've always had a lockdown procedure, but hearing that [the shooter] broke through the door at Newtown into a kindergarten classroom and hid caused us to reconsider whether a lockdown is always the right response."

The ability of modern security technologies to use local networks and web-based solutions to connect people and information in real- and near-real time is quickly becoming a cornerstone of an evolving security infrastructure. Jensen, who has been covering the high-tech security beat for nearly two decades, sees it emerging as a layered approach "from the fence line to the vestibule."

"The cameras provide the behavior analytics at the edge of the network," he says. "Then visitors and contract workers are stopped at the entrance and screened with systems that can run a background check against numerous databases--including state, county, and sexual predator lists--on the spot, in seconds. They're issued ID badges that limit the amount of time they're allowed on the premises. And if someone gets past all that, panic buttons alert the entire school, which can go into lockdown, and calls 911 before anyone can even pull out their cell phones."

That last, innermost layer is the one currently in the spotlight, thanks to widespread news coverage of the Orange Beach panic button project. As of this writing, the special blue lights and distinctive alarm set off by the devices have gone off accidentally only twice, and Principal Brocato considers those incidents learning experiences. "Every new system has bugs that need to be worked out," she says. "And by the way, the police arrived in two minutes both times."

Brocato credits Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon with coming up with the idea for the panic buttons, and applauds Police Chief Billy Wilkins Sr. as a strong supporter of the project. "Of course, this technology doesn't provide a total security solution," Brocato says. "There really is no technology that will do that. And you don't really want to build a fortress around the school. What you have to do is to find a way to strike a balance. But this system adds another, significant layer of security, and every layer adds to our peace of mind."