Feeling Safe

Leveraging technology in the education sector to create safer, healthier learning environments

The best environment for learning is one where students, teachers and staff feel safe. With increasing incidents nationally of vaping and bullying, plus the ever-present threat of an active shooter situation, school administrators and their respective security teams face far greater challenges to provide safety levels enjoyed by previous generations than their predecessors could ever have imagined.

Safety and Health Issues

Fortunately, new technologies are available to allow administrators to manage the safety and health issues in schools. These tools also allow them to make better and smarter decisions by leveraging data that they collect to understand where incidents of concern, such as vaping, smoking, bullying, graffiti and other inappropriate behaviors are taking place, and how frequently.

It’s up to administrators and their security teams to develop, implement and practice plans that mesh seamlessly with technology. Technology is part of the solution for managing emergency events and preventing, reducing and managing problematic activities and behaviors such as vaping, bullying, fighting and vandalism.

One of the important keys to this is the consolidation of information into one easy to use platform that can be used to generate school-wide emergency alerts, respond to and track internal incidents and then generate reports following those events. Having immediate access to these powerful tools at all times is crucial – especially in a quickly escalating crisis situation where there are any number of moving parts and one person out of the loop or receiving inaccurate information can lead to fatalities. Police, fire, emergency personnel as well as school staffers, teachers, students and parents need to receive accurate information simultaneously, in a timely fashion, throughout each stage of the crisis or emergency situation.

Powerful Technology

Implementing powerful, yet easy-to-use technology leads to greater efficiencies because there is a shorter learning curve and training is easy. Having a unified and automated alert mechanism is key when it comes to coordinating fire, police and emergency rescue efforts. When these automated responses are included in technology that staffers are already using, the effectiveness of the transition is enhanced.

The Long Branch (New Jersey) Public Schools, for instance, has 11 sites in its district, which presented a challenge for communicating with each site simultaneously. Communications plans incorporated the use of cell phones, two-way radios, emails and a special emergency channel on its radios. While thorough, this comingling of communication devices is counter-productive in that it greatly enhances the chances of information not being distributed accurately and simultaneously or, worse, not being disseminated to all relevant parties or first responders.

Seconds matter and having the ability to use technology to communicate with first responders is critical. The alert or 911 call is part of this, followed by the sharing of important information, including access to cameras, door locks, floor plans, maps and other information.

First responders knowing where a fire is in a building, where an intruder might be in an active shooter situation, or even where students are hiding can make a significant, positive difference in how response strategies are implemented and actions taken. Technology that shares information during emergencies is a time saver and potentially saves lives.

By leveraging a consolidated platform, Long Branch has a communication system in place that empowers every staff member with the ability to send an emergency alert to first responders, uses a mass communication system to stay connected with all their school buildings and offers multiple interface options. It even provides a desktop safety app for staff members without smartphones.

Emergency Information

The Linn-Mar (Iowa) Community School District’s emergency information and communication plans were even more analog. The school district had relied on physical binders, but few staff members knew what was in them or where they were. In addition, it took too much time to update and share their revised plans when changes needed to be made. Exasperating matters is the realization few visuals are more likely to inspire panic than a leader in a crisis resorting to flipping through a binder to decide what to do next.

One Linn-Mar evacuation event was successful but left the district scrambling with what to do next after everyone had safely exited the building. Leisa Breitfelder, Linn-Mar Community School District’s Executive Director of Student Services, saw a need from the feedback officials received from the drills and incidents so they could adapt their safety procedures. Breitfelder stated, “You are always making edits to your [safety] plan because you want to make them better and the only way you can do that is through practicing or, unfortunately, living an incident.”

Being able to quickly make changes online and instantly update the emergency plans for all Linn-Mar staffers enabled the district to use the platform just days after it was implemented. Subsequently, when local police put the district on lockdown due to a vague active shooter threat posted on social media, Breitfelder said their school was able to lockdown in a matter of seconds, whereas other schools that weren’t trained with the platform took 15-20 minutes. According to Breitfelder, from that experience, the district learned the importance of having each school learn and train with the platform.

This is just one example of why schools need an incident management platform that coordinates alerts, messages and notifications through communication and Internet of Things (IoT) devices across and with first responders, school safety and security teams, teachers and staff and the entire education community. Since the best way to deal with a challenging situation is to prevent it from happening, schools must also investigate the implementation of an app that brings together alerts from environmental sensors in bathrooms and other locations where cameras are not permitted that detect vaping and sound anomalies that may indicate bullying or fighting.

Dissemination of Information

The value of adopting vaping and bullying detection and alert systems is greatly enhanced when partnered with consolidated emergency communications technology for schools, municipalities and law enforcement. The pairing creates a security platform that coordinates the dissemination of information to parties responding to a crisis situation or other events that require immediate attention. These systems also track training efforts and manage data, allowing for reports to be generated. Reports and data can both be used to create and/or adapt policies, especially in regard to vaping and bullying prevention.

Combining these technologies allows school administrators to quickly receive, respond, manage and track these events and then act accordingly. Schools need to understand their data – such as how many times a sensor detects students are being bullied or are vaping. With data, analytics can be developed to track incidents and identify patterns. With this information, specific trouble spots can be identified and direct action taken to reduce vaping, bullying and other undesirable student behaviors.

School administrators must leverage technology to manage threats and address other complex and changing challenges in order to make sure schools are safe and healthy environments for learning. For administrators, this means making preparations, developing response procedures and creating management strategies to make prevention efforts more effective. Consolidating the response and management of security-related activities with one app and one centralized system is more effective, more efficient and will reduce response time for all events, including emergencies, which is critical, especially during a rare active shooter situation.

Administrators must also leverage the power of data and analyze it to dictate what steps and policies need to be implemented to mitigate the chances of a repeat incident. It is imperative that they analyze the immediate aftermath of an on-campus incident to determine the true value of emergency-reaction strategies.

While few will argue with the need for emergency preparedness, coordinating the practices and drills necessary can be a daunting challenge when you factor in laws and regulations as well as the myriad schedules and commitments among multiple parties who must participate. The emergency platform used by a school district has to make sure everybody is able to respond in a way that they are prescribed to and allow them to help practice. The district can use the technology to be able to run those drills and then collect the appropriate data.

Let’s say a district has 15 schools. The ability to analyze which schools have higher numbers of bullying reports empowers officials to put different processes or programs in place to reduce the number of incidents, improving the culture and climate of those schools by doing so. Collection of data and turning that into actionable items are critical components of what technology can achieve. The ability to support the drills, the simulations and practices that these schools and staff members need to go through are the two most important technological elements in a school safety plan.

The challenges faced by today’s school administrators who are responsible for safety dwarf those faced by their predecessors. On the positive side, technology has never been more powerful. As recently as the turn of the century, the most technology a school district administrator had at his or her disposal was a thermostat, smoke detector and fire alarm. In 2020, school district administrators and security personnel now have the means to coordinate multiple first responders immediately and simultaneously. After an incident is over, they can generate reports and analyze data that can be used to implement enhanced measures and policies designed to reduce the possibility of recurrences as well as ensure the safety and security of staffers, students, teachers and parents.

This article originally appeared in the May June 2020 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

Digital Edition

  • Campus Security & Life Safety Magazine - May June 2020

    May / June 2020

    Featuring:

    • Ensuring Growth
    • Pioneering Integration Services
    • Going Above and Beyond
    • A Campus Challenge

    View This Issue