School Safety

How to Effectively Utilize Facial Recognition for School Security

It should come as no surprise that school safety is top-of-mind for administrators, educators, parents and students as the new school year gets underway.

A 2018 poll by PDK International found that of 515 parents surveyed, one in three feared for their child’s safety in school. It’s crucial that the education community continues to collaborate on best practices for securing campuses, while dedicating time to sourcing the best resources for making school a safe place for students and staff.

Regarding school security, it’s important that we see facial recognition as a tool, rather than as a panacea. Technology needs to be thoughtfully incorporated into a larger plan for it be effective.

As principal at St. Therese Catholic Academy, it’s my duty to ensure that I set faculty, students and families up for success while creating a safe and nurturing academic environment. It’s been one year since we made the decision to adopt facial recognition technology as one of our school’s security tools — here’s what we’ve experienced since doing so.

Facial recognition: An emerging trend in campus security

Historically, St. Therese has been more traditional when it comes to safety technologies. We’ve always had a standard camera system in place, but with only one staff member in charge of buzzing in guests, it quickly became overwhelming to constantly monitor the entrance while managing other administrative tasks.

When tech company RealNetworks announced that it would be providing SAFR for K-12 facial recognition software for free to schools in the U.S. and Canada, we saw an opportunity to advance our camera system to modern times — not only as a way to add an additional layer of security, but to alleviate logistical strain on staff.

Our school welcomes plenty of visitors on any given day. Facial recognition helps our staff monitor who is entering and exiting the facility on a daily basis. This process also makes it easier for us to build deeper connections with the people who are visiting St. Therese.

The entry process has been tailored to fit the needs of our staff and families. Regular visitors to our school, such as mail carriers, are registered in the system, and simply need to smile at a camera to gain entry. This not only makes it more efficient for visitors, but helps us to recognize those who regularly visit our school. Staff have been able to shift the focus from buzzing people in to greeting and assisting them once they enter the school. Being able to know every visitor and parent by name not only helps make us stronger as a school community, but keeps us aware of the everyday happenings of St. Therese. Our goal is to be able to recognize and greet every visitor in a personal manner, and facial recognition is a great tool that our team uses to help achieve that.

Our system is solely used to identify and grant access to adult visitors to St. Therese; student data is not collected. And, the system has been set up to only be used on the entrance and exit of our facility. Regarding school security, it’s important that we see facial recognition as a tool, rather than as a panacea. Technology needs to be thoughtfully incorporated into a larger plan for it be effective.

Securing access while gaining community buy-in

Though facial recognition and AI are becoming increasingly mainstream, the lack of regulation in the industry has caused concern among the public. With this in mind, I knew that transparency and collaboration would be key throughout the implementation of SAFR for K-12. 

Prior to the installation of the software, we reached out to community stakeholders to solicit thoughts and concerns, which allowed us to provide answers and increase the ability for a smooth and successful deployment. Teachers, families and students were notified from the beginning, with consent being collected as needed, concerns being heard, and our plan being shared. Teachers must first opt-in to use the SAFR for K-12 system.

Students and families have remarked that they can “breathe a little easier” knowing that the school is being monitored, and staff feel empowered having an extra security tool in their toolbox.

Data, privacy and regulation

It’s scary to think of an advanced technology that has no set standards for regulation. As some big name companies have come under fire for their usage of facial recognition, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that other big names are calling for regulation

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), between 2014 and 2018 facial recognition software got 20 times better at searching a database to find a matching photograph. The quick advancement of facial recognition and its usage across industries has caused some unease in the general public — and that’s understandable. As with the evolution of any technology, it’s important that we first consider the implications that it could bring, while also considering the value.

We ultimately decided to install the SAFR for K-12 software because of the vigorous steps that have been taken to keep data secure and private, its 99.8 percent accuracy rate and top performance during NIST standard testing. Any biometric data collected is kept encrypted on a computer accessible only to designated staff members. And, as mentioned earlier, student data is not collected. Any staff member or visitor who registers in the system must first consent, and that consent can be withdrawn at any time. 

We also follow a strict set of best practices for facial recognition usage in school. These standards stress the importance of protecting the privacy of staff, students and visitors first, and always using the software to support a private, safe and secure environment.

Being in an administrator role, it’s my primary responsibility to vet and ensure that any technology I bring into our school is credible, secure and safe. Prior to implementing any kind of technology or tool, it’s an important step to research the company, and their views on keeping data secure and private. Ensuring that a system is first and foremost built for privacy and data security should be a priority for any institution — regardless of industry, or complexity of the technology.

While the trend in advancing school safety continues, I expect that technology such as facial recognition will continue to rise. With this in mind, it’s more important than ever that we advocate for regulation and proper usage of the technology, and continue to collaborate on best practices for keeping students safe. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: school violence can never be 100 percent prevented. But, with effective tools and strategies in place, we’re able to make schools a little bit safer.