Security Technologies: Cameras, Metal Detectors, Communication Systems

Does the use of security technologies make your schools a prison, or well controlled? Are we infringing on student’s rights, or are we providing students with a safe environment? These are questions that are asked when schools consider the use of security technologies in schools.

Are security technologies necessary? Yes, if our goal is to make schools safe places for children to learn. Following is a brief summary of the pros and cons of various technologies available to support district safety plans. In each case the key word is ‘support.’ All of the following technologies can be used as part of a district's safety plan. None should be considered a total solution.

Video Cameras: CCTV cameras provide students and teachers with a sense of safety and are a deterrent to crime. Why? No one wants to be caught on tape. Cameras and recording devices provide the hard evidence needed, evidence that can be used with the students, with the authorities or with the parents who are sure that their child would never cause trouble. The down side of video cameras is that they are often very expensive and require a certain degree of technical knowledge when making a proper selection. Multiple cameras are needed to obtain adequate coverage, and even then, a sophisticated user can circumvent the security. Vandalism, theft and maintenance of the equipment are also a problem in school districts. Funds may be available for the initial purchase, but are rarely budgeted for their upkeep. The best use of security cameras would be in areas such as cafeterias, parking lots, hallways, band rooms, computer rooms, science labs, administrative offices and any other area where valuable equipment is kept. Cameras in the administrative offices are often used for the purpose of protecting staff from irate parents. In most cases, using cameras to monitor and expecting to be able to react quickly to prevent a situation is an unrealistic approach. Viewing after the fact is currently the most effective use. Studies show that human monitoring is difficult. This, however, is changing as other technologies advance, making immediate reaction or notification of appropriate personnel a viable alternative.

Metal Detectors: Metal detectors are a mature technology that can accurately detect the presence of most types of firearms, knives and weapons. There are three main types of metal detectors — portal systems, hand-held scanners and x-ray baggage scanners. Each is designed to perform a specific task, but there is a common denominator in their use — the operator. In the case of metal detectors, trained personnel is the key. Their effectiveness is determined by the abilities of the operator overseeing it. Aside from personnel, there are other challenges to the effective use of metal detection systems. Portal systems are not effective on purses, book bags, briefcases or suitcases. The layout of the school’s entry also comes into play.

Metal detectors require space to stage students entering the building. The composition of the surrounding walls, furniture and proximity to electromagnetic equipment must also be taken into account. Poor placement can make a metal detector an ineffective safety measure. Multiple points of entry also present a problem. The key to successful use of metal detectors is trained personnel who can not only operate the equipment, but also have developed an ‘eye’ to spot problems or situations.

Communications systems: Last, but not least, is the use of communications devices. This includes the use of phone systems, intercoms, call buttons and duress alarm devices. Crisis management requires the ability to react and respond. As surprising as it may seem, most schools in this country do not have phones in the classrooms. Some states, including California, have recently passed laws that will make this a reality, but in the meantime, most teachers remain cut-off from the outside world — a problem when needing to communicate a crisis situation. Fortunately, many schools now outfit their classrooms with 2-way intercoms/public address systems. This does provide communication with the administrative offices, but does not allow for help to be summoned in the case that the office cannot respond. Another way for an individual to summon help is through the use of a duress alarm. There are three general categories of duress alarms. The first, and most common, are the panic buttons. Panic buttons are push buttons that are strategically mounted in fixed locations. When pressed, they notify the proper authorities that there is a problem. More sophisticated versions send the signal to a console where more detailed information, including exact location, is made available. Other communication systems becoming available on the market would track and identify the user. As more schools become users of wireless technologies, vast possibilities become available.

The security technologies above are just a sampling of what district’s can, and should, consider when implementing a comprehensive security plan. For those interested in more information of this subject, I would suggest that you acquire a copy of the National Institute of Justice research report, The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools – A Guide for Schools and Law Enforcement Agencies. Information regarding this publication can be found on the NIJ Website . The more we learn, the safer we can make our schools!