The Humanization of School Safety Technology

We are prone to use technology to solve problems. Sometimes this works extremely well, while in other instances results may not be so good. One of the latter instances is school safety. Many look towards the use of security equipment to insure the safety of our schools. Unfortunately, even excellent school safety equipment can only be expected to deliver optimal results when combined with the“human touch.”

We sometimes hear complaints of the“prison-like” and “impersonal” environments that are created when security cameras, metal detectors, identification card systems and other types of technology are incorporated into the school setting. There have been major acts of violence in schools where a heavy investment in these types of equipment has been made. This causes many casual observers mistakenly to believe that these and other types of security technology don’t work.

If we look further at these situations, however, we typically see several problems:

    • Security equipment has been purchased as a single approach “answer” to school violence problems and was not integrated into a comprehensive approach to school safety.

    • The equipment has been selected without proper evaluation to match it to the needs of the particular application.

    • Those who are to be protected by the equipment are not consulted, to see if they have any suggestions as to how the benefits of the equipment can be realized without creating an oppressive environment.

    • The technological resources are added without adequate preparation to insure that employees have been prepared to work with, and complement, the effectiveness of the technology.

There are situations where a facility's access control system is compromised by human error, such as an employee holding open a door for a complete stranger. There have been instances of guns being smuggled through a metal detection checkpoint at a courthouse or an airport. We hear of burglaries not being detected because someone forgot to turn on a burglar alarm system.

These situations often lead people to assume that the technology is not of value. Instead, we should question how the equipment was selected, implemented and integrated into the environment. In this regard, schools can be similar to other facilities. If we fail to consider how the technology will work in a caring environment, problems are likely to surface.

Often, schools must be run on limited funds. This makes it even more critical that decisions concerning the purchase of security equipment and technology be made thoughtfully. If you are considering the purchase of access control systems, security cameras, metal detectors, incident reporting software or other types of technology, consider the following:

    • Do you know how to achieve the benefit of the technology while maintaining a positive and caring environment for students, employees and visitors?

    • What is the reputation of the manufacturer and vendor? What kind of tech support can be expected?

    • Is the equipment matched to your specific needs or will you be trying to match your needs to the equipment that a particular vendor wants to sell?

    • How does this equipment fit in with your overall approach to school safety?

    • Have you established a sense of priority for the use of available funds?

    • Is there a government or corporate grant source that might pay for this technology?

    • Have you considered how this approach will affect efforts to prevent crime through environmental design?

    • Have you addressed all of your concerns through proper staff development and information strategies for students?

    • Are you prepared to train and educate students and staff properly to maximize the benefits of the equipment?

Of course, I have used the terms "equipment" and "technology" interchangeably in this column. The concepts that we have explored are relevant whether we are discussing a relatively inexpensive and simple piece of equipment such as a hand-held metal detector, or a $65,000 state-of-the-art security X-ray machine. The considerations are just as important when we talk about old technology, or technology that is relatively new to the school setting, such as the numerous CD-ROM crisis response systems that are appearing on the market.

There is help. Fortunately, many equipment vendors have realized the importance of providing potential customers with useful information to help them in the selection process and to assist them in integrating specific school safety products into their environment. Government resources are also available, such as the National Institute of Justice research report — "The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools." This manual can be downloaded from the National Institute of Justice Website . School safety centers and private consultants can also provide assistance in this quickly evolving area.

There are many types of technology that can help schools reduce problems with disruption, crime and violence (see October issue of Technology Planning & Management.) By viewing them as important components that must be combined with human resources, schools can obtain the maximum benefit from the advancements in technology that are available. As with any other aspect of educating youth, the human touch is important. If you do your homework, you can make the grade in school safety technology.

Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at