School Security Technologies

Security technology seems to only get better and better, so it’s understandable if a district is keen on purchasing it. My advice, however, is — go slow! Before you start shoveling money into security technology, spell out precisely the problem you want to solve or deter in the first place. Once that’s established, start looking at solutions, but don’t immediately jump to the latest gizmo — it may be snazzy, but that doesn’t mean it’ll fix your problem. Cameras are useless against cyber-bullying; after-hours locked gates are useless against school-hour shootings; and intrusion alarms do nothing to stop outdoor vandalism. As attractive as it may seem, technology may not hold the answer to all your problems.

What do you really need? For crisis management you might just jump on the latest incident. But for a comprehensive picture of school troubles, do some homework. Check police reports (ask your local department or school resource officer), school administrative data (e.g. bullying incidents, patterns of tardiness or smoking in the bathroom), arrange a professional Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) analysis or conduct your own survey — for example, try this one at

Another great tool is a student-run safety audit, conducted throughout the course of a school day, as well as while traveling to and from school. Ask students to identify locations where they feel safer or more vulnerable, where they worry about being harassed and for anything they think needs attention, such as a broken sidewalk or a burnt out light bulb. While they’re at it, ask them how to best reach them or their parents in emergencies. This might include phones or email, but increasingly (especially with older students) these are second to texting, Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

Once this information has been gathered, map out your preferred solutions, including associated costs. Remember that expenses are not limited to the original purchases; they also include ongoing maintenance and in some cases (such as with metal detectors) staffing. A $2,000 wrought iron fence is a one-time cost; a $2,000 alarm system may come with ongoing monitoring and maintenance expenses.
Now, let’s take a look at how this can be applied.

You’ve done the above analysis, and a number of concerns rate high on your list:
Nobody wants to use the bathrooms at the south end of wing B. They smell bad, the fixtures are broken and bullies hang out there smoking cigarettes.
Monday mornings, staff often find that the greenhouse windows have been broken and beer bottles are found in the play area.
Parents fear pedophiles.

Now let’s consider each problem, and possible solutions. Let’s start with the bathrooms.
Behavioral Considerations. If bullying occurs there, can a bullying prevention program be introduced? Why doesn’t staff enter the bathrooms to check on them more frequently? Is it a staffing issue, 
a job description issue or is it because 
of the smell? If that’s the case, what 
can be done about the smell? Are the bathrooms being well maintained? 
Should we lock the bathroom, and have users check out a key?

Structural Considerations.
Do the fans need repair work? Are we using industrial strength (i.e. steel) fixtures? Does the bathroom use a double-door entry? This is a classic problem with older bathrooms — the double doors keep noise and smoke from escaping into the hallway, which hides this behavior from staff. Maze entries, on the other hand, open the bathrooms to easier surveillance and supervision. Some schools have solved bathroom problems by simply removing doors, or locking them in an open position.

Technological Considerations. Finally, what technological fixes might be useful? Should we put a camera on the bathroom entry? (This can help narrow down the list of suspects in the case of vandalism or other misbehavior.) If so, what model of camera will be most effective in the hall (i.e. if it’s within easy reach, a protective dome should be employed), and can it be moved to a new location when this problem is resolved? Is it theft and vandalism resistant? Can we install it within overlapping view of another camera, so that no camera can be tampered with without being caught 
on another camera? Are the recorded images of sufficient quality for identifying offenders later? And what about cigarettes? Should we put in a smoke detector to roust smokers?

Now let’s move on to the next problem — 
broken windows and beer bottles — for similar considerations.

Behavioral. Does somebody hate the greenhouses? Who and why? Are they stealing anything from inside, or just breaking windows? What’s appealing about the play area for after-hours partying? Can we provide a more enticing alternative? If we can figure that out, we may be able to stop the behavior without incurring further expenses.

Structural. Can we start replacing the windows with unbreakable Plexiglas? Can we reposition the greenhouse to enhance natural surveillance from a neighboring property during the weekend? Can we remove visual obstacles to improve neighbors’ ability to see the playground?

Technological. Can we position cameras to capture offenders’ images? If so, make sure the cameras’ capabilities are right for the amount of lighting currently available overnight, or plan on installing infrared light sources along with the cameras. Pictures should be adequate to identify offenders. Should we install glass-break detectors? If they’re triggered, who will hear them? Do they have to be monitored? Is our system already monitored anyway? Is there a power source handy? One possible response would be to install a solar-powered camera, integrated into a two-way intercom, able to be monitored live from a secure website. (Currently installed in Rio Rancho, N.M., schools.)

Here’s a tougher problem — pedophiles.

Behavioral. Have there been incidents with pedophiles? Were they staff or outsiders? What kind of screening is currently in place, and should it be enhanced? Are students being taught about personal safety? Do they know where to turn for help?

Structural. Are there hiding places on the site that are conducive to hiding pedophile behavior? What can be done to open up those locations for natural surveillance? In some cases, glass walls for offices can be a partial solution.

Technological. Can we install cameras to capture images in highly vulnerable areas? Can we run immediate background checks on visitors or volunteers? One solution might be to install “smart” cameras covering all entrances and sides of every building. If anyone runs or falls, the camera should send the picture and ring a bell at our monitoring station. An alert and picture should also be sent when any secure door is opened. (This approach is currently used in Utica, N.Y., public schools.)

These are only a few examples of broad-view problem-solving approaches. A similar analysis of concerns at your site can help identify sensible, balanced solutions, drawing on behavioral and structural strategies as well as technological ones. 

Tod Schneider is a consultant on Safe, Healthy and Positive Environmental Design (SHAPED), Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), the Second Step Violence Prevention Curriculum and related topics. His more thorough overview of school security technologies is available online at For a similar overview of mass notification technologies, see He can be reached at or [email protected].