Balancing Safety in the K-12 Learning Environment

Smarter Security Requires balance

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to dominate our world, protecting against mass or individual shootings may no longer be an organization’s highest profile priority. Unfortunately, changing headlines don’t mean the risks of a potentially catastrophic shooting situation have diminished.

In fact, today’s climate is likely increasing the risk of shootings, yet preventative resources are decreasing. Further, there’s increasing understanding, evidence, and appreciation that historical approaches to address this risk are having unintended human and social consequences. Armed guards, high-profile metal detectors, and active shooter drills are all now common approaches.

While it’s hard to measure how effective these efforts are in stopping shootings, there’s evidence to suggest that some of the more obtrusive precautions, while potentially life-saving, come with their own trade-offs that impact the very people they were meant to protect. The combined impacts of Covid, social unrest, and economic volatility are hastening the need to re-evaluate.

In this blog, we’ll explore what schools across the country are doing to prevent violence, the effectiveness of those solutions, and alternatives to consider.

The Learning Battleground

It’s a school’s mission to balance safety with an environment conducive to learning. Despite the best intentions of administrators, the two often come into conflict, as the Covid challenge demonstrates.

While our nation rises to that challenge, it’s tempting to shift resources away from other risks—including preventing potentially catastrophic events like school shootings. Consider that the U.S. Center for Homeland Defense and Security shows year-to-date K12 shootings (through August 2020) are at a pace that will result in 2020 being one of the worst in the past decade, despite several months of closed schools and fewer students taking in-person classes.

Schools who are still able to prioritize non-Covid risks often do so with approaches that have large trade-offs. For example, consider school shooting drills. While they’re implemented to help students prepare for an actual shooting event, what is helpful to some may be detrimental to others. And for vulnerable and sensitive students, the experience can be confusing, stressful, or even traumatic.

An investigative report from Elizabeth Chuck at NBC news found, “Students’ anxieties have swelled. Some are not told that the lockdowns are just drills, prompting them to send what they believe are final goodbyes over text to their parents or faint or throw up. Others are afraid to go to school in the days following the drills.”

To make matters more complicated, researchers have begun questioning their efficacy.

According to Chuck, “[T]here is hardly any research on the drills’ effectiveness, and while there are some federal recommendations, there is no standard template for schools to follow in terms of how to do them, how often to conduct them and how to explain them to students of different ages.”

Whether schools are able to effectively implement drills or not, the results are the same—an entire generation of students is growing up with the possibility of violence hanging over their heads.

Just like the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War era, present day active shooter drills reflect a growing anxiety that’s permeated every inch of our society. We’ve turned to drills to reclaim our sense of agency. But is there a better way to do that?

When Bias Rears Its Head

Metal detectors have also become a common tool in the fight for school security.

It’s easy to understand their initial appeal: for schools that routinely confiscate weapons from students, the accuracy of metal detectors (along with their inability to be fooled or bypassed) can be a great comfort to a lot of people. When used correctly, they’re dependable tools that can protect the most vulnerable among our population.

But the potential for misuse can’t be ignored. Because it’s usually impractical to screen all students, faculty, and staff at the start of the school day—either from a budgetary or time constraint perspective—schools often must prioritize who gets screened and who doesn’t. While currently, schools are screening all students for reasons related to COVID, this is likely to be a short-term fix. And once life resumes as normal, we’ll be confronted by the same questions—

Who should we consider harmless? Who is a threat? Who should be able to enter the school freely, without suspicion? And who will have to stand in a line as they’re subjected to public scrutiny in front of their teachers, friends and peers? 

These are the difficult questions administrators must ask when faced with the reality of implementing metal detectors in a building where everyone enters and leaves at the same time. Despite their good intentions, this sorting of students has led some schools to inadvertently adopt discriminatory practices that critics say target minorities.

Some parents and education activists have appealed to eliminate the use of metal detectors, noting that, “…almost half of black students are scanned daily, while only 14% of white students are.”

As teachers and students return to school after a summer unlike any other in American history, these disparities may be more glaring than ever. With horrific images of violent discrimination fresh in children’s minds, there is much more at stake than simply public safety.

A More Balanced Solution: Smarter Surveillance

What options do schools have to protect children and staff? For this all-too-human problem, artificial intelligence (AI) may hold the key.

AI has advanced rapidly and, when combined with the unobtrusive monitoring of an existing surveillance system, it has the potential to fundamentally change the way schools handle security. Because most school surveillance is unmonitored and used as an after-the-fact method to document an incident, AI can also be a more proactive and efficient way to make schools safer without the added costs of more security personnel or SROs, while making schools more comfortable and equitable for students too.

AI can be used to identify weapons and other risks without subjecting students to practices that single them out in front of their classmates or create added stress and distraction. And while there is growing ethical concern around the use of AI-powered facial recognition, companies like IntelliSee are leading the charge to protect the public’s safety and their privacy by vowing never to collect, store or sell personally identifiable information.

As technology continues to develop, AI-powered platforms like IntelliSee will further be able to recognize and prevent or mitigate other risks. For example, AI is already being used to identify slip and fall risks, trespassers, and even no-show situations like a missing guard or front office person. But work is already occurring to use AI to identify sudden formations of crowds, fights, bullying, and even gestural markers of impending violence. Technological advances like these allow counselors and educators to deescalate tense situations before police or security need to become involved. This allows schools to mitigate risks without creating more in the process.

Technology alone is not the end-all solution to preventing violence in schools, but by using it alongside proven techniques such as early intervention and threat assessments, students can feel safer and ready to learn.