Blog: Making Schools “Hard” Targets

October 6th, 2016

By: Christopher Smeenk, CHHS Extern

There is a common denominator among the 142 school shootings that have occurred in the United States since 2013: in each instance, the perpetrator(s) attacked a “soft” target.

Schools are considered “soft targets” because they are relatively unprotected and vulnerable to deadly attacks. This reality was clearly evident in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults. That tragedy reinforced the need to develop new strategies to protect students and staff at schools across the country.

In response, school districts have begun to employ innovative technology to prevent attacks and mitigate the loss of life during active-shooter incidents. The goal of these efforts is to transform schools from “soft” to “hard” targets. This process has included the installation of new security systems that fall into three main categories: (1) access control; (2) video surveillance; and (3) gunshot detection.

Access Control Systems

Access control systems are designed to secure people in the building, delay an attacker, and notify law enforcement. These systems have the most immediate impact, because they instantaneously create a physical barrier between the perpetrator and potential victims and there is no evidence that an active shooter has ever breached a locked classroom door.

In recent months, several security companies have introduced innovative access control systems. One example is the Shelter system, which allows a teacher, administrator, or security officer to remotely lock a classroom door and alert law enforcement by pressing a button on a wireless pendant. Another hi-tech option prevents intruders from entering a school building by employing a fingerprint- recognition system, which requires all visitors to be positively identified by their unique fingerprint before entering the school building.

While access control systems can play a critical role in saving lives during active-shooter situations, the cost may be prohibitive to school districts. Traditional systems cost up to $3,000 per door, but security companies are working to develop less expensive alternatives. For example, the Sleeve is a carbon steel case that encapsulates the door’s closer arm, disabling the function of the door and effectively sealing the door shut.  This device is engineered to withstand more than 550 pounds of force, and is custom-made to fit any door. The Sleeve costs only $79 per door.

Another example is the Classroom Secure Rapid Lock System, which retrofits to all standard school door locking systems. This device allows free entry and exit throughout the day while the door is in the unlocked position; in the event of an emergency, the door can be locked from inside the room by simply shifting the position of the handle. The Classroom Secure RLS costs only $95 per door.

Video Surveillance

Virtually all schools employ some type of video monitoring system. However, use of this technology has expanded in recent years to include high-tech surveillance and integrated security systems. For example, a high school in Shelbyville, Indiana recently installed a state-of-the-art security system that is linked into the nearest police station; officers monitor video feeds from the school and, in the case of an active shooter situation, can remotely activate “blinding smoke cannons” and “ear-splitting sirens” in the school building. These security features are designed to protect students and staff members by incapacitating the attacker(s) until first responders arrive on the scene.

Gunshot-Detection Technology

While access control and video surveillance systems are fairly common in schools across the country, a handful of school are raising the stakes by employing gunshot detection technology on their campuses. These systems feature acoustic sensors that listen for the distinct sound of gunfire, pinpoint its location, and automatically alert authorities.

The use of gunshot detection systems in schools is the latest example of military-inspired “battlefield” technology being used for public safety purposes in towns and cities across the United States. For example, a school district in Virginia Beach recently installed a gunshot detection system that is based on Boomerang, which was created to help U.S. military forces locate sniper fire on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Likewise, a school district in San Francisco recently installed ShotSpotter technology, which is a sound-recognition system that instantly identifies the exact location of gunfire. This technology is used by police departments in major cities to alert first responders and SWAT teams to the precise location of a shooter.

Like other high-tech security systems, the cost of employing gunshot-detection technology is a major challenge for school districts. These systems cost between $10,000 and $100,000 per year, depending on the size of a school. That is a lot of money for school districts, which often struggle to provide students and teachers with basic necessities due to budgetary constraints.

In conclusion, there is no question that school districts need to proactively address their vulnerabilities and strengthen their defenses against potential attacks. The goal of these efforts must be to make school buildings “hard” targets that are difficult to penetrate and deter potential attackers. The recent advances in school security system technology offer the tools necessary to achieve this objective. However, the reality is that relatively few school districts are able to afford these hi-tech security systems. Therefore, each individual school district must consider the various factors related to school security and determine the most cost-effective means to protect students and faculty members.

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