School security technology at center of fierce debate after Uvalde shooting

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(NEW YORK) — As details have emerged from the deadly mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas last month — which left 19 children and two teachers dead — questions have been raised about the effectiveness of security technology used at the school, experts told ABC News.

In Uvalde, a school employee used a security app on his phone to trigger an internal alert system before the shooter entered the school, a spokesperson for the company behind the alert system, Raptor Technologies, said last Friday.

The employee pressed a “lockdown” button that set off a cascade of emergency texts and emails to coworkers, the company said. But at least one teacher, third– and-fourth-grade teacher Arnulfo Reyes, who was wounded in the attack, said he did not receive a message through the Raptor security system.

In addition, a teacher who saw the shooter approach the school armed with a gun, closed a door to the school but the door failed to lock, allowing the shooter to enter, authorities said. Law enforcement is looking into why the door did not lock, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

The tragedy has cast the spotlight once again on the role of security technology — such as alarms, surveillance cameras and metal detectors — and its potential to help prevent and mitigate mass shootings. It also comes as many Republicans and some Democrats have called for enhanced protective measures at schools, such as bulletproof doors, while others have rejected school security measures and technologies as a key solution for mass shootings.

School security technology and the push for it has become increasingly commonplace despite a lack of conclusive research that it makes schools safer, some experts told ABC News. While technology provides schools with additional means for identifying and combating threats, its success depends largely on the competence of the people who operate it and can detract from a school’s academic offerings, the experts said.

Concerns have also arisen over the possibility of disproportionate negative effects of school security technology for Black and brown students, who are more likely to face suspension or expulsion than their white counterparts, according to a study released in 2018 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

What is school security technology?

School security technology encompasses a host of products that protect a campus from unwanted or dangerous visitors, as well as weapons and other prohibited goods.

Schools often protect their main entryways with dead-bolted or otherwise heavily locked doors, which can be equipped with an automatic lock triggered remotely in the event of an emergency, according to a report from the non-profit National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

Further monitoring traffic in and out of school often takes place through the use of visitor ID badges and surveillance cameras. To discover weapons or other illicit materials, some schools deploy metal detectors. Communication devices, such as walkie talkies or public announcement systems, allow staff to alert each other or students to potential threats.

Advanced school security technology incorporates artificial intelligence, such as surveillance cameras programmed to detect guns or identify possible shooters.

Some experts emphasized the value of school security technology, noting that extra lines of defense can make a difference in preventing or slowing a potential attack. But they stressed that technological solutions cannot stand alone. Instead, schools face a challenge of training staff and students to deploy the technology effectively and respond to it in an emergency.

“When properly used to address specific needs, school security technology can be an extra tool,” Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, told ABC News. “But any security technology is only as strong as the weakest human link behind it.”

Another expert went even further, describing technology as a crucial part of school safety.

“School security plays a significant and key role,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit that consults with school districts and other stakeholders on safety precautions.

Stephens highlighted the value of surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and forward-thinking school design that permits easy supervision of students. Technology offers schools an additional set of safety precautions as they face the difficult threat of a shooter committed to harming students or staff, sometimes at the risk of his or her own life, he added. But school safety depends on the people overseeing it, he acknowledged.

“There is still nothing like having that responsible adult or team of adults who are watching,” Stephens said. “It’s something that requires entire community support.”

A study commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2016 found that safety technology may be useful but that effective deployment requires specific measures that fit a given school. Districts may need a layered approach that implements equipment both inside and outside of a school, the report added. But high-profile events often spark measures that don’t make sense in the long run, it noted.

A growing industry

Security technology, at least in some form, is nearly ubiquitous in U.S. schools.

As of the 2017-18 school year, 95% of public schools said that they controlled access to school buildings by locking or monitoring doors, the National Center for Education Statistics found. Eighty-three percent of public schools said they use security cameras, a significant uptick from the 1999-2000 school year, when just 19% of schools were equipped with security cameras, the organization’s survey found.

The prevalence of security technology has helped the sector become a multibillion-dollar industry. In 2017, the security equipment and services sector generated $2.7 billion in revenue, according to an analysis by market-research firm IHS Markit.

Despite recent growth in the industry, research on the effectiveness of school security technology has proven inconclusive, and an uptick in school shootings over recent years suggests that the equipment has little or no effect in protecting schools from attacks, Odis Johnson Jr., the executive director at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told ABC News.

The report commissioned by the Department of Justice in 2016 found an absence of proof that school security measures — such as access control, alarms, and video surveillance — make schools safer. “There is limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology,” the report said.

Similarly, a study that year from research firm RAND on school security technology — such as door locks, video surveillance, and emergency alerts — found “rigorous research about the effectiveness of these technologies is virtually nonexistent.”

Johnson said there remains a lack of clear data that demonstrates the effectiveness of school security technology. “I don’t think the literature is where it needs to be, especially as it relates to strong evidence that there is a benefit to fortifying schools,” he said.

Reaction to school shootings

The heightened use of school security technology has coincided with an increase in shootings and shooting deaths at schools, raising further questions about the effectiveness of the equipment, Johnson said.

During the 2020-21 school year, 145 school shootings took place at U.S. public and private elementary and secondary schools, including 93 shootings with casualties, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That marked the highest number of school shootings in a given school year on record, following record-setting marks each of the three years prior, the organization found.

“The nation has fortified schools by adding law enforcement and more security measures,” Johnson said. “As we still see an increase in injuries and deaths, to me that suggests that these technologies are not an appropriate response to the problem.”

Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, a non-profit that consults with school districts, disagreed, saying that bolstered security could only help schools protect themselves against shooters.

“My take is it’s always better to be prepared,” he said. “Do everything you can, knowing that you can’t do everything.”

But Johnson and Stephens agreed that school security technology forces schools to make tradeoffs that can detract from academics. Stephens cited the example of a metal detector at a single entryway point, which he said can delay students from reaching their classrooms at the start of the day for up to two and a half hours.

“What about the educational process?” Stephens said. “You have to look at the cost.”

Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, said he’s noticed a pattern of a rise in calls for additional technology that follows mass shootings.

“After every high-profile incident, we’ve seen over the years an explosion of overnight experts, gadgets, and gurus that pop up,” Trump said. “People want a tangible thing.”

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