The Tech Behind School Safety and Security:
A Brief Review of 10 Cyber-Physical Technologies for K-12 Schools 

by Brian Casey, Ed.D, Director of Technology, Stevens Point Area Public School District

Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master - Christian Lous Lange 

Technology has changed many aspects of our daily lives, work and schooling. High-speed internet access, exponential growth in computer power, the ubiquity of personal mobile devices and the rise of social media have profoundly transformed our society. These changes have also revolutionized physical security. A vast amount of data are created by sensors, software and systems. Also known as “big data”, these data can be analyzed and used by artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning to alert humans about potential security issues and to predict behavior. The ability to store, share and use data on the cloud and over high-speed internet connections also allows more systems to connect. The systems used to manage facilities, communications, business operations, security and teaching are digital systems that are increasingly talking to one another and sharing data. As the digital transformation expands, school leaders must carefully consider the implications of new and existing technology designed for safety and security. What existing digital safety and security technologies offer schools the most benefit? Which new and emerging technologies hold the most promise for K-12 schools? What do school leaders need to consider before implementing new technology to enhance safety and security? This article will review 10 important examples of K-12 safety and security technology and offer guidance about the use and implementation of each technology.

IP Phone Systems: Mobility, Conferencing and Interoperability

The digitalization of communications has created many opportunities for K-12 school districts. The most basic element of communication in a K-12 district is the phone system. Digital phone systems such as those provided by CiscoMitel and Avaya use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) to access computer networks and the internet in order to provide much more than voice communications. These modern systems can provide services that enhance and expand communication, such as incorporating two-way text messaging. Most schools use mass notification systems that blast out robo-calls or text messages with alerts and notifications about food service balances, attendance or weather related school closings. Schools have, however, struggled with two-way text messaging as a method of communication as the general public increasingly expects to text instead of calling or sending email. This presents challenges to schools that must comply with open record requests, FERPA requirements and the technical challenge of managing text communication. Many modern VoIP phone systems allow schools a method to enable text messaging without relying on personal phones or using third-party services such as Remind. In essence, the phone system could provide a method for teachers and administrators to text while complying with requirements to manage and store text messages. The potential pitfall for schools is that they would need to manage these texts and comply with requests to produce texts. The cost of these services may also be prohibitive.

Modern phone systems also allow for increased access to voice communications. This is very important for daily communications and conducting routine business, but it is essential when schools are confronted with a crisis. Modern VoIP systems enhance communication by providing mobility. Mobility allows a user to route calls to multiple devices based upon rules. If you are not in your office, you can have phone calls from your office extension rerouted to your mobile phone or computer. If you travel to various locations or have multiple offices your calls can be forwarded to any phone once your “presence” has been determined. Voicemail can be sent as an email in a file format that allows you to listen to messages in your email inbox, and since they are digital files, they can often be transcribed or translated if needed. You can save, archive and easily forward important voicemails.

Since modern phone systems are really computer systems, they can talk to other systems such as alarms, door access, video surveillance and much more. In a true emergency an alarm system or other event can now automatically trigger the phone system to initiate a conference call to all members of a school or district crisis team. Depending on the configuration, the phone system would know whether each team member was in the office or away and could automatically call the correct office and cell phone extensions. This saves time and enhances the flow of information in an emergency situation. Calls can also be automated to designated users whenever “9-1-1” is dialed on a district phone. Panic alert buttons on phones can automatically call predetermined numbers to summon assistance. Video surveillance cameras can be incorporated directly into many phone systems to work with door access controls. This could potentially simplify vetting visitors and aide in monitoring which exterior doors are opened and by whom. 

 Digital Radios and RoIP

Many schools rely heavily on radio for rapid communication. Modern phone systems have the ability to connect to digital radios. RoIP (Radio over Internet Protocol) technology allows for the interoperability of radios, telephone and other communication equipment. Schools seem to have an insatiable demand for radios. Using RoIP could allow schools to save money and increase access to rapid communication devices. Larger districts could also leverage this technology to expand radio communications to include district offices. School districts should also consider upgrading to digital radios. Unlike analog radios, information on digital radios can be encrypted to prevent unauthorized eavesdropping. Digital signals are more efficient and easier to manage allowing for more channels and less interference. Digital radios also allow schools to interact with law enforcement personnel that use digital radio communications.

 IP Phone Paging and Digital Signage

Modern IP phone systems have the ability to transmit messages via automated calls and texts delivered directly to each phone’s screen. This notification, known as paging, allows school staff to send messages without using the public address system. Most educators are all too familiar with announcements instructing staff to “read their email.” Paging each IP phone would allow school leaders to quickly and discreetly notify staff about early school closings, soft lockdowns, and other non-crisis events. Many schools also use digital signage to display important information to students, staff and visitors. Digital signage software can be leveraged to communicate emergency alerts by using CAP (Common Alerting Protocol). CAP allows other software such as phone systems, mass notification software and alert systems to transmit messages to digital signage. 

 Mobile Apps for Emergency Management

The percentage of Americans that now own and use a smartphone has almost doubled in the last five years from 35% to 71%. This percentage is even higher for college graduates with 91% using a smartphone (Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership, 2018). This prevalence has lead schools to increase their use of apps to provide information and services to staff, students and parents despite a common belief that mobile devices can be a distraction to students and teachers. In an emergency situation, a smartphone can be an invaluable tool. There are a variety of free and paid apps offering services for K-12 schools such as CrisisGoNowForceMutalinkRave. These apps offer features such as panic buttons that initiate mass notification alerts on smartphones, computers and digital signage. Some apps also offer built-in emergency response plans, maps and instructions for users as well as confidential tip-line reporting for suspicious activity and potential threats. The CrisisGo app offers a tool for attendance and reunification of students after an evacuation or school shooting. Roster data from student information systems such as Skyward or Infinite Campus can be imported into the app. Teachers can then account for students using a mobile phone. This would be especially advantageous after an evacuation when student may be mixed between different teachers, grades and locations. The CrisisGo app also offers the ability for teachers to communicate in secure chat. This feature would facilitate secure communication during a lockdown enabling teachers to report injuries, status of students and other valuable information.

 Student Online Monitoring Software

            Our students live a significant portion of their lives in the digital world. Students in crisis often show signs of potential violence, abuse, suicide and bullying in their digital communications, social media activity and school work. Schools can react to these situations by monitoring student online activity using software. Gaggle offers monitoring of student online activity in email, Google Drive and Microsoft 365 accounts. The software uses machine learning and combs through all images, files and communications in student accounts. The software looks for keywords that might indicate self-harm, suicide, violence, bullying or inappropriate activity and sends automated alerts to designated administrators. Gaggle also offers human monitoring to help schools react to serious threats. Human operators at Gaggle read alerts and call school officials when the alert has life threatening consequences. This ensures that the most serious threats can be addressed and not missed by school administrators. Securly offers a similar service that provides content monitoring and auditing of Gmail and Google Drive accounts as well as human monitoring. Their basic monitoring and filtering is free for Chromebooks.

PAEI and Social Media Monitoring

            Most school shooters talked about their plans prior to acting and many talked about them on social media. Schools have increasingly sought to monitor social media activity in order to prevent school violence (Leibowitz, 2018). Government organizations, such as Homeland Security, have used Publicly Available Electronic Information (PAEI) and computers to analyze vast quantities of social media posts to look for threats (Ware & Boatman, 2015). This approach is now being used for K-12 school districts. Software services such as Social Sentinel and Geo-Listening vacuum up billions of social media posts within a given geographic area, such as a school district, and compare the language to thousands of words and phrases related to violence, bullying and self harm. Many experts are not convinced that the approach will help prevent a shooting and the American Civil Liberties Union is also opposed because they view this as an intrusion into the private lives of students (Mullins, 2018). Unlike Gaggle and Securely, Social Sentinel monitors public activity on private accounts and not just school owned accounts. There is another drawback to the service, Snapchat, the fastest growing social media service for teenagers and young adults, is not monitored.

Video Surveillance and Analytics 

Video surveillance has also vastly improved since moving to digital platforms. Schools that have not moved to digital video and software should consider investing in upgrades. Modern video surveillance platforms now offer longer retention periods of up to 90 days and the software used by most platforms allows for easy location of relevant footage. Digital video cameras produce high quality images that can be analyzed by computers. New cameras, such as 4K cameras and fishbowl 360 cameras, allow schools to capture complete footage in areas such a gymnasiums, parking lots and cafeterias. 4K cameras allow for detailed images capable of reading license plates in parking lots. Some video cameras also offer sound detection that can trigger alerts when gunshots, screaming or other signs of crisis are detected. Analytics using machine learning and artificial intelligence (A.I.) can also be used to interpret actions on video and alert administrators when events such as fights, loitering or speeding by vehicles occur. Most modern video systems offer interoperability with door access controls, which allows for easy monitoring of doors equipped with RFID badge readers and easy location of footage related to staff and student entrances into buildings. This feature can also facilitate opening doors for guests and visitors. Another benefit of modern video surveillance software is the ability to easily share live or recorded images on mobile devices and multiple computers. This allows school principals to quickly access video footage on a smartphone or any computer. The same access could be provided to police. Law enforcement could easily access school video footage in police cars equipped with computers, dispatch centers or emergency command centers (Federal Commission on School Safety, 2018, p 123).

Door Access Control and Facial Recognition

Door access control is not a new technology. Businesses, including schools, have used Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) badges for years to control access to facilities and to monitor who comes and goes. Door access systems can be integrated with other systems to provide more insight and control over access. This allows for video cameras to show who is requesting access or record access events and alert staff. Door access systems can also be integrated with other systems to open and close doors in an emergency. Schools in Texas are using RFID badges to track students on buses, make lunch purchases and even check out library books (Scipioni, 2017). Some schools are opting to forgo the uses of badges entirely and use biometric data such as fingerprints to enable easy lunch payments (Klausner, 2018). Facial recognition technology is now available to schools that utilize digital video surveillance. RealNetworks announced that it would offer SAFR, an A.I. and machine learning based facial recognition software, free to K-12 school districts (Schaffhauser, 2018). The software is being used by UCDS school district in Seattle. RealNetworks claims that the software is 98% accurate and will help to make K-12 schools safer and more efficient by streamlining gate access to schools (RealNetworks, 2018). School districts should be extremely cautious before implementing this technology. Even if the software works as promised, the issue of privacy and district management of biometric data should be considered. All biometric data is converted into digital data and stored. Once districts acquire these data they must be ready to protect it and deal with the consequences of a data breach if it is ever stolen.

Visitor Management

            Schools have also leveraged technology to streamline the process of vetting and tracking visitors to school buildings. Software vendors such as RaptorIdentiSysLobbyGuard and School Technology Associates use computers and the internet to vet visitors, process visitor badges and track visitors in K-12 facilities. When a visitor checks in at the office they present a driver’s license or official ID. The ID is scanned and then checked against the national registry of sex offenders. Staff could also create their own custom alerts for non-custodial parents or those not approved for school entry. Schools would have access to digital records that could be searched and accessed from multiple locations, quite unlike paper log in sheets. The downside of these systems is the additional cost associated with licensing and expanded background checks. Many schools require full criminal background checks of volunteers and all of these systems charge a fee per background check.

 Geolocation and Geofencing

Geolocation is a feature available on most smartphones, tablets, laptops, Chromebooks and other devices such as RFID badges. This feature allows a device to report its approximate physical location using Wi-Fi or cellular networks. Schools have used this feature to track the location of 1:1 devices, school buses and district vehicles. Geolocation is often an option when implementing security apps such as CrisisGo or transportation software. Using this technology schools could track students’ whereabouts from the minute they board a bus to the moment they leave the bus after school. Geofencing is the creation of a virtual perimeter for real geographic areas. This feature can be used to turn off devices if they leave the geographically defined area of a school district, report when employees enter or leave defined areas and track vehicles. It is also used to limit the use of applications in K-12 buildings or to define geographic areas for data collection as in the case of Geo-Listening and Social Sentinel. Both of these technologies should be used with caution by school districts, especially when it comes to students. It is certainly helpful to track school buses, district vehicles, and district owned devices, but the potential for misuse may outweigh the benefits. If the computer systems behind these technologies are ever hacked or compromised, schools could offer up easy ways for tracking students. 


Technology has become an essential component of school safety and security. It can serve us well by making it easier to communicate or help prevent and deter crime, vandalism and bullying. Ultimately all technology can fail even with A.I and machine learning, especially if there are not enough humans to analyze and act on the information and data. Technology can’t prevent bad things from happening, but it can serve us well when we practice and plan for security events. We also need to adequately train staff on using new technology. Schools struggle with teaching staff how to use computers and basic software such as Google. Sometimes the cost of implementing a new technology can offer paltry gains in security yet take resources away from other critical areas. Another important consideration is the cyber security threat. The more data and systems become connected the more we need to protect them from cyber attacks. Collecting biometric and geolocation data to make things easier presents high-stake risks for schools. When large firms such as Facebook, Equifax and Marriot cannot protect their data, why would parents expect that schools could? It is one thing to lose a person’s identity to thieves when this information contains names, birth dates and social security numbers; it is entirely different and disturbing to lose a person's digital facial profile, digital fingerprint or retinal scan. When digital security systems are hacked they can be turned against their masters, as was the case in 2018 when the dark overlord hacked several K-12 schools including their video surveillance systems. School leaders need to remain committed to using technology to solve real security problems and make schools safer. Educators must carefully consider the broader implications of expanding security technology. Just because we have the technology, does not always mean we have to use it.



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