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Managing School Safety in the Digital Age (Industry Perspective)

Data analytics and cloud-based collaboration tools can help schools stay ahead of 21st-century threats.

Maintaining a safe campus environment for students has become all the more challenging in recent years. The majority of U.S. schools now report at least one violent crime each year, and campus shootings have reached an all-time high.

Making matters worse, much of the risk has moved into the realm of social networks, where anonymous threats against schools keep multiplying, and the severity and consequences of cyberbullying have never been worse. Add to that the very real danger of international terror threats, and one quickly realizes that the time has come for new solutions beyond additional increments of cameras, security officers and active-shooter drills.

School leaders are responsible for providing a safe environment for students to learn and develop; they are expected to work closely with law enforcement and public safety agencies to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from a wide array of threats and hazards — and do so despite dwindling budgets, insufficient equipment and limited personnel resources.

Fortunately, the very technologies that are making schools less secure also hold the promise of effectively counteracting many of the most critical emerging threats, most notable among them being data analytics and cloud-based collaboration solutions.

Data Analytics on Campus

In the aftermath of 9/11, the newly formed U.S. Department of Homeland Security started investing in risk methodologies to quantify different types of man-made threats and natural hazards according to a combined mix of their likelihood, the vulnerability of the targets and consequences of an event should it occur.

When translated into software algorithms and modeled around expert insights on all manner of threats and hazards, the resulting risk prioritization scores provide an analytically sound foundation for federal, state and local agencies to make decisions about security planning, programming and resourcing. These risk methodologies and analytical tools can be similarly applied to risks that schools face: weapons, illegal drugs, bullying and gangs, to name a few.

More recently, data analytics has evolved to address human threats beyond terrorism to include those posed by individuals operating from within an organization, so-called insider threats. Using a combination of natural-language processing, sentiment analysis and other tools, and running through a detailed model of human behaviors, these advanced analytical solutions are being used to process massive amounts of data from publicly available electronic information (PAEI) — sources like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — in such a way as to automatically "red-flag" individuals who may pose particular dangers. Applying these approaches in schools could lead to better screening of operational staff and provide up-to-date intelligence on violent criminals or child predators living near schools.

Although advanced analytics of Internal and external threats may initially appear to be the stuff of secretive federal programs, the underlying tools can now be just as easily deployed in schools, and in fact would provide significant labor savings among K-12 and higher education institutions. Automating the processing and analysis of PAEI means a reduction in mounds of insignificant digital noise and more efficient identification of truly credible threat "signals" — resulting in fewer false positives and enabling school safety stakeholders to be better prepared, to prioritize the most effective preventative measures and to streamline emergency responses. 

All of these approaches, however, must be carefully implemented to ensure that they conform to privacy expectations and don’t negatively impact employee morale. But for sensitive positions like those involving the welfare of children, enhancing background checks to provide continuous monitoring bears serious consideration.

Cloud Collaboration Enables School Safety

The 9/11 Commission's central finding was that there was little sharing of intelligence information among the numerous federal and regional agencies protecting the U.S. This resulted in a failure to connect the dots — or see the bigger picture among scattered clues as to the intentions of the 9/11 terrorists. With secure cloud-based platforms now becoming the preferred means of delivering software tools across a wide swath of industry and government, the technological impediments to information sharing have been overcome.

The U.S. is home to more than 130,000 schools serving approximately 55 million K-12 students and another 4,500-plus colleges and universities serving 21 million students. Every public school district, private school network, and college or university system is a distinct ecosystem — but one that nonetheless shares its school safety responsibilities with an array of outside agencies. While some larger school districts have their own police departments, many smaller districts rely on local police departments or county sheriffs, which are sometimes miles away from the nearest school.

Cloud-based collaborative tools enable school safety stakeholders to get ahead of both man-made and natural emergencies regardless of where they're located. Massive amounts of publicly available data — in the form of social media posts, weather and traffic alerts, news/RSS feeds, and more — are signs that can be captured, processed, analyzed, tagged and fed into a data stream or digital map and viewed against other geo-visual data such as school campuses. Mobile devices in the hands of security personnel, teaching staff and even students become "sensors" that supply critical real-time incident information to those who are responsible for the safety and security of students, staff and campus facilities. Finally, it is becoming increasingly common for states to mandate single, cloud-based repositories for critical information such as emergency plans, site maps and floor plans, as well as photos and contact information for key personnel.

A single platform in the cloud provides the missing link for the multiple agencies and institutions that are expected to collaborate, giving them a common operating picture of the school environment, more instantaneous information sharing abilities, and much more detailed contextual awareness of the threats and hazards facing schools every day.

It's often been said that technology is a terrible master but a wonderful servant. In practice, this means school leaders must approach their technology investments with a clear understanding of how these will augment and enhance — not replace — existing school safety policies and procedures. A rapid emergency response using real-time data streaming will get bogged down if the school has not conducted the proper drills in advance, or if the emergency plan is out of date or floor plans are unavailable. Advanced access controls only work when procedures are followed by all staff and students. Online safety assessments are only useful if districts or states ask the right kinds of questions to elicit detailed data and if they are not so long or complex that no one will bother to complete them. The most up-to-date snowstorm data still requires an administrator to decide if schools should open that day. And despite the availability of advanced social media monitoring systems, several of the most serious recent anonymous threats by students against schools were discovered by fellow students and promptly reported to the authorities.

That said, advanced data analytics and tools that can be used on any device, any time and anywhere, give school safety stakeholders a force-multiplier that, when combined with strong and well-communicated safety protocols, allows them to be better positioned to prevent, respond to and recover from any kind of crisis.

Bryan Ware is the president of analytics and the chief technology officer for Haystax Technology, an analytics and cybersecurity company. He leads the company’s analytics business, technology strategy, and research and development activities, particularly in enterprise threat management, real-time threat intelligence and public safety applications. John Boatman is the director of school safety solutions for Haystax Technology.