School Safety Systems Are Only as Good as the Humans Behind Them

And a balance of securing an area while preserving dignity needs to be taken into account.

by Jim McKay / May 17, 2018
Mourners bring flowers as they pay tribute at a memorial for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018 during an open house as parents and students returned to the school for the first time since 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at the school in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018. TNS

Security is on the front burner for school districts around the country, but how to make students, faculty and visitors safe is a tricky and touchy subject.

There are multiple layers of possible security, including armed officers, armed teachers, metal detectors, video cameras and visitor management systems. They all have their pluses and/or minuses but there are common denominators in any effort to secure a school or any similar location.

All of the above are just one facet of security and not a guarantee of anything, and the human factor is as important or more so than any other.

Consider the visitation management system, where visitors can be screened by having their drivers’ licenses scanned and the visitor checked against some sort of database. These are becoming popular in some areas and can be of value, but there are holes, like in any system.

Ed Davis, former commissioner of the Boston Police Department and current security consultant, said all of the systems available are dependent on human intervention and vulnerable to the extent of human failure.

“An airport metal detector is only as good as the human being operating it,” Davis said. “If they look at a bag going through the X-ray machine, they have to identify the material as suspicious, and sometimes they are paying attention and sometimes they are not.”

In his consultation business, Davis does work for companies testing security. He said security screeners “wanding” people with security wands often miss the back of people. “We’ve slipped firearms into places that have metal detectors because the human operating the metal detector was not comprehensive in the way they used it.”

“These [visitation management] systems fit into that category. “When someone rings the bell, you don’t have an indication that they are a threat, so what do you do?”

He said a lot of people who perpetrate crimes, such as shooting up a school, don’t a have a criminal record and may not be listed on a list of prohibited people.

“So you’re dealing with a stranger at the front door, do you let them in to talk to them, do you go outside to see them?” There is no one thing that is absolutely affective, it has to be a series of systems and the humans are really important, training and policy has to get tested all the time,” Davis said.

There is no system that is 100 percent effective; the goal is to dissuade someone enough that he finds another target. “You have to think about what kind of perimeter defense you have and what’s going to harden your target to the point where someone is going to pick another target,” he said.

That said, Davis said there are a good number of visitation management systems on the market that are tried and true and that the technology is getting better every day. “I’ve seen some really good systems, and there’s new technology coming out,” he said. “I’m working with MIT right now on a product that’s extremely exciting, and I think it’s going to make a difference in the facial recognition area.”

Sandro Galea, a dean at Boston University’s School of Public Health, warns of the “militarization” of an environment.

“There has to be a balance between preserving safety and creating a sense of vulnerability, and there’s a price to pay for militarization,” Galea said. “It depends on how it’s done. If it’s done while preserving dignity and not with a sense of fear, it’s OK.”

He said a jurisdiction should figure out what it needs as far as safety and how to go about it while not creating a culture of fear. “Balance needs to be taken into account.”