Experts say high tech alone can’t stop school shooters

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When Curtis Lavarello walks through the salesroom at the huge school safety conference his organization is sponsoring in July, he will stop and marvel at the uselessness of some technology being marketed in schools.

It won’t help prevent a shooting, he said, and might even hurt.

He cited a $400,000 system that fills hallways with smoke in hopes of stopping a shooter, noting that the same smoke would also interfere with law enforcement trying to intervene and children trying to escape. .

“You’re going to see weird things that you would never want to see in your child’s school,” said Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council.

Experts call it “school safety theatre” – the idea that if a school system buys enough technology or infrastructure, it can protect its children from the horrors of a gunman.

In fact, many say that strong student-staff relationships and strong staff training to influence what may seem like small decisions by school staff can be at least as important, if not much more.

Billions are spent to protect children from school shootings. Does everything work?

Following another school shooting, headteachers, teachers, parents and others are once again debating how the next one could be averted. The national debate revolves around political decisions: Should gun sales be restricted? Should teachers be armed?

For school systems, however, the questions often come down to what to buy, who to hire, and how to prepare their staff.

A widely accepted security measure is to close all exterior doors to schools and require visitors to enter schools through a single point of entry. This is a low-hanging fruit solution that many districts have adopted.

But in Uvalde, Texas, officials say the shooter entered through a backdoor that had been held open by a teacher.

Better training could have made this teacher think twice, experts say.

“We’re putting billions of dollars into security hardware, door access control, single point of entry, cameras, metal detectors in certain locations,” said Kenneth S. Trump, chairman of the National School Safety and Security Services. “Any security technology is only as good as the weakest human link behind it and we don’t focus on training our staff.”

On paper, the Uvalde School District had a solid safety plan in place. This included dedicated police, threat assessment teams, a visitor management system, perimeter fencing, alarm systems, security cameras, radios, and training for students and staff. It also instructs teachers to keep classroom doors closed and locked at all times. But that doesn’t mean it was properly implemented.

Trump often serves as an expert in court cases stemming from school safety failures. The common thread, he said, is the allegation of failure by people, policies and procedures. Technology, he said, “only works if it’s implemented correctly and consistently.”

Lavarello said he was consulting on security with a school district that had recently spent more than $350,000 on excellent exterior door locks. He told them they wouldn’t stop anyone from entering and offered to test the system: “I’ll be at your school in five minutes,” he said. He then walked around the building to a locked door, knocked, and a group of students let him in. “I didn’t look like a threat and they’re nice kids.”

Another challenge: Most school shooters are students or others who are allowed into the building, not random strangers, so entrance walkways may not be effective in stopping them. In Oxford, Michigan last year, a 15-year-old student was already inside the school building when authorities said he shot and killed four classmates.

As a result, many security experts and educators point to a decidedly low-tech solution: the relationships students develop with teachers, counselors, even cafeteria workers — people who might notice when something is wrong. , staff members whom students confide in when they see a classmate whose behavior scares them.

In Uvalde, Riedman said, better prevention could have included spotting warning signs around the shooter long before the massacre, said David Riedman, principal investigator at the K-12 school shooting database. “We haven’t made that commitment to intervene in a crisis when people are on that path,” he said.

“There are warning signs that happen and people miss those warning signs because they don’t know what they are or they don’t know what to do about it,” he said. -he declares.

When asked what he thinks is most important to preventing acts like this, Adam Lane, principal of Haines City High School in Polk County, Florida, didn’t hesitate: relationships , he said.

Lane said that in addition to classes, each of its 3,000 students is connected to at least one educator through a sports team or one of 37 campus clubs. Students are required to belong to at least one, in part to connect them with a caring adult.

“You have to start with building internal relationships,” he said. “We really care about each other.”

Educators have long argued that more resources are needed to meet the social-emotional needs of students, and this has been especially true during the pandemic, when violence has reached a high level and students’ mental health is more strained than never.

“We really need to fund counselors in schools,” said James Dempsey, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-founder of the Violence Project, a study of mass shootings. in the USA. “Reduce class sizes so kids feel seen, and then we can watch for warning signs and recognize them when they’re right in front of us.”

He added: “It also improves school results.”

That’s not to say that technology doesn’t play a role either. There is considerable consensus, in particular, around lower-tech ideas such as locked gates and fencing around the perimeter of a school, both of which could slow or even stop a shooter.

“If you want number 1? Doors locked, classrooms locked,” said Elizabeth Brown, principal of Forest High School in Marion County, Florida. She took over as principal 45 days after a school shooting.

Experts also point to communication tools, such as portable radios that allow school personnel to quickly exchange information between themselves and law enforcement.

Lane, the county superintendent in Polk, Fla., said that in addition to connections, he relies on a network of dozens of cameras around campus. Experts say one problem with the cameras is that they are sometimes installed but there is no funding to maintain them. But Lane said he was able to replace broken equipment and add new cameras every year.

He said that before anyone could enter the school. Now visitors have to speak to someone in the office, who can see who is standing outside and do an assessment. Sometimes, he said, parents can drop off items for their children without even having to enter the building, reducing the risk.

Riedman said there are only two US institutions that are truly dedicated to a preventative mission: the Transportation Security Administration, which screens air travellers, and the US Secret Service, which protects the president and other leaders. high level.

“At airports, we decided we could invest hundreds of billions of dollars to ensure that absolutely no weapons or explosives entered an aircraft. The baseline is zero,” he said. “We will spend any amount of money to make it happen.”

If the president speaks at a local school, there will be a phalanx of police and bomb-sniffing dogs and a tight security perimeter.

This, he says, is not viable in a school.

“School is not a fortress,” he said. “It’s an operation that has a lot of things going on all the time.”

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