by Scott Mulligan and Dr. Richard Lareau
Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, over 330,000 students across the United States have experienced gun violence in their schools. Whether these students hid under a desk, were protected by a teacher, or were injured or killed by the assailant, the violence has permanently impacted these students, their families, and their communities.
Without entering the debate over the efficacy of nationwide gun control, the goal-line defense for our children continues to be the front door of their schools. With that, over the last 20-plus years, law enforcement, policymakers, educators, and security technology manufacturers have taken steps to counter gun violence in schools with additional physical security measures. These measures have included everything from lockdown drills and self-defense training to armed security guards and walkthrough body scanners. Despite the energy that various groups have devoted to this issue, security technology acquisitions, which can be financially and logistically complex for schools and local law enforcement officials, have fallen short.
Proposed Model to Simplify Technology Acquisition for Schools
During a 2022 school violence conference hosted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), one speaker encouraged school districts to “do their research and scrutinize security vendors” before purchasing solutions.
Educators and school officials should not be charged with becoming proficient consumers of security technology. Furthermore, local law enforcement and emergency management officials should not bear the burden of becoming experts in complex technology integration tasks. Rather, a unified approach to integrating advanced security technology into educational settings is necessary.
As a possible model, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government formed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which established stringent requirements for security technologies and developed an extensive testing infrastructure and process to evaluate technology solutions. TSA also established a qualified products list that defined the use, capabilities, environment and, to an extent, acceptable costs of security technologies in the aviation space.
Today, if an aviation cargo facility operator needs to purchase technology to screen cargo, the operator does not have to independently assess each vendor’s solution, stand up testing protocols, or conduct trials. Rather, the operator can purchase the technology from TSA’s qualified products list with the confidence that the technology has been thoroughly tested for efficacy in the environment.
There is no such list for schools, but thousands of technology solutions are being sold in this multi-million-dollar marketplace. Solutions range from basic walkthrough metal detectors to artificial intelligence (AI)-driven surveillance systems that can identify the furtive movements of a potential assailant. Other technologies respond to gunshots and use AI to direct the lockdown and evacuation of a school based upon the location of the assailant. While technology can improve the safety of our schools, it must be evaluated for effectiveness in the setting where it will be deployed. To date, no governmental or nonprofit organization reviews, tests, or approves any of these technologies.
Formalized Requirements Will Improve Quality and Price
As with the DHS/TSA model, formalizing requirements for technology in schools will create better security solutions and lower prices for school districts. Articulating requirements for this technology, including throughput, sensitivity, relevant threats, and false alarm rates (among many things), will define parameters for technology development. These parameters will make it easier for manufacturers to develop solutions and assures them that if their product meets these requirements it will be competitive in the marketplace. Formalized requirements will foster innovation and fair competitiveness as OEMs create new and novel ways to meet those requirements at competitive prices. Most important, formalized requirements will help assure school districts that their scarce security dollars are going to high-quality solutions that will serve the intended purpose.
In January 2023, Newport News, Virginia school officials announced the purchase of 90 “state-of-the-art” walkthrough weapon detectors for their district’s schools. This procurement was made only weeks after a 6-year-old child shot a first-grade teacher at Richneck Elementary School. While these quick procurements are understandable under the circumstances, having a qualified list of products that meet agreed-upon requirements could help ensure that those solutions are cost-effective and appropriate in helping to secure our schools.