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Using Technology to Prevent Violence in Schools

Date Published
March 29, 2017

School districts across the country employ technologies to prevent, respond to, and mitigate criminal acts of violence.

These technologies are a piece of the ongoing national conversation on school safety, and we know little about their overall use and implementation. As part of the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, NIJ funded two complementary projects to help answer some basic questions: What technologies are currently in use and how those technologies are being used? What factors may affect the deployment of those technologies? What are the limits of those technologies and what improvements are needed? And ultimately, how much do we know about the effectiveness of those technologies in keeping schools safe?

Results from the first study, completed by the RAND Corporation, include recommendations for researchers, technology developers, as well as for school administrators.[1] With regard to research and evaluation, the study recommendations include the need for more evidence as to what works in the area of schools safety technology. Researchers note the need for rigorous research designs to instill trust in school safety technology evaluation results to include measures of proximal outcomes that might be used to assess the effectiveness of new technology. Researchers go on to note the need to test technology solutions outside the laboratory in real-world settings because of the myriad of confounding factors affecting the implementation of safety technology in schools.

RAND’s research indicated that technology developers should turn their focus to the general area of communications, including:

  • Devising low-cost ways to allow teachers to have direct, layered, two-way communication with a central command and control system.
  • Making anonymous tip line technology easier to monitor and permitting uploads from multiple media.
  • Creating “all-in-one” portals that provide access to changes in state and federal laws, training modules, violence alerts, prevention information and incident response information.
  • Developing sophisticated social media scanning tools.

The report recommends that technology solutions be tested in real-world settings that include environmental challenges and the potential for human error.

The second study resulted in the report A Comprehensive Report on School Safety Technology, by Johns Hopkins University, which presents a detailed picture of existing school safety technology at a particular point in time.[2] The report examines the technologies currently being used, how they are used, how those technologies were chosen, legal considerations, and how technology is used in a sampling of countries from around the world.

JHU’s research classifies the technologies currently in use in schools under the headings of access control, alarms and sensors, communications, lighting, software applications, surveillance, weapons detection and “other;” although a thorough evaluation process is key prior to administrators selecting a technology appropriate for a particular school or district, and numerous tools and literature references are available in print or electronic form to assist with this process, the utility of these tools often has not been evaluated.

The two reports share the conclusion that the recent increase in the use of technology has not been accompanied by rigorous research into its effectiveness. Study participants that helped inform both reports indicated a need for rigorously designed research into what works that is evidence-based, vetted and presented to the audience of school administrators, IT planners, and safety professionals in clear, easy-to-understand language. This research should include research design outcomes. NIJ is taking steps to remediate this lack of research through its Comprehensive School Safety Initiative.

Both reviews of school safety technology also shared another major conclusion: that no one technology, school climate intervention, or other school safety strategy can guarantee school security or eliminate the underlying causes of school violence. An integrated approach that includes emergency response plans, drills, a positive school climate, and situational awareness is called for, and plans need to be tailored to the needs of each individual school.

About this Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ cooperative agreement 2013-MU-CX-K111, awarded to The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in cooperation with The Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Division of Public Safety Leadership and NIJ cooperative agreement number 2013-MU-CX-K003, awarded to RAND Corporation.

This article is based on the grantee reports A Comprehensive Report on School Safety Technology (pdf, 473 pages) and The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 School Safety Technology

Date Published: March 29, 2017