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Using Technology to Prevent Violence in Schools

By Becky Lewis
March 2017

Incidents of extreme violence in our nation’s schools have helped lead to an increased emphasis on school safety, which in turn has spurred an accompanying wave of school-safety related technology development. School districts across the country now commonly employ technologies to prevent, respond to and mitigate criminal acts of violence.

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 are those technologies 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 is known about the effectiveness of those technologies in keeping schools safe?

Results from The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 School Safety Technology, completed by the RAND Corporation, include recommendations for researchers and technology developers, as well as for school administrators. With regard to research and evaluation, the study recommendations include the need for more evidence as to what works in the area of school safety technology. The study team notes the need for rigorous research designs to instill trust in school safety technology evaluation results, including measures of proximal outcomes that might be used to assess the effectiveness of new technology. They also note the need to test technology solutions outside the laboratory in real-world settings because of the many factors that affect 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 inA 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. 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 usefulness 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 rigorously designed research into its effectiveness. Study participants that helped inform both reports indicated a need for information on 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 design outcomes.

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.

NIJ is taking steps to remediate this lack of research through its Comprehensive School Safety Initiative; learn more by visiting its page on the NIJ website.