Changing Technology and Procedures to Prevent Against School Violence

It was on Tuesday of last week that a student in Jacksboro, Tenn.'s Campbell County High School brought a gun to school and opened fire on school administrators.

When the smoke cleared, one assistant principal, Ken Bruce, was dead, and the school's principal and assistant principal were in the hospital being treated for gunshot wounds.

Basic information on the shooting indicates that the gun was stashed inside the school's cafeteria and that the administrators were shot when they tried to respond to a rumor that at 14-year-old had a gun in the school. What's also known is that the principal called for a lockdown after the incident had begun to occur. caught up with Patrick Fiel, former security chief for Washington, D.C.'s public schools and now the top education consultant for ADT Security Services, to hear what he had to say about using technology and changed procedures to secure U.S. schools.

SIW: Your background was urban schools. What's the relevance to Campbell County, Tenn.?

Fiel: In urban areas we have been very aware of these types of problems for years, but we're just now seeing these issues really making their way into the suburban and rural schools.

SIW: The question every parent and administrator and politician is asking now is whether we could have stopped this.

Fiel: Could this have been prevented? I think, 'yes,' but it requires an assessment. They have to ask the questions about who the students at risk are. They have to consider how weapons can get into the school, how the police will be contacted, who responds, etc.

SIW: One of the things advocated by lawmakers has been a blanket use of metal detectors. What is your take on metal detection technology at schools?

Fiel: There are some consultants out there who are saying it's the wrong approach, but based on my experiences in D.C., we had to have metal detectors. But metal detectors aren't the entire answer. You have to look at when was the last time the school had a shakedown. How many doors do you have to control to the school, so the answer isn't automatically a metal detector.

Before you can use metal detectors or school searches, many schools are going to have to address board of education rules about searching for contraband and weapons. On one hand you have police, and they typically can't go into a school and do this without probable cause. But administrators just need the suspicion, because part of their job is to ensure that their school is safe and that the students have a positive learning environment.

Today, in urban school districts, many schools already are using metal detectors every day. There is a cost factor, and one of the solutions in rural school districts is to use these things randomly. Remember, kids are smart, so you can't have a pattern or they'll recognize it and figure out a way to get around it.

SIW: Would metal detectors be too expensive for a rural school district?

Fiel: The problem isn't the cost of the technology, but the costs of the additional manpower. It is very costly. But what is the price of a student's life? What is the cost of the life of an assistant principal?

SIW: What about using school sweeps?

Fiel: How you use sweeps has to be based on the school. In urban districts like D.C., we had daily random sweep teams. The kids knew this was for real. In a rural area, maybe you do this once or twice a month. They could do something twice a month and really get that point across. But when you plan these, it's not just about the searches coming into the school, you have to look to see if any of the students dumped their weapons in the bushes outside the school.

SIW: When we start talking school sweeps and metal detectors and searches, parents sometimes get up in arms. How do you get them on board to these kinds of safety responses?

Fiel: That's a great question. I think the first thing to do is to bring the parents to the school district's planning table. We have to put ideas like searches, CCTV cameras, student detentions in front of these students' parents. You have to bring in a safety committee that uses parents, the kids, administrators, local police so that everyone understands why these kinds of security responses are being proposed. Parents and kids can be your best security allies. In my work, we ask the kids, "Where would you put this camera?" and they often tell us where the problems are.

SIW: What is something simple, low-cost and effective that schools can do to help prevent school violence?

Fiel: I always ask, "Do you have a student crime or violence hotline?" How much does that cost! It works because not all of your students will feel comfortable walking up to a police officer or an administrator to give them a tip. A lot of times they don’t want to be seen as a snitch. These things don’t happen arbitrarily; usually some other students know what will happen.

SIW: What can you tell us about the usage of surveillance cameras in a school shooting situation?

Fiel: Maybe a camera system could have caught this, maybe it could have seen the gun being deposited in the cafeteria, it's hard to know. With CCTV, you have to constantly be watching these. I also highly recommend public view monitors. Let everyone know that the cameras are on and working.

CCTV is initially a cost factor. But I try to tell people they can get ROI in one or two years, and I show them that because I take incident numbers and I associate a cost with each incident. So maybe you have 10 break-ins where the average cost of replacement and repair is $5,000 each. If you put in a $50,000 camera system that helps deter many of those incidents, then the system can pay for itself within two years.