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Prof. Bernard James on Latest School Safety Measures | The New York Times

December 7, 2014  | 4 min read

Military-Style Technology Finds Way Into School District Safety Measures

By JESS BIDGOOD, The New York Times

METHUEN, Mass. — With a rapid-response team and regular lockdown drills, the school district here, like many across the country, has long been steeling itself for the nightmare scenario of a school shooting.

But over the past two years, a new high-tech approach has been tested at one of the schools here — officials will not say which one — to see whether it is possible to react more effectively.

Engineers from a company called Shooter Detection Systems have installed infrared sensors and microphones that can pick up the sound of gunfire and immediately notify school and law enforcement officials where and when it has occurred. It was installed free of charge, and school officials were hoping they could find the money to put the system, which costs between $20,000 and $100,000, into more schools.

It does not stop the first shot, but company officials say the system can shorten an attack by taking the human element out of alerting the authorities.

“The time it takes for police to even be notified can take many, many minutes,” said Christian Connors, the company’s chief executive. “What our device does is lessen the time.”

But there is debate about whether military-style measures like a gunshot-detection system are as valuable as more prevention-minded methods. Many experts say limited resources may be better spent on mental health services, training for teachers and students on what to do if their peers talk about bringing a gun to school, or on officers trained to keep schools safe.

Officials in this city of about 50,000, on the New Hampshire border, say their district’s five buildings are no more likely than any other to experience a mass shooting, although they do perimeter lockdowns from time to time when there is crime in the area. But Police Chief Joseph Solomon said he nevertheless tried to stay ahead on school safety practices.

“You can’t just look at your location — you have to look at how is the world changing,” Chief Solomon said. “You see a propensity for violence to increase.”

Company officials say they have tested the system with thousands of rounds of fire, when students were not in school. In the first public demonstration of the system last month, a police officer posing as a gunman with an AR-15-style assault rifle fired blank rounds in the lobby and school hallways. The police said the system helped them apprehend the “shooter” in less than three minutes.

Mr. Connors used to work on market development for military technology that locates incoming fire, which has been used in Afghanistan. He founded the company last year, he said, to commercialize the technology.

“We look at it like a smoke alarm. We have procedures for that,” Mr. Connors said. “We have no technology for gunfire.”

Mr. Connors said his system had been installed in a school in California, and another installation is planned in Virginia. The company has corporate orders for the system and has tested it in a major airport, he said.

Another company, SST, which makes shot-detection systems for city streets, is rolling out a similar system at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Officials here and at the college emphasized that they used preventive methods, too.

It was easy to persuade the administration to pay for the system, said John Buckovich, the chief of public safety at the Savannah art college. He said the system would hasten the arrival of law enforcement officials in a shooting even if those on campus were scrambling to flee or protect themselves. “Their first reaction may not be to call 911,” Mr. Buckovich said.

He added, “If you can reduce the time that it takes law enforcement to respond on the scene, then you reduce the chance of injury to persons in the situation like this.”

The demonstration here was warmly received by residents. Chief Solomon suggested that such systems needed to become a building code standard. Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat, who watched the demonstration, praised what she saw.

“It is the same technology that has been utilized thousands of times by our military to keep soldiers safe in some of the most dangerous locations around the globe,” Ms. Tsongas said in a statement.

But school safety experts questioned whether technology developed with Afghan battlefields in mind was optimal for schools.

“There’s an illusion that having all these video cameras, metal detectors, sensors, SWAT kinds of people on campus makes the place safer,” said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California. “The problem is from an educational perspective: It doesn’t feel safer. It feels like a prison.”

Mr. Astor said he would prefer to see more effort put into educating students and teachers on recognizing and responding to threats as they emerge. “This is a social issue that needs to be solved, that can only be solved through education,” he said.

Kenneth Trump, a school safety consultant, compared the technology to the bulletproof whiteboards and backpacks that have been marketed to schools and parents since the Sandy Hook school shooting two years ago in Newtown, Conn.

Mr. Trump said he thought this was “one of the many well-intended but not well-thought-out items that’s being pitched to pre-K-through-12 school environments in a post-Sandy Hook world.”

“We need to go back and focus on a lot of the proven, reliable things,” he said, “versus feeding into the emotional frenzy that a lot of these efforts over the past two years have tried to address.”

There are concerns, too, about whether the design of this system can protect victims in shootings that can end in just a few minutes.

“With this system, somebody wants to kill someone, they’ll just come on campus with a gun and by the time there’s an indication that there’s gunfire, the target of the perpetrator is dead,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center. He added that he would not recommend that every district buy such systems.

Proponents of the system argue that anything that can reduce response time in a school shooting has value.

“This is just another step in the direction of making responses more effective to the shooters,” said Bernard James, a law professor at Pepperdine University. He said he expected such technology eventually to be integrated into existing alarm systems.

In town, parents welcomed what they viewed as another layer of security for children. Darlene Franzone, 54, said she hoped the system might be a deterrent, adding that she often worries about shootings in public places, like movie theaters or the gym.

“You just don’t know anymore,” Ms. Franzone said.