School Shootings and Security Systems

Author: John Honovich, Published on Dec 16, 2012

How do you stop your school from being the next tragedy? What improvements are needed for school security systems to deliver this? While national policy may change in the long term, schools must immediately determine what they need to do to make themselves as safe as possible. In this report, we examine the key options available and their advantages and disadvantages.

The Challenges

Dealing with this is incredibly difficult because:

  • School administrators are under immense pressure to make schools safe not only from parents and the community but literally for their own lives.
  • Many security sales people will see this as a gold rush and opportunity to push unrealistic or impractical solutions.
  • This threat places an incredibly dangerous adversary (a suicide shooter) in a historically lightly fortified facility (schools).

The Approach

When dealing with such threats, security solutions can be analyzed as such:

  • Deterrence: What can be done to convince the threat not to attack?
  • Detect: How soon and accurately can you detect that an active threat is present?
  • Delay: How long can you delay the intruder until response can arrive?
  • Response: How soon can you get responders on site to stop the attack?
  • Cost / Benefit: Can the projected reduction in risk / loss be cost justified?

Deterring School Shooters?

It is highly unlikely that any security system will deter a school shooter:

  • Since this is essentially a suicide attack, they do not care if they are ‘caught on tape’ or arrested. Indeed, you might argue that they want to be caught on tape to increase their notoriety (and the higher the resolution the better).
  • Since these shooters typically target a school they have an affiliation with, improving security at one school will not likely displace it (as a burglar might if one store had better security than another).

Whatever system one looks to deploy (access, intrusion, surveillance), justifying it as deterring an attack is likely wishful thinking.

Detecting an Attack

Since time in response is critical, one wants to detect the threat as soon as possible before someone gets shot. However, this is hard:

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  • A traditional intrusion system is problematic as these attacks happen during the day when there are lots of activity and, therefore, lots of false alarms if the intrusion system was armed.
  • Video analytics is more magic than practical. Detecting the presence of a gun on a camera is theoretically possible but not available in commercial use. Alternatively, one could use facial recognition to alert against watch lists or anyone who is not enrolled but this is likely to suffer from very high false alerts.
  • The most practical solution is a checkpoint with a metal detector, preferably one that is a close to the perimeter and far from the main school buildings as possible.

Delaying an Attack / Access Controls

Stronger doors and locked entrances will likely not stop such an attack. However, they can be crucial in delaying the attacker and giving responders more time to stop the attacker before students and teachers are killed.

This is likely the most practical approach, given its relatively low cost. Many schools are fairly open and easy to enter. Schools may elect for more restrictive policies and hardened entrances.

[Update: Perhaps the most cost effective method is to add in 'classroom' locks.]

There are two main downsides to this:

  • Schools become like prisons, with students essentially locked in. Administrators and communities will need to determine how much of this is acceptable.
  • Hardening is typically done to the outside perimeter but once the attacker gets past that, unless each room or area is hardened and restricted inside, the attacker will have nearly unmitigated internal access. Do you defend against this? Doing so add considerably to the cost and operational complexity of such a system.

Responding to an Attack / Guards, Guns and Video

With such an attack, it will be critical to get an armed responder in the right place as soon as possible.

Overall, we think video surveillance has questionable value here but may help in getting responders to the right spot of the school quickly as well as directing those under attack away from the shooter's location.

To do this requires instant, simple mobile video access for teachers and the local police. While this is feasible, it does raise access/security risks. If access is only turned on when an incident occurs, this requires an authorized individual granting access which may not be possible or readily available if that person is under attack. To eliminate any delays in access, the most straightforward approach is allowing unlimited access. However, schools will have to accept or deal with potential misuse of the video during other times.

The other major question for responding is whether to wait for the police or to have an armed guard(s) on site. The huge advantage of the latter is cutting down response time, which could save many lives as the killings typically occur within minutes of the attacker being detected. The downside, of course, is the cost of having armed guards dedicated to the school.

Arming School Staff

In the comments, a number of readers have recommended arming school staff with guns. This has two major advantages - reduced response time and lower cost - but certainly a number of significant operational risks. See our review of arming school staff - pros and cons.

Cost / Benefit

Defending against such a deadly threat can be very expensive. In classical security system analysis, one would factor in the following:

  • Probability of attack: In the next N number of years, how likely is one’s school to being attacked? This is very hard to predict though typically historical trends are used (i.e., there are ~124,000 total schools in the US, 5-10 shootings per year, you could argue an average school has a 1 in 30,000 chance of an attack in the next 5 years, etc.)
  • Cost of attack: This is very hard to judge as it depends on valuing human life, especially children.

Multiply the probability and cost of attack to determine how much one should spend on measures that would stop this threat. For example, if the probability is 1 in 30,000 and the cost of an attack is $10 million, then you should spend up to $333 on security measures to stop this. Of course, you may estimate the probability and costs are higher (say 1 in 3,000 and a cost of $100 million) and then by such calculations you should spend up to $33,333.

This, of course, is what makes security spending decisions so difficult. The hard numbers typically justify spending far less than what is done and what people understandably feel needs to be done.

What Do You Think?

Undoubtedly, this is a very complex and charged discussion with lots of tradeoffs and challenges involved. Please share your thoughts on potential solutions in the comments.

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