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Current Security Trends in K-12 schools

Originally published on Security InfoCenter, sponsored by:

When the pandemic caused worldwide shutdowns in the spring 2020, schools went remote and on-site installs froze. The summer, a time when K-12 schools usually do their maintenance, upgrades, technology deployments and construction, was instead a summer of silence. Contractors weren’t being allowed into buildings and money was being held in anticipation of the unknown.

Now, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, schools are resuming work and – with help from grants, the CARES Act and money previously earmarked for installs — are once again looking into on a number of levels, including for cyber defense, physical security defenses and COVID-19 response.

“Typically, the cycle for schools for any projects and upgrades happens during the summer while students are out. But so much was put on hold in 2020. We are seeing that open back up and, instead of the normal cycle, schools are squeezing in projects over holiday breaks and during the school year to get back on track,” says Paul Fisher, Vice President, Key and National Accounts – Global at Salient Systems.

When it comes to physical security and video surveillance, K-12 schools are looking into a few select types of technologies and following a few trends. Perhaps, the security technology that is gaining the biggest momentum right now in the K-12 sector is surrounding active shooter and violence mitigation. “To break it down simply, there are two general types of systems: gunshot detection and visual verification of a weapon,” Fisher says.

Traditional gunshot detection is generally a standalone system that requires speakers, wiring and other infrastructure to detect gunshots. In order for gunshot detection to detect, shots must have already been fired.

Visual weapons verification is generally tied in to a school system’s video surveillance or video management system as an analytic, and will detect someone holding an object that looks like a gun in their hand or holster, for example. Proponents of visual weapons verification say that such a technology can ideally detect a gun before it’s ever fired, giving security personnel and first responders extra seconds or even minutes to respond to a potentially deadly situation.

“Visual verification is an earlier warning. It also doesn’t require as much infrastructure, as schools can use their existing camera system,” Fisher says.

But in order to use their existing surveillance system for visual weapons detection, as well as other analytics and security technologies gaining momentum in today’s schools, facilities need to first ensure their video cameras are upgraded to IP.

“There’s still a substantial transition from analog to IP cameras going on,” Fisher adds, and the upgrades are picking up again after stalling during the pandemic lockdowns. For school districts looking to implement analytics or integrated technologies, IP camera upgrades are imperative. Another benefit to IP video surveillance is higher-resolution and remote viewing capabilities, which equip security leaders, administrators and first responders with a greater level of situational awareness.

Two other technology trends that Fisher is seeing in this space are emergency communications upgrades and perimeter security technologies. With emergency communications, in addition to active shooter mitigation, security leaders are looking to get the most out of their active shooter or weapons detection systems by having proper systems in place that allow schools to directly communicate with first responders and even share video and further situational awareness to cut down on response time and better prepare responders for a given situation.

A particularly important consideration for school districts when it comes to remote viewing and sharing video with first responders, however, is bandwidth. Upgraded high-resolution cameras and high-tech analytics can’t provide law enforcement with situational awareness if the video can’t go through. There are a number of technologies school districts can use to mitigate latency. Some technology providers offer a software-based edge or network technology, such as resolution scaling that mitigates the risk of bandwidth slowing or interruptions.

“The other scenario would be to lessen the resolution of the cameras so they can be viewed remotely but then you are seeing your high-resolution, high-quality images in a much smaller resolution and that can take away from what the viewer can really see,” explains Fisher.

When it comes to hardening a soft-target such as a school, perimeter detection is really the start, and Fisher says school districts are not only implementing more perimeter detection, such as cameras and access control, but also changing the way they use their perimeters.

“In the past, many schools would prop doors open or leave doors open during school hours or activities, but we are really seeing schools concentrating on their perimeters and using their alarm system or their cameras during the school day to alert of an exit or entrance or a door propped open,” Fisher says.

Tuning into the possibilities

New technologies are certainly top-of-mind right now for school districts, but Fisher says one big consideration that schools need to make when it comes to upgrading security technology in this space is possibility. Particularly for school districts that need to space out upgrades and installs due to budgets and funding, security leaders need to think ahead. For example, if video surveillance will be upgraded one year, perhaps weapons detection and access control will be installed the next. If schools are looking to add on future analytics or new technologies without substantial headaches, an open architecture platform of the video or security management system is key to be able to adjust and add on down the road.

“Proprietary technology doesn’t play well with other technology, and if you go that route, you’re locked into that system. Not every manufacturer or provider has every product, so if you think you will be adding on to the system in the future, it’s important to think ahead so you can streamline that process,” he says.

Though open architecture can help schools future-proof their security technologies, before purchasing add-on technologies, upgrades or integrations, Fisher says buyers need to know what they are hoping to accomplish. Research, conversations with other schools and integration partners can help security leaders determine what pain point or risk they are trying to mitigate to truly determine whether a new install or upgrade can actually accomplish that goal.

“It’s extremely important to know what you want to accomplish far before the install,” Fisher says.

As schools begin increasing their rate of installs and focusing on security once again, school administrators and security leaders would do well to remember these two keys to success: do your homework and understand exactly what risks they are trying to mitigate.