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Safe Schools: Tech Helps, but Relationships are Vital

Picture this: You’re a parent picking up your elementary-aged child from school early for an appointment.

You walk up to the front door of the school building, which is locked. But, instead of buzzing a doorbell or being greeted by a voice over a loudspeaker, you’re met with a small screen that scans your face. The screen then matches your face to a school database, which checks for any red flags. Once your face is recognized and approved, the school door unlocks automatically and you’re allowed in the building.

Sounds like a scene out of an 80s science-fiction movie, right? But, as the Washington Post reports, in the wake of a series of violent incidents in the nation’s public schools, facial-recognition companies are entering the education market.

As Jacob Sniff, chief executive of facial-recognition startup Suspect Technologies tells the Post, “We were all waiting for something like the Parkland school shooting, for better or for worse. It’s quite clear that a facial-recognition system could have . . . prevented it.”

Sniff is unsurprisingly confident. But questions remain about the effectiveness of the technology in schools.  

  • Is the technology actually effective? Results of limited studies conducted by the FBI and other organizations have shown varied results.
  • Could it lead to discrimination? In some tests, the facial recognition was shown to be more inaccurate when recognizing women and people of color.
  • Would it violate student and parent privacy? There is no federal and very few state laws restricting facial recognition. But law experts and parent advocates have questioned the privacy implications associated with scanning and storing pictures of students.

Facial recognition in schools is still very much in its early stages.

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But, according to billionaire Mark Cuban, an investor in Suspect Technologies, the time for hi-tech safety solutions in schools is inevitable. As Cuban told the Post, “The concept of school safety will change dramatically. While there will be uncomfortable moments with [face recognition] . . . based on what we know now, it’s a necessary step.”

Strong relationships, strong security

Facial recognition providers aren’t the only providers touting their wares as a potential solution to the nation’s school safety dilemma.

Bulletproof storm shelters, hallway smokescreens, and school shooting alarm systems are among the other ideas that have been floated.

But school safety experts caution that technology alone won’t solve the problem. In addition to preventative technology, schools also have to create a culture where students feel safe, both physically and emotionally.

As Dr. Nora Carr, chief of staff at Guilford County Public Schools in North Carolina and an expert in school crisis response, said recently on the TrustED podcast:

“All the research though shows that the most important aspect of keeping schools safe and keeping kids safe is the relationship within the schoolhouse between kids and adults. And that hasn’t changed–and in fact it’s becoming even more important. Many, many times, tragedies have been averted, because somebody knew something and told somebody. So we certainly emphasize–if you hear something or see something or are concerned about something, say something. And say it to the appropriate authorities.”

What steps is your school or district taking to create a safer environment for students, staff, and parents? Tell us in the comments.