Create Smart Schools while Making Schools Safe!

By Deborah Karcher | Venture Partner, Education | RIDGE-LANE Limited Partners

The first article about school construction and school safety was posted on my LinkedIn in September 2018. So much has changed during these past 10 months that an update is needed. The first change is regarding the legislative progress regarding school safety and renovations. This is followed by new tools that have been developed and matured that can assist in building smart and safe schools.  It also discusses updates that districts can make to their construction and safety plans that include these changes and provide full transparency to all stakeholders.

There was  an article by T74 that referenced, H.R.865 - Rebuild America's Schools Act of 2019 ($100 billion) that also included a facilities survey that had to be completed by March 2020. The T74 article has been updated to reflect that the facilities survey has been removed from the bill. Therefore, we can all breathe a little easier although it still may return. Regarding the status of H.R.865 the committee has voted to issue a report to the full chamber recommending that it be considered further. As of February 2019, there has not been any legislative movement.

A recent Washington Post article suggests that there is not any evidence that hardening our schools and adding resource officers make our kids safer from gun violence. And in fact, this spending may be using the funding needed for counselors who can address mental health issues. This supports the discussion that districts should be developing a long-term school safety and smart building plan that will take advantage of technologies that can augment existing safety initiatives.

The five-year plan mentioned previously suggests that camera, notification systems, and student information systems need to communicate between each other to support existing security systems and build a geofence around schools. Igor has developed a hardware solution that does this integration and can support diverse systems and equipment. A school in Alabama has used Igor and Cisco’s smart building technology to create an alert system that can detect gun shooting, will notify users of the type of incident, automatically lock classrooms doors, and provide updates to students and teachers regarding the incident. OneLock  is an example of a system that replaces classroom keys with a smartphone or console that controls all doors and accesses.  Incidents can also include inclement weather, fire, gas leaks, and other emergencies. The interesting part about the Alabama example is that they decided to use a school built in 1962 to demonstrate that older buildings can use this new technology. Also, most of the renovations and upgrades were paid for with a safety grant.

The technology that allow districts to begin working towards safe and smart buildings is available today. To accommodate these changes and to fully utilize e-rate, capital, facility, and grant dollars, school personnel throughout the organization need to develop a plan. Districts also need to establish a sense of urgency by making this a priority for school leadership, teachers, parents, students, and community members.

Some of the steps involved in developing a plan include the following:

  • Take an inventory of cameras, hardware and software so that existing technology can be used.
  •  Develop a plan that will retrofit each school that includes building differences.   
  • Apply for e-rate and grant funding when applicable and use available construction and/or maintenance dollars.
  • Develop policies documenting safety procedures and training as part of this initiative.
  • Develop and include incident notification and response drills in the district’s emergency response plans.

As these safety plans are implemented the same stakeholders should also establish a parallel plan to develop smart buildings. Smart buildings include Internet of Things (IoT) and Power Over Ethernet (PoE) technology that allow school personnel to control lighting, identify the number of people in a room, collect data on room usage and improve savings by not heating or cooling unused spaces. The same equipment used for school safety (switches, access points, routers, and cameras), can be used in smart buildings.

Lastly, as districts issue bonds or receive local, state and federal funding for building renovations and new construction they will be held accountable for budgets, building schedules and demonstrating that funding is equitably distributed. Community members should be able to view the status and budgets for new construction and renovations. GuideK12’s, geovisual software, can  display the budget and project status (red, orange, green) for every school under construction. By simply selecting the school, the details of each project can be available. A  geovisual component also allows community members and parents to quickly determine which schools are using technology to help provide safe and smart schools while still employing resource officers.

The products and companies mentioned in this article are early adopters of the technology needed to achieve smart and safe schools. Others, such as GuideK12, have proven track records and continue to advance their products so that districts can provide a window into their operations and programs.