Technology to mitigate active assailant threats in schools

October 10, 2018
During an active assailant threat when lives hang in the balance… can you trust technology? Does your manual process jeopardize personal safety?

At Axis, we are committed to innovating intelligent security solutions that enable a safer, smarter world. But technology must be integrated with people and processes, if it’s to add value. With input from a panel of school safety experts, we explore the benefits of technology during an active assailant threat.

The panel consists of Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe & Sound Schools, Paul Timm, an active member of the ASIS School Safety & Security Council and Kevin Wren, Director of Risk, Security and Emergency Management at Rock Hill School District in the USA. Read more about the panel at the end of the article.

Threat prevention

Schools world-wide are becoming more mindful of personal safety vulnerabilities and locking exterior doors to prevent an outside threat from entering the school. Unfortunately, this means that late-arriving students and visitors are also locked out. Without the benefit of technology, a member of staff would be expected to physically open the door for all visitors - an impractical solution in schools where visitor traffic is high. This means that main entrance doors would most likely remain unlocked for convenience, creating an obvious safety vulnerability.

There are different solutions for preventing an outside threat from entering a school, one being using automatic locks on doors.

In contrast, an automatic lock that remotely opens the door at the push of a button can help manage a steady stream of school visitors, to ensure personal safety and provide operational benefits. Typically, this would be used together with intercom technology allowing staff to communicate with visitors at the door. Taking this one step further, a network door station combines automatic remote entry and two-way audio with high resolution video, giving school staff the ability to also visualize the individual(s) requesting entry and better assess a potential threat.

Threat detection and verification

To qualify a threat from a human perspective is subjective; a loud explosion might just be a chemistry experiment gone awry.

Should a threat enter the school, there is an inevitable period of time that passes before it is detected and identified. To qualify a threat from a human perspective is very subjective. For instance, the sound of glass breaking could be an errant ball from the playground. Raised voices could be a verbal conflict between two students. And a loud explosion might be a chemistry experiment gone awry. It’s human nature to be curious, and we are tempted to see for ourselves before assuming the worst – an obvious personal safety risk if it puts people in the path of an active assailant.

On the other hand, technology has no subjective criteria. A sound detection analytic immediately sends an alert and triggers connected automated systems when it detects the sound of glass breaking, raised voices, or “gunshots”. In an active assailant situation, this can save lives and valuable response time. 

But what about an abundance of nuisance false alarms that such a system could generate? The commotion from students during a class change, the slamming lockers, the kid shouting down the hall to get the attention of his friend… Relying solely on this type of technology to directly alert law enforcement and first responders is probably not a good idea. A better strategy might be to use this technology to first alert school administrators or safety officers to a possible threat. They in turn, can then safely verify or dismiss the threat using high resolution video surveillance technology and make a more qualified determination as to what further action is required. 

Emergency messaging

Once the determination is made that danger is imminent, it is important to notify law enforcement and communicate the threat school-wide. Traditional emergency phone calls are time consuming. Shouting loudly down the hallway has limited range. Both responses can focus unwanted attention from an active assailant to the person sounding the alarm.

To ensure that the message reaches everyone at school – both inside and out – an announcement over the school’s PA system is the best alternative. Using an Axis public address solution, it’s possible to also access the system remotely from a mobile device – a distinct advantage if the front office has been compromised. In addition to live messaging, the system can also deliver pre-recorded messages to communicate complete threat protocols and instructions in a calm and pragmatic way.

To communicate a threat, using a public-address solution has many advantages, such as accessing the system from a mobile device.

In terms of communicating with the outside world, a duress alarm (or an “Amok” alarm) instantly, and covertly, sends an emergency signal to first responders and law enforcement, alerting them to a possible active assailant threat in progress.

Using connected technology, these systems may have additional automated integration with electronic signage or strobe lighting at the school, as well as parent and mass notification systems to warn people away from the danger zone.

Locking down

Schools world-wide are increasingly “locking down” in response to active assailant threats. But it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and schools continually strive to improve safety protocols and equipment. Today, classroom doors most often utilize traditional locks and keys – a system that can benefit from evolving technology. Before examining the possible role of technology, let’s evaluate the typical lock and key scenario.

There is currently no global standardization for doors and locking mechanisms, and the variation between countries is significant. For example, classroom doors in the US are one-step egress and open out, whereas in Europe, doors are 2-step egress and open in. Also, in the US, door locks are often on the outside of the door and require a key. While it’s possible to set the door in permanent locking mode from the outside, it’s disruptive when teachers are forced to interrupt a lecture to open the door for a late arriving student. Therefore, it is common practice to leave doors unlocked for convenience. In addition, teachers are expected to wear their classroom door keys on their person - another example of where theory and reality are disconnected, as many teachers do not actually wear their keys. It’s a system with some obvious safety vulnerabilities and protocol gaps. For instance, what happens when there is a substitute teacher? Do they have a key? Are they trained on protocols?

In the context of a real emergency lockdown using traditional lock and key, teachers must first find their classroom door key. They must then step out into the hallway – potentially in the direct path of an active assailant. They must insert the key into the lock while scared and likely shaky, lock the door, and remove the key, all before stepping back into the relative safety of the classroom and closing the door. 

Network-based access control on interior doors can eliminate personal safety risks – and are quite economical.

Network based access control on interior doors addresses many of these challenges as classroom doors can be centrally closed and locked at the push of a button. Automating this process eliminates both unnecessary delay as well as personal safety risks associated with lock and key technology. The solution also remains fire code compliant, provided that the doors can still be manually opened from inside the classroom. In terms of system cost, a network-based access control system is quite economical when compared to the expense of re-keying doors when a key is lost or a member of staff leaves. 

Ensuring the best outcome

These are just a few ways that technology can improve school safety. As previously mentioned, it must be integrated with people and processes to add value. If people are to trust technology, then product security and reliability are paramount. That’s why at Axis, we are meticulous about product quality and our solutions offer three layers of cyber protection. More importantly, we work with a global network of safety and security professionals who can help schools create safer learning environments by assessing safety vulnerabilities, developing emergency plans, designing security systems and training students and staff. Independent experts who can help you find the right technology for your specific needs.


Hear our panel of school safety experts share their experience within school safety from the 2018 Axis School Safety Summit.


Our panel of school safety experts

  • Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe & Sound Schools, is all too familiar with how school safety vulnerabilities can be exploited, having lost her daughter Josephine in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Subsequently, Michelle has become a passionate advocate for school safety, speaking frequently with law enforcement, educators, parents and communities.
  • Paul Timm, a board certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), is an active member of the ASIS School Safety & Security Council and author of the book “School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program”. He is also certified in Vulnerability Assessment Methodology and has helped numerous schools with safety planning and crisis assistance support.
  • Kevin Wren, Director of Risk, Security, and Emergency Management at Rock Hill School District, has a long history in law enforcement and school security.  Named by Campus Safety Magazine as K-12 Director of the Year in 2016, Kevin uses technology to improve school safety and extend the effectiveness of a lean security team.
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