According to a 2018 national poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International, 1 in 3 U.S. parents fear for their child’s safety while at school. This represents the highest level of concern in two decades. Incidents across the United States continue to spark conversations about safety among school leaders, families, students, and communities. As a result, more school officials are seeking new ways to bolster security, and they’re experimenting with different protocols to make their schools and classrooms safer. This responsibility often falls on the principal, who’s tasked with formulating a plan that protects students and puts minds at ease.

To fully understand the current threats that schools face, there are some statistics to consider. According to Campus Safety Magazine, more than 3,659 threats and incidences of violence occurred in U.S. schools during the 2017–18 school year. A 2013 study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that students ages 12–18 felt more vulnerable when they were at school than when they were elsewhere. These statistics illustrate the need to enhance school safety and security.

As safety concerns have risen, so too has discussion about the best methods and resources to keep school grounds secure. A safe environment not only helps teachers and staff do their jobs effectively—it also alleviates anxieties among students. The result is a positive learning space where teachers can focus on teaching, and students can concentrate on learning instead of worrying about their personal safety.

While there may never be a one-size-fits-all safety solution, we must continue the conversation about the latest methods of keeping schools safe. School leaders have many options when it comes to security technology.

Advanced Methods of Controlling Access

The National Center for Education Statistics found that during the 2015–16 school year, 94 percent of public schools controlled access to school buildings by locking or monitoring doors during school hours. While this approach can be useful, controlling access requires constant monitoring and a significant investment of staff time.

Some school leaders are turning to modern technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and facial recognition to boost existing safety systems.

While security cameras are a great start, the abilities of facial recognition take these tools to another level. Instead of relying on a staff member to monitor several cameras at once for an entire school day, an AI-powered system can run on several cameras simultaneously, identifying potential threats and alerting school staff in real time.

“Our school is always looking for the best ways to protect students and staff,” says Matt DeBoer, principal at St. Therese Catholic Academy, a preK–8 school serving a diverse student population of about 150 students in Seattle. DeBoer made the decision to implement facial recognition technology at the school last year. “We have a standard camera system and recently strengthened its abilities by implementing SAFR for K–12, a facial recognition software. The system is able to monitor areas of our school in real time, so we know at all times which adults are on campus,” he says.

Understanding how this technology works requires a quick explanation of machine learning. Machine learning is a category of algorithm that allows software to continuously become more accurate in predicting outcomes without being explicitly programmed. In the context of facial recognition technology, this means that software equipped with machine learning features will be able to “learn” to accurately detect and differentiate among people, providing alerts as necessary.

Better Access, More Convenience

Facial recognition can do more than make schools safer. Many schools use facial recognition systems as an easy way to grant access to staff, parents, approved vendors, and authorized visitors. Ease of access is particularly useful for teachers and support staff because they’re often carrying books, computers, tablets, and other equipment when they arrive at school. Parents appreciate that even while exterior doors stay locked during the school day, facial recognition provides them quick and efficient access to buildings when they need to drop something off or visit their child’s classroom.

“Our entry system allows us to register staff and regular visitors, such as delivery folks, so that they simply look into the camera to unlock the door,” DeBoer explained. “Prior to implementing the system, we had one staff member whose job was to monitor our main entry and grant access to visitors, a cumbersome and sometimes overwhelming task. Now it’s easier to monitor who’s coming and going and to form deeper connections with the people who are visiting St. Therese.”

With new technology, such as facial recognition, comes new responsibility. It’s important that school principals make informed decisions about when, where, and how to implement facial recognition systems.

Key Considerations

For principals who want to implement a machine learning or AI-powered system, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

First, it’s crucial to conduct thorough research on the options available before deciding on a system. Ensuring that a system is first and foremost built for privacy and data security should be a priority for all school officials. “We chose to implement SAFR for K–12 because of the rigorous steps that have been taken to keep data secure and private,” DeBoer says. “All facial image data is encrypted and stored locally. This is in alignment with how we protect other sensitive information about students.”

Generally speaking, there should be transparency with the implementation of any new safety tool, no matter its complexity. Teachers, families, and students should be notified from the beginning, and their participation should be determined on an opt-in basis.

With regulations such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and the Children’s Internet Protection Act, having a deep understanding of what a safety tool does and a knowledge of these guidelines ensures that privacy will be maintained. Staff training should never be taken for granted, and staff should be trained and retrained regularly.

“Student privacy is our responsibility,” DeBoer says. “Before installing the facial recognition system, we reached out to community stakeholders to solicit thoughts and concerns, allowing us to provide answers and pave the way for a smooth and successful deployment. We pride ourselves on our open line of communication with families, and we tackle any concerns with transparency and honesty.”

More Resources for School Safety Planning

In order to be prepared, it’s important for principals to be current with new technology and continue to update their schools’ crisis plans. An active threat protocol, regular drills, and an emergency management system are all safety tools to consider for a school’s security system. Mass messaging software and anonymous alerts can help to mitigate threats before they turn into catastrophic events.

In response to instances of gun violence and other threats, the National Institute of Justice has debuted a Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI) that brings together the nation’s best minds to increase the safety of schools nationwide. School leaders seeking a vetted list of practices and safety-centric curriculum should consider reviewing CSSI’s materials online (

The American Association of School Administrators also released a best practices toolkit for crisis planning, comprising online resources that offer guidelines for what schools should consider doing before, during, and after a crisis.

No matter the technology, resource, or tool, successful implementation requires thoughtful planning, detailed research, and a solid strategy. The first question every school administrator should ask is, “What purpose will this serve?” From there, a successful safety plan is born. The right mix of tools, education, and planning results in not only a safer community, but an empowered school with a focus on learning.

Mike Vance is senior director of product management for Seattle-based RealNetworks, whose SAFR for K–12 facial recognition software is available to every K–12 school in the United States and Canada free of charge.