The potential for violence in schools is an issue that rightfully begs for attention, given the history of extraordinary damage produced by mentally ill and obscurely disgruntled individuals in recent years.

In 2014, the Congressionally-established School Safety Initiative allotted funding to the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to conduct scientific research and evidence-based studies, using measurable and proven means to improve the security of schools, students and staff members.

NIJ, in turn, selected two Johns Hopkins University (JHU) divisions to participate in a five-year cooperative agreement to establish a new research center focused on school safety: the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in North Laurel, and the School of Education, Division of Public Safety Leadership (PSL), in Baltimore. Since establishing the center, JHU’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and its Center for Law and the Public’s Health have been added to the mix to provide legal and policy insight and analysis.

The new research center, which resides at APL, is designed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a variety of technologies for the nation’s criminal justice communities. Its technology-related research focuses on testing and operational evaluations of non-forensic technologies, with the goal of enhancing the capabilities of state and local law enforcement, corrections agencies and courts.

“Simply put, we’re looking at what technologies are currently being used, how they are used, how well they are working and how those technologies were chosen by the user,” said Richard “D.J.” Waddell of APL, director of the National Criminal Justice Technology Research, Test and Evaluation (RT&E) Center.

Hands-On Evaluation

According to Sheldon Greenberg, PSL professor and the RT&E Center’s deputy director, the public safety risk extends to approximately 765,000 law enforcement officers working for 18,000 police agencies, 470,000 corrections officers in 4,000 institutions and more than 32,000 federal and state court judges.

“Their reliance on technology has increased exponentially over the past decade,” Greenberg said. “The need for an independent center to advance this technology and take it to practice has become paramount.”

Critical and emerging issues will drive the center’s activities from year to year, he said, but the primary focus will consider communications, biometrics, sensors and surveillance, non-lethal devices and personal protective equipment.

In-depth technical reports produced by the RT&E Center will be condensed into guidelines and resources tailored for the users that implement them, to be made available on the center’s to-be-developed web site.

According to information published on the NIJ’s web site, total funding for the RT&E Center amounts to $9.4 million and includes supplemental funding spread over fiscal years 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Current Study

A current project underway at the RT&E Center is examining how technology is used to prevent and to respond to criminal violence in classrooms ranging from kindergarten classes through 12th grade.

“This study is a small piece of a larger effort to improve school safety in this country,” said APL’s Steven Taylor, task lead for the study. “Our children are precious and important and that makes this work especially meaningful.”

Team members engage all aspects of the school districts they study, to include both internal and external school community and the local political community.

“The project team is attending school safety conferences, seeing what’s out there, and meeting school system administrators, decision makers and vendors,” Waddell said.

While research shows that schools are inherently safe places, “Our job is to advance this track record, thereby enabling schools to prevent heinous incidents from occurring, and reduce and manage fear through the effective use of technology,” Greenberg said.

Team members look at all ends of the spectrum, from low tech items such as lighting, doors and locks. to high tech metal detectors, surveillance systems, social media platforms, infrared devices and sophisticated school-to-police communications systems.

“Part of the complexity is that we’re taking a centralized focus on one of the nation’s most fragmented systems,” Greenberg said. “There are 15,000 school systems with no single go-to place for information, and no correlation between need for technology and access to it.”

To make sense of it all, the RT&E Center is reviewing the landscape and looking at criteria to select nine school districts to participate in a more detailed, case-study-oriented approach.

Companion Study

Just up I-95, in Baltimore City, schools received $4.98 million from NIJ in 2015 in response to recent historical youth violence in the city’s school system.

The four-year project — known as “Coping Power in the City: Promoting Safety and Coping Skills in Baltimore City High Schools” — is a partnership of Baltimore City Public Schools, JHU, the University of Virginia, Sheppard Pratt Health System and the Maryland Center for School Safety.

The project focuses on research-based preventive intervention with ninth-grade students called “Coping Power” and will support the Baltimore City Schools Police Force (BCSPF) in its transition to a community-policing model.

The BCSPF component features training incorporating mental health first aid and trauma-informed approaches, threat assessment and de-escalation techniques, and youth-integrated training to increase responsiveness and sensitivity to urban adolescent development and culture.

Researchers will use a randomized controlled trial with 600 students in 10 high schools to determine the program’s effectiveness in improving school safety, student mental health and reducing aggressive behavior.

Unobtrusive Sentry

One of the problems the RT&E Center faces is that of laws and regulations that vary from state to state, which has prompted the team to begin a comprehensive review of each state’s laws, as well as a systematic review of media coverage of school safety policies.

“This analysis will reveal how the law enhances or possibly hinders state and local efforts to provide the safest environment for schoolchildren,” said Stephen Teret, director of the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at the Bloomberg School.

In the end, the combined literature, technology, case studies and legal reviews are intended to merge and provide information that helps school districts make better decisions about the purchase and implementation of security technology.

“If security tech is managed well, schools can create secure learning and development environments without being intrusive,” Greenberg said. “Students, teachers and staff shouldn’t have their fear and anxiety levels raised because of … technology and other means to prevent and control crime and their safety. That’s not a reasonable or acceptable byproduct.”