Disrupting tragedy

Technological solutions for ending or mitigating school shootings


Today, again, America grieves.

On Thursday, February 15, seventeen high school students and faculty members lost their lives in a horrific massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and at least a dozen more have been hospitalized for their injuries. In the wake of what is now the second deadliest school shooting in American history, self-proclaimed experts, pundits, Putinbots, and keyboard warriors have again erupted from the woodwork to trot out the same tired bromides about gun laws, mental health, and social support that we’ve all heard a thousand times before. We all know that these issues are political nonstarters and only work to divide us. After all of the intense debate on these subjects in years past, little action has been taken and we have failed to prevent this most recent tragedy. So what can we do?

One Jesus Hernandez posed just that question to members of the Hackathon Hackers Facebook group: “Gun Control policy aside, what tech solutions can be built to prevent school shootings?” I have given this question some thought and would like to propose some apolitical, technology-focused solutions that could potentially save lives in a school shooter scenario. Note that these are not fully formed ideas — they are suggestions that could become reality, but more importantly, they are conversation starters to get people thinking about solutions to protect our nation’s children.

Perimeter security and controlled entry

To start, I’ll discuss a solution that is not just an idea, but something that already exists in the real world. After the Sandy Hook shooting, my hometown school board began work to limit access points into the schools of Somers Central School District. When school buses are loading and unloading, the front doors are open; at all other times of the day, the doors are locked. Visitors must interact with an intercom to gain access to a vestibule where they are confronted with another pair of locked doors and a guard. Once they have checked in with the guard, only then is the visitor permitted entry to the school. This method of visitor vetting is also in place at several colleges and universities.

Is this a pain in the ass for legitimate visitors? Yes. Is this system foolproof? No. But could a system like this have prevented today’s shooting, in which the intruder gained unauthorized entry to the school and pulled a fire alarm? Yes.

Lockdown mode informational app

When gunshots ring unexpectedly, confusion and fear set in first. There is no way to know what is going on — standard lockdown protocol dictates that student ignore all loudspeaker notices immediately after lockdown mode is initiated. An app could be created that advises students on what to do and where to hide. If students allow location access, the app might allow law enforcement to see where students are and piece together a map of occupied vs. unoccupied classrooms. The app could also act as a point of contact between students and law enforcement. For example, if law enforcement has secured a particular hallway during lockdown mode, they could issue a command to all students in classrooms in the hallway instructing them to evacuate into the hallway.

While the idea of a “school shooter” app seems repugnant, this functionality could also be integrated into a more general school informational app.

Hallway and perimeter surveillance

Many schools already have security cameras in the hallways. In an active shooter situation, it would be advantageous for law enforcement to have access to these feeds to more quickly identify the location of the shooter in a hallway and the direction that they are heading. A software program that, upon initiation of lockdown mode, aggregates camera feeds and allows a SWAT team coordinator to access them would allow for a more rapid response to the situation. The footage immediately preceding the initiation of lockdown mode could also be used to identify the location of students. In other words, the camera could identify which rooms have recently been entered by students and which are likely to be empty.

Similarly, security cameras on the exterior of the school building could be monitored by software, gently alerting a school guard or resource officer when a human figure is detected in the camera feed.

Fire doors typically seen in schools.

Auto-locking fire doors

In most schools today, fire doors separate various sections of the hallways. These doors exist to limit the flow of oxygen in the event of a fire, and are extremely strong. What if these doors could also restrict movement during lockdown mode? If an automatic deadbolt lock could be added to these doors in lockdown mode, it would compartmentalize the hallways and prevent an intruder from moving around the school. Embedded systems in the doors could additionally enable law enforcement to remotely unlock and relock these doors.

Robust fire alarms

Many school shootings have relied on fire alarms to entice students to exit their classrooms. A more sophisticated fire detection and mitigation system could be deployed that would preempt the need for manual fire-alarm triggers.

Social media early warning system

A common theme in school shootings appears to be the perpetrator’s social media persona. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter can do more to monitor their platforms for predictors of extreme discontent and violence. The NSA or FBI could work with these companies to create machine learning models that try to identify potential domestic terrorists. Sentiment analysis of posts, keyword searching, and even a “danger level” metric could be used to help law enforcement agencies allocate their time more efficiently in sorting out the thousands of tips they receive every day. In the case of yesterday’s shooting, the perpetrator had already been reported to the FBI twice; a system such as this might have identified the perpetrator’s anomalous behavior and informed the agency’s response.

In conclusion

To reiterate, these ideas are half-baked and need much more work to become reality. Refrain from commenting on the reasons these ideas might fail and focus on methods by which they could be improved. Generate new ideas of your own and share them with the people around you. While gun control and increased funding for mental health services might be two avenues in the fight to prevent domestic terrorism and mass shootings, we should not take any options off the table and avoid closing our minds to technological solutions as well. There is so much more we can do to build a safer future for all.