W hat a commentary on the state of our society that students need increasingly sophisticated technologies in order to feel safe.
Two school systems and the University of Virginia are implementing high-tech systems this fall to enhance safety.
UVa and the Albemarle County school division share an approach in that both are deploying new phone apps to allow students to report threats or illegal activity. The UVa app also has other safety features.
Albemarle’s middle and high school students can download a free app called Anonymous Alerts that allows them to make real-time reports of safety issues, ranging from suicidal behavior, to bullying or sexual harassment, to assault, vandalism, theft, threats or possession of illegal substances.
Links to the system also are available online. Not only students, but also parents, staff and community members can file reports.
The anonymous reports go to the principal, who might send copies to the school counselor or school resource officer as needed. The student can go further by holding an anonymous conversation with a staff member online, or can ask for a face-to-face meeting as a follow-up.
Students always have been able to report problems directly to staff members, but the real-time capability of the new system along with its anonymity are major changes.
Orange County schools are using technology in a different way. Parents or other guests now must present a driver’s license or other form of official ID, which is then fed into a database. (The requirement doesn’t apply to someone just dropping off or picking up paperwork.)
The system — which goes by the menacing name of Raptor — then will flag anyone who is on the state or national sex offender registry. (For legitimate reasons, registered offenders can go through a procedure to obtain permission to be on school property.)
The system also could identify non-custodial parents involved in child custody suits and could prevent a parent from taking a child from school without permission.
If the system flags a visitor, a receptionist can quickly text or email a school official, resource officer or law enforcement officer.
Meanwhile, UVa’s new LiveSafe app provides a variety of options for reporting safety concerns or seeking protection. The system obviously benefits students, faculty and staff, but you don’t have to be connected to the university to get connected to the app.
The app, soberingly, was cofounded by a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre.
If a user reports a problem — either on or off Grounds — the report doesn’t just go to authorities. It also alerts other users who are nearby.
The app also makes it quicker, easier and potentially more effective to report vandalism or other crime: With a click or two, a photo can be sent to authorities without the need to call an emergency dispatcher.
The SafeWalk feature allows users to let a friend know they’re out late at night and then check in with the friend when they’ve arrived home safely.
There are many things to applaud about these new technologies.
» They’re fast, in most cases speeding up the process of reporting safety problems and getting responses.
» They’re accessible. The two apps are as close as your phone, and the Orange County system is easily available to school officials.
» They’re effective. The anonymous features of the apps allow users to feel safer in reporting safety concerns — and therefore can result in more safety concerns being reported.
It’s distressing that we live in an era in which danger seems so ever-present that people feel the need to protect themselves with these sorts of systems.
This oppressive sense of living amid the threat of frequent violence is hard to bear. But it also could make us overly fearful and mistrustful. And in that frame of mind, we might be too quick to accuse someone — wrongly — of misdeeds simply because technology and anonymity make it easy to act on snap judgments.
Physical safety is a primal need, however. Sophisticated technologies that meet this most basic of needs should be applauded — even as we keep a cautious eye on their possible flaws.