Question: What did the survey look at?
Kirby: We've done similar surveys for higher education. This is for K-12. We looked at 381 districts partnered with QED, an education market research organization out of Denver. We do something like this every year. In other years, it was things such as technology in the classroom and professional development for teachers. This one happened to be focused on school safety.
Question: What were the most interesting results?
Kirby: I would say two things. One is the convergence of cyber and physical security. There always was a need for physical security in schools. But now that the schools are running more advanced networks, you can put things like IP cameras and VoIP systems in schools. Seeing the two needs converge on top of the technology, we expected that the schools would rate themselves much higher on physical than on cyber security. That turned out to be opposite. They feel they do a decent job on cyber security, but don't feel that they have a good handle on technology that would help on physical security. Specifically, they mention the direct ties to authorities that the technology allows.
Question: What are their concerns with cyber security?
Kirby: They have a multiple layered approach: firewall, content filtering, intrusion detection. In many cases, they feel they are using technology as a plug and have trouble managing it. They tend to be behind in the IT space. So they tend to plug in things. But it is very difficult for them to manage on an ongoing basis because students are very innovative in how to get around it. The use of proxy servers is rampant. Even though schools can block certain sites, students can create their own proxy servers and get around the security that is in place. These kids grow up with technology that we have to learn as adults. They have access, they have time and now they have the skills.
Question: Are school districts making any progress in staying ahead of the kids?
Kirby: One thing that came out from survey is that while schools have acceptable use policies, they don't update more than every two years or so. They are not necessarily communicating with students about the consequences of breaching the network. They must be told that they could have a felony on their record, and what that does to chances of getting into college or getting a job.
Question: Are school districts making progress on the use of technology to buttress security?
Kirby: I think the more progressive schools are getting their arms around it in three areas: IP-based video cameras, VoIP telephone systems and mass notification systems. When we have a snow day in Chicago, we get a phone call. There are all kinds of new technologies making mass notifications more effective. One company we deal with uses SMS notification over cell phones. The interesting thing is that, in emergencies, cell phone networks become overloaded. But you can send text messages. It's a much more reliable method.
Question: Are districts doing a better job of leveraging the networking capabilities of IP technology?
Kirby: The schools that have things like VoIP and IP cameras. One [respondent] said that [VoIP] is not only a very cost-effective way to communicate in schools, it also provides extra functionality. Suppose a student passes out. Someone presses 911, which ties into the main office — and also automatically alerts the [outside] authorities that there is a problem in room 201. IP-based technology can help put schools, authorities and the county all together on the same network. If there is a problem, through IP video cameras, they can pipe video from school to police cars. Before they are even on site, they can get an idea of what is going on in the school. In emergency situations, it is invaluable to have a real-time view.
Question: Unfortunately, news occurs fairly regularly that drives home the importance of using IP for security. Do these events provide a boost?
Kirby: For K-12, Columbine was the first wake-up call about 10 years ago. Then there were subsequent situations at the Amish school and Virginia Tech. These things get people motivated to do something. We are seeing, post-Virginia Tech, that higher education definitely has stepped up to the call. Higher educational institutions are campuses that are more open and not as secure as K through12 buildings would be. We see technology start there and filter down.
Question: What is the biggest drawback?
Kirby: Budget was the number-one barrier schools cited to security solutions. This is something that is new and emerging and money needs to be set aside. The cost is not insignificant, but the cost of not doing so is many times worse, whether in actual losses or the liabilities created. Schools need to stand up and take notice of that. There are different levels of money available, and the schools that we talk to say there is grant money available. It tends to be reserved for urban or less-affluent school districts.
This Executive Briefing originally appeared in a weekly report from IT Business Edge.
This was first published in July 2007