Eager Educators Get Hard Sell for Security Gadgetry

By Jessica Portner — March 08, 1995 7 min read

New Orleans

As a Memphis high school principal darts through a highly sensitive metal detector, a salesman explains how its computerized sensor can sniff out guns and knives.

A few aisles over, a school board member fiddles with the black knobs on a 13-inch closed-circuit television designed for monitoring entrances and hallways. Nearby, an administrator waves a wand that lets out a high-pitched beep as she scans her purse.

Like Dorothy in Oz, many school officials seem entranced as they explore the new world of security gadgetry, and security businesses are eager to give them a guided tour.

Companies that have entered the growing and lucrative market for school-security devices flocked to the annual convention here last month of the American Association of School Administrators.

School violence, once a problem primarily in urban schools, is making headlines in some of the nation’s smallest districts. Forty-six students were killed in schools in 1993-94, and fewer than half of the incidents occurred in urban areas, according to Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

While no one knows how well security devices prevent or quell violent outbreaks at school, many officials--eager to answer parents’ and school boards’ concerns--are not waiting for the evidence to find out. Administrators are searching for tangible solutions to campus crime by testing out the technology themselves.

A ‘Golden Age’ of Marketing

Most companies that sell security products to schools have seen dramatic growth in the past few years. Though solid figures are not available for the young school-security market, industry experts estimate that it has grown to at least $300 million a year.

“I tell people that this is the golden age of school marketing,” said Bob Stimolo, the president of School Market Research, based in Haddam, Conn. Security companies now make up 10 percent of his clients, he said.

“There is a tremendous focus these days on protecting students and property,” Mr. Stimolo said. Even companies that sell other products to schools but do not specialize in security have rushed to market new devices in response to the demand, he said.

“It’s not like the old days when a school official might have developed a product out of their garage,” he said. “Corporate entities are seeing the advantage of this marketplace.”

Companies are aggressively targeting educators through direct mail, on-site training, and information seminars for school officials. And conferences like the A.A.S.A.'s, which drew 7,000 school officials this year, have become a popular venue for manufacturers.

A few years ago, it was typical for one school-security business to appear at the larger school conventions, said Gary Marx, a senior associate executive director at the A.A.S.A.. This year, a dozen vendors peddled products ranging from infrared scanners to computerized identification cards at the administrators’ meeting here.

‘Multifunctional’ Cards Touted

Eugene Porter, the director of purchasing for the Wake County, N.C., schools, smiled for the camera at the booth of a company that sells identification card systems. A nearby computer scanned his image and, seconds later, a machine spat out a laminated white card. It bore an identification number, the school district’s name, a bar code, and a mug shot of Mr. Porter.

He said that though his 100-school district near Raleigh has metal detectors, the violence problem has not abated.

“Parents have to feel that students are safe,” he said, packing the materials from the company, Photo Scan, into a briefcase bulging with brochures. “We have a security department that needs to look at this.”

Larry Levinson, the president of the three-year-old company, explained to a few school officials that these small cards can be used to monitor attendance and cafeteria access, and can keep out unwanted visitors. They can even be used punitively, he said.

“If a student starts a fight, for instance, you can take their card away,” Mr. Levinson said. “It’s multifunctional.”

Mr. Levinson, who runs his four-person operation out of Morrisville, Pa., sold vocational materials to districts for 27 years before he started Photo Scan.

He said it has been the best business move of his career. Already, Photo Scan has outfitted 100 districts with identification-card systems at an average price of $10,000 each.

“Violence prevention is great,” said Mr. Levinson, who said he was a school board member for years. “But what do you do to stop the bleeding until the other programs are in effect?”

Stiff Competition

Tom Pertierra, a sales representative for Garrett Electronics Inc.--one of the nation’s largest metal-detector manufacturers--believes his company has the answer. Handing out security-planning guides to conference-goers strolling by his booth, he said his confidence is justified by the company’s sales record.

Garrett’s sales to schools jumped 200 percent last year, making education the manufacturer’s second-biggest market, according to James Dobrei, the director of sales for the Garland, Texas-based company.

Sales to airports--Garrett’s primary client--have meanwhile been slowing, said Mr. Dobrei. But he expects school sales to skyrocket in 1995.

“Our business is alive and well and people are excited about it,” said Mr. Pertierra, swinging a $200 hand-held scanner like a baton. “Here is a technology capable of preventing the tragedies that we see in schools on a weekly basis.”

But Garrett, a pioneer in metal detectors, is no longer alone. Several companies have joined the metal-detector market, creating competition for school business.

Adding Security to the List

The newest trend in the school-security business is the practice of tying in security devices to a package of products a company already sells to schools.

G.e. Capital Modular Space, a division of the General Electric Corporation that sells portable classrooms, introduced a wireless alarm system nine months ago that one manager claims has already boosted sales of the classrooms.

At Honeywell Inc.'s tent-like booth, company representatives pitched a package of protection. While school officials upgrade their electrical systems, one salesman said, they can also protect their buildings from theft by installing an infrared alarm system.

For decades, Honeywell’s housing division, which also targets schools, has focused on building modernization. Last year, the Minneapolis-based firm added computerized identification cards, closed-circuit television, and other security products in a move to make the whole package more attractive to schools.

“Schools want a program that addresses everything from rooftops to boilers to security,” said Lynne M. Warne, the communications manager of Honeywell’s home- and building-control division in Minneapolis. Though exact sales figures were not available, Ms. Warne said the company was projecting a 20 percent growth in business this year.

She said customers like Joseph Ferraina are the reason why.

As the superintendent of the suburban Long Branch, N.J., schools, Mr. Ferraina said he has seen enough violent incidents in the past few years to make safety his primary concern.

“I hear a lot of horror stories,” said Mr. Ferraina, who said he planned to review Honeywell’s package of services when he returned to his district. “You have to do everything to make sure kids are safe, no matter the cost.”

False Sense of Security?

But some educators believe that security costs are draining resources away from school-based anti-violence programs that have proven value. Many school-violence experts say violence-prevention classes, parental involvement, and gun control are the real solutions, and that hardware brings only false security.

Metal detectors, for example, have been criticized as unworkable in school environments because of the personnel required to operate them and the problem of having multiple school entrances and exits. (See Education Week, Dec. 8, 1993.)

In fact, there is little research to support the effectiveness of any security device on the market in reducing violence.

Efforts to halt school violence require a different approach, many experts say.

“The best we’ve been doing is responding to the violence,” instead of working to prevent it, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor of health practice at Harvard University’s school of public health and an advocate of violence-prevention programs, said during the conference.

Duffy Jones, a school board member in Johnson City, Tenn., agreed. “It worries me that security [purchasing] is driven by fear,” she said, standing in front of a bank of surveillance equipment at one of the conference’s stalls. “The answers to this problem are much, much deeper.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 1995 edition of Education Week as Eager Educators Get Hard Sell for Security Gadgetry