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After Uvalde, States Look to New Digital Maps to Keep Schools Safe

States including Iowa, New Jersey, Virginia and Wisconsin have launched multimillion-dollar initiatives to correct and digitize school maps

Visitors walk past a make-shift memorial last month at Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, where two teachers and 19 students were killed by a gunman on May 24, 2022. In the wake of the shooting, more states are launching initiatives to correct and digitize school maps and get them in the hands of local law enforcement. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

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In the wake of the devastating shooting in Uvalde, Texas, one of the latest tragedies in a decades-long surge of violence in schools, some state lawmakers are embracing a bipartisan measure that skirts divisive gun debates: school maps and blueprints.

Police, firefighters and emergency technicians often reference those maps when responding to school emergencies. But law enforcement and school safety experts say the maps are frequently inaccurate and out-of-date — potentially lengthening emergency response times.

In the past six months, states including Iowa, New Jersey, Virginia and Wisconsin have launched multimillion-dollar initiatives to correct and digitize school maps and get them in the hands of local law enforcement. An additional 18 states are “actively investing” in digital maps, according to Critical Response Group, Inc., the country’s largest school-mapping contractor.

“For any type of incident — it could be a bee sting — time is of the essence,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Jesse James, a Republican and former police chief who last year co-sponsored a successful bill that encouraged schools to adopt digital maps. “The floor plans that we have now just aren’t adequate.”

But cost and limited awareness remain barriers to adoption for many schools, several education and school safety experts said. And the new mapping initiatives, while often touted as common sense, have not been studied or evaluated the way that other school-safety measures have.

“From a tactical standpoint, there is clearly some value in officers having these maps,” said Cheryl Lero Jonson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Xavier University who researches school shooting interventions. “But I would like to see more research … before we funnel millions of dollars to them.”

To be clear, while the Uvalde massacre has raised interest in digital mapping, there is nothing to indicate the failed multi-agency response there related to officers’ ability to navigate the building.

Outdated Blueprints

Many states have long required that schools share blueprints with law enforcement, a precaution dating back to the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. These new programs update that approach by incentivizing schools to create digital or “critical incident” maps — a technique modeled on maps used in special operations missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A critical incident map might include, for example, an aerial view of a school, an overlaid atlas grid, and markers that flag entrances, stairwells, electronic door locks, utility lines, roof access points and bleeding control kits. Once integrated into first responders’ digital systems, both dispatchers and law enforcement can see the exact classroom a 911 caller is in.

“These days, if you look inside a patrol car, more often than not, you’ll see a laptop or other device in there,” said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “Being able to pull up digital images and maps right on that device — there’s an advantage, no doubt about it.”

School officials and law enforcement say they can easily update these digital maps to reflect recent changes to school buildings — a stubborn problem with traditional floor plans, which may exist only on microfiche, as PDFs, or as physical drawings in blueprint tubes. Less than 1% of the 1,000 schools Critical Response Group has mapped had accurate floor plans already, said Mike Rodgers, the company’s chief executive.

The labels on conventional blueprints also can cause confusion: They typically use the official names for classrooms and other facilities, instead of the casual or colloquial names used by teachers and students.

“When someone calls 911 and says, ‘Someone has chest pain in the teachers lounge,’ neither the dispatcher nor the officer knows where that is,” Rodgers said. “But under stress, on a 911 call, that’s how people refer to it.”

Leading law enforcement and school safety organizations — including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools — recommend that administrators routinely update, share and review maps with law enforcement. But many schools have not shared any blueprints with law enforcement, let alone digital ones.

In 2020, a U.S. Department of Justice working group found that school maps often go “overlooked” in plans to protect students. As recently as 2019, a survey by the National Center for School Safety found that 1 in 3 Virginia schools had not provided any kind of electronic floor plan to law enforcement.

Cost has proved a barrier for some districts. A digital or critical incident map by a third-party contractor can cost between roughly $3,500 and $5,000, according to figures released as part of the new state initiatives. And to create such maps in-house, districts may have to invest in costly software and other tools — such as 3D scanners that measure building dimensions and retail for tens of thousands of dollars.

Many districts also “forgot” about mapping after an initial wave of projects in the early 2000s, Canady said. Interest flared up again after the Uvalde massacre, he added.

“Schools aren’t thinking of these things — they’re busy teaching,” said Donna Michaelis, the manager of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety and Public Safety Services, which is part of a state agency. “They’re not law enforcement. They’re not thinking of the worst day of their lives. It’s not their job to do that.”

New State Efforts

Virginia’s Digital Mapping Program, which Michaelis oversees, is one of several new initiatives meant to address that gap. In April, the state legislature passed a law requiring that school districts maintain up-to-date maps and floor plans.

Later that month, the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services announced a $6.5 million grant program that will reimburse school districts up to $3,500 per building to contract for new critical incident maps. “Paper and one-dimensional digital maps are obsolete for today’s school emergencies,” reads one promotion for the program.

So far, 90 of the state’s 132 school divisions — representing about 1,200 of its 1,976 schools — have requested funding or otherwise expressed interest in the program, Michaelis said.

Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin also has touted schools’ strong response to the project: Now “several other states are rushing to address this vital issue as well,” he said in a late September statement.

Those states include Iowa, New Jersey and Wisconsin, all of which have earmarked millions of dollars toward school mapping projects in the past year. In June, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Iowa would direct $6 million of COVID-19 relief funds to a new school mapping project. Two months later, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced a similar $6.5 million grant program. New Jersey State Police plan to map 1,320 public and charter schools by the start of the 2023-2024 school year, a spokesperson said.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, where school districts already are required to share blueprints with law enforcement, a December 2021 law allowed schools to submit critical incident maps instead — and created a $2 million grant program to incentivize the switch. The program, launched in July, will run for two years and grant up to $5,000 per school.

“It’s an opportunity to have the most up-to-date technology available in our schools,” said James, one of the bill’s sponsors. “A lot of schools didn’t know this existed, but they want to take advantage of it now.”

Digital maps have not been studied as a school safety measure, however — a gap that gives some experts and legislators pause. Mapping initiatives seem sensible on their face, said Xavier University’s Cheryl Jonson — particularly in incidents such as fires, where multiple agencies need to coordinate their response. 

But under modern police protocol, Jonson added, the first officer on the scene of a mass shooting enters the school and engages the gunman without first coordinating with other agencies or an incident command center.

In May 2021, Washington state terminated its 19-year-old school mapping program after a study concluded that among other issues, law enforcement responding to school shootings no longer “look at floor plans and move in as one unit.”

Instead of mandating a switch to digital maps, Washington redirected funding to new threat assessment teams, which train teachers and staff to identify at-risk students and intervene before an attack occurs. Some education advocates argue that social-emotional supports make a better investment in school safety, especially with COVID-19 relief dollars.

“We weren’t trying to get rid of a safety feature for kids,” said Washington state Rep. Laurie Dolan, a Democrat and former school district administrator who co-sponsored the legislation. “We’re trying to spend that money more wisely. Mapping is expensive.”

Still, at a time when lawmakers and school officials have intensified efforts to keep schools safe, interest in digital maps appears to be growing.

Michigan also considered a bipartisan critical response mapping bill during the 2022 legislative session. And officials who recently piloted a mapping project in rural Concho Valley, Texas, said they’ve begun meeting with interested state legislators ahead of next year’s session.

They also are in touch with school district administrators in Uvalde, said John Austin Stokes, the executive director of the Concho Valley Council of Governments, which oversaw the pilot project. Administrators there expressed interest in digital mapping after the massacre and failed police response at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, he added.

“I think there’s a lot of interest at the state level because this is something that could get a lot of non-controversial support,” Stokes said. “Mental health gets a lot of attention because everyone can support that. This is one of those solutions that could garner a lot of support, as well.” 

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