Is Your Security Technology Working?

The public high school where I recently performed a security assessment is loaded with high-quality security and access control technology. Students must swipe an ID card to be able to unlock a turnstile to enter the school. They then have to walk through metal detectors. Visitors need to present a photo ID card that is swiped, so a computer can check the visitor against databases of sexual predators, individuals banned from campus, and against names appearing on court orders received by the school. Besides eight hall monitors and a school resource officer, the school has a security officer to watch a bank of monitors tied to the school numerous security cameras. They also have alarms to protect exterior doors that sound when the doors are opened without authorization.

However, I was easily able to beat this entire security system by gaining access to the building interior, not just once, but three days in a row, proving to school officials that a non-custodial parent, a dangerous intruder, or a student could not only slip into the school undetected, but could also easily bring a full-length shotgun or rifle into the school. Fortunately, I was there to test the school’s security system because school officials had realized the extensive investment in security technology was not providing the anticipated results.

Security experts who understand how K-12 schools work can usually prevent deadly gaps upfront and, as seen in this case, can often help correct misapplication of security technology. Clearly, the assessment process is far smoother and much less expensive when they are brought in on the front end. With or without external experts, the acquisition of new security technology should be based on a formal assessment process.

The scenario described above illustrates a common problematic chain of events in many K-12 public school districts, as well as charter and independent schools. A review of various state departments of education Websites, such as the Virginia, Indiana, and Georgia, and the Missouri Safe Schools Initiative, will reveal recommendations to conduct school safety assessments. Several departments of education advise and promote a comprehensive review and evaluation of safety efforts as a regularly suggested or, in some cases, state-mandated activity. School safety assessment, as defined in the article Conducting a School Safety Assessment — Family Education, is a strategic evaluation and planning tool that can be used to determine the extent of a school safety problem. Many school administrators think that if they add an additional SRO or some more surveillance cameras they won’t have significant security problems any more. A valid question is whether these measures are based on an assessment process or “gut” feelings. School safety assessment is one tool that, if used effectively, can provide a snapshot of the school’s safety and identify areas needing improvement.

The school safety assessment should consist of multiple indicators that apply to the total school environment. Using the example of a security assessment, the minimum areas addressed as part of the assessment process should be the following:
  • assessment of criminal risk in the neighborhood and broader community;
  • physical review of buildings;
  • review of existing policies and practices for student, staff, and visitor admissions to the building;
  • review of discipline infraction reporting, and the data collection method used by the school or district;
  • review of security personnel or SRO, if assigned to schools or district; and
  • level of staff development related to school safety.

There should be some discussion as to whether the school safety assessment will be conducted by the school district using the state or local mandated assessment tool, and/or by an outside firm or expert. Whether the assessment is conducted by school personnel or by an outside source, the individual(s) should have a broad knowledge in the area of best practices for school safety and security. If school personnel conduct the assessment, they should receive some level of training provided by persons with work experience in the areas related to the assessment process.

The actual assessment team should be a multidisciplinary team that conducts a thorough assessment and evaluation of the multiple indicators mentioned earlier. A typical team might include members from the school administration, facilities, personnel law enforcement, fire services, custodial personnel, school nurse, emergency management, and students.

How often should school safety assessments be made? Many experts recommend at least once every year, but some consideration must be given to state guidelines. You may choose to exceed this by adding frequent abbreviated assessments such as quarterly, or as part of the annual fire inspection.

Preparation for the assessment requires some of the following documents be available for the assessment team outside assessors:
  • Student Code of Conduct booklet;
  • data on student discipline/school crime (UCR data);
  • school floor plans/site plans;
  • emergency management plans; and
  • district policies/procedures which relate to school safety.

What should the assessors use to assist them in recording their findings? The state of Florida provides their schools with safety self assessment forms. The state of Virginia provides a school safety audit checklist and the state of Georgia provides a 10-page school safety assessment form. The forms used to capture the information are also called safe campus checklist, facilities checklist, and campus safety and security audit tool kit. In other words, there are a variety of potential assessment tools that can work well.

Qualifications of an Outside Expert
It is critical that school officials conduct due diligence when selecting outside firms and experts for assessment work. Be sure to closely evaluate whether the actual prior work experience matches the work desired. A firm may have extensive consulting work experience with K-12 schools, but their work may still not withstand scrutiny during litigation, so be sure they have relevant work experience, training, and education to backup their consulting experience. Next, make sure that experience is relevant to the work. For example, having an expert who lacks any formal emergency management experience assess emergency preparedness measures is like having a dentist perform a triple bypass surgery.

I would advise any administrator or school district personnel considering new security technology not to invest any amount of resources (financial or human) before conducting a school safety assessment. This proactive process will provide the much-needed insight to guide the decision makers at any level in their efforts to make their school(s) safer. Safe schools are everyone’s concern, students, teachers, and the community as well. Each group has valuable information to share, and the school safety assessment can pave the way to achieving the goal of safer schools.

A former school district police chief, FBI National Academy graduate, and adjunct faculty member teaching college courses on police and security technology, Russell Bentley serves as a Senior Analyst for Safe Havens International Inc. He welcomes your comments, questions, and suggestions at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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