Achieving a Secure but Friendly Access Control

A school can easily seem like a prison to students, staff, and parents. Improper design, hallway color schemes, poorly designed or implemented access control systems, and even impolite staff can create this resemblance. At the same time, careful planning and implementation can create a warm and caring environment, and still afford a high degree of access control. A broad level review of some concepts that have helped many schools achieve this balance may prove helpful to many school officials.

School environment is a crucial factor in effective teaching and learning. As community based organizations, schools should be welcoming to lawful parents, guardians, and other visitors. At the same time, students, parents, and staff expect educators to take reasonable steps to reduce risks from intruders. A key point in this discussion is the critical importance of friendly and positive staff interaction in achieving access control. The words, mannerisms, body language, and other means of communications are at least as important as the techniques and technologies of access control we will explore.

Using an assessment-based approach to determine what is appropriate for access control for the school or facility can dramatically improve how this balance is achieved (see the related article “Is Your Security Technology Working” in the Dec. 2008 issue). Carefully evaluating the manner in which the facility is used, the education programs and supportive activities in the school, after-hours activities, and of course, the external threat level, an appropriate approach can be found to match the unique needs of the school. After completion of the needs assessment, the various techniques and technologies to limit access can come into play.

We must first consider access to the campus grounds and parking areas. There are numerous considerations to this potential protective layer of access control. Some progressive school systems and independent schools even add an additional layer through prevention efforts in the neighborhood around the school campus. These can be the first lines of defense to identify a potentially dangerous intruder and a number of major events, such as planned gang shootings, molestation of students, and other crimes that have been successfully detected using these types of efforts.

Next, it is important to minimize open and unlocked exterior entry doors. This needs to be done during the early arrival of students and staff, the regular instructional day, during the dismissal of students in the afternoon, and should carry over into after hours time periods. These doors should be supervised by teachers, administrators, hall monitors, security officers, or other school personnel. All other entryways should be secured. This process should be supported by policy following proper notice to parents and students. This notice should be in the Student Code of Conduct, parent letters, student handbooks, door labeling, and appropriate signage. Once the instructional day starts, all unstaffed doors should be locked and staff assigned to make sure they are secured.
 
We can next use school design to improve access control. Many schools have main entrance designs offering excellent natural surveillance and natural access control, and many schools have entry perimeters that cannot easily be forcibly breached. These entryways use remote door opening capability or at least the ability to channel the visitor directly into the office area. If this type of design is not possible, the entryway may have a staff desk or workstation placed near the main hallway to bring visitors in close proximity to a staff member as they enter the building.

Another technique would be the required use of photo ID for adults — requiring a photo ID for all adult staff, vendors, and visitors is crucial. Many middle and high schools have found a similar requirement for students to be helpful as well. Photo identification for all adults and visitors at the elementary schools is a minimum requirement because virtually any access control system for a school can be breached. One component of this is to restrict/document access to individuals who have a legitimate need.

Managing the visitor badge and sign-in process is another important concept. Special attention should be given to the notification of visitors, the importance of reporting to the office, and signing in. This can be accomplished by the use of visible signage at all entryways, directing visitors to the proper place to sign in. Many states now make it a criminal violation to fail to follow school sign-in procedures and require schools to provide visitors with visible notice of the law.

Once a visitor is in the building, there should be no question as to where they should proceed to sign in and the process to receive a visitor badge. Many schools still use a traditional sign-in log, while others are using various types of electronic computer-based visitor badging systems. These computer-based systems not only issue a printed visitor ID badge, but many manage time and attendance of staff and school volunteers. The visitor management system is sometimes stand-alone or integrated, can print out an ID badge, and check the visitor against various databases that monitor state and national sex offender registries. Some of the integrated systems even notify school staff and school resource officers (SROs) if the visitor is restricted from being in the building. Whether the process is the stock pen-and-paper logbook or one of the new computer-based integrated systems, school staff should maintain control of the sign in process and be required to check some form of official identification. A middle school in Southwest Michigan is a great example of a best practice in this procedure. I presented at this school on two occasions, and on each trip, even though they knew me by name, the secretary always requested that I show my photo identification before signing in. The exterior doors were locked and only the front entry door that led to the office was open. A staff member was in the office to greet visitors. In addition to maintaining control of the sign-in method, schools should issue time-sensitive visitor badges. Schools or facilities should not rely on pre-printed plastic forms of visitor badges. The use of a time sensitive visitor badge can alert staff when the badge is old or invalid due to a pre-set time limit.

One more technique is internal space management. Access control to a school is improved when the staff makes it a practice to lock classrooms and other spaces when they are not in use and not supervised. Classrooms and office spaces left unlocked and unattended for periods of time before, during, or after school create internal access control vulnerability resulting in thousands of safety and security incidents every year.

While many school administrators would welcome the addition of driveway gates, security cameras, remote access control devices, and other computer-based access control technology, it is important to create a safe learning environment without making the school feel like a prison. Regardless of the technology used, positive human interaction can considerably tone down the negative impact of access control approaches. Technology and policy supported by procedures can help maintain a balance between having a user-friendly, welcoming school environment, and a facility that is free of unwanted intruders.

Russell Bentley
serves as a senior analyst with Safe Havens International, an international non profit school safety center. A member of the first graduating class of certified school safety instructor trainers in the Human Factor Research Group Safe Schools — Healthy Students program, he can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

About the Author

A current 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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