From a Student's Perspective

As a 17-year-old, one of the last things on my mind is school security. I have more important things to worry about, such as my girlfriend, how I’m going to pay for gas this week, my grades, and which schools I should apply to. There’s only one problem — I’ve got a school security expert for a father...

Because he frequently takes me on school assessments, I see first-hand how insecure schools really are. Take, for example, the last school I helped with — a historic landmark, private school that was built in the 1920s. It rivals the catacombs in the extreme complexity it presents in trying to simply get from point A to point B. A typical 17-year-old would see this old, maze-like school and wonder why they built it that way, then move on quickly to how much he hates his math class. Among other things, however, I saw a million and one places to hide, weak and misused entrance security, and three cameras that no one in the school knew even had recording capabilities.

My point is, since I am aware of security, I can see problems and think of potential solutions simply because of that awareness. Ignorance is bliss until the school is threatened by a man whose favorite pastime is watching the children on the playground from the public forest preserve that happens to be less than 100 ft. from the jungle gym. Yes, that really happened! Security is not a luxury; it’s a necessity, and it all starts with awareness.

I am not, despite what you might think, suggesting that we turn our schools into mini versions of Fort Knox. From a student’s perspective, that would be inconvenient and plain, old and unnecessary. The main idea of security is captured in the following areas — deterrence (discouraging unauthorized actions), detection (recognizing unauthorized actions), delay (slowing unauthorized actions) and response (reacting to unauthorized actions). If you can increase your effectiveness in these four areas, you are already on your way to being more secure.

The more secure a school appears to be, the less likely the “bad guy” is to challenge that security. Let’s face it, “bad guys” are generally cowards, bullies and opportunists — this makes them want to choose the easiest target… the least secure school. By making yourself an easy target, you are inviting bad things to happen to your school.

The problem is, many still adopt the mentality that “it’s not going to happen here.” This mentality, although naïve and incorrect is, in fact, correct much of the time. You run into problems when you actually become one of those few statistics of crime or violence. In most of those cases where serious school incidents did occur, they were, in fact, thinking that it could never happen to them. Whether you are a parent concerned about security in your child’s school, a teacher wondering about security issues (while remembering that your classroom door doesn’t lock), a school administrator who is unsure about the liability that lack of security affords or an innocent bystander reading the first article that you saw, you can benefit from being more aware of the need for security and, in most cases, the lack of it.

The reality that serious incidents do happen is something everyone needs to come to terms with. It doesn’t matter where you are located — everyone has some level of risk. Even if that risk is minimal, it would be terrible to become yet another school that, in the aftermath, wonders why they didn’t do more to prevent it. The general goal of security is to minimize risk, and although there is no way to completely eliminate all of your risk, you can effectively help to reduce it. Your level of risk may have a lot to do with the location of the school, but even if you’re living in Mayberry, there are still threats that can be addressed. An inner-city school may have trouble with gangs, while a school in a white-collar suburban area might have trouble with party drugs. Regardless of where you are, security is a necessity and awareness is the key.

The stereotype of security is big doors with huge locks, state-of-the-art burglar alarms, cameras recording your every move and buff security guards with guns walking around the perimeter of the property. But I want to keep pounding this point home because it is so important to realize — it’s awareness, not necessarily all of these fancy additions, that makes a school secure. In fact, some of the security measures above could be preposterous, more than a little inconvenient, or completely unreasonable for your school. For example, burglar alarms really only work when the school is closed up for the night. If our most important assets in a school are the people, then we need to determine how to best protect them during the day.

Let’s return once again to deterrence, detection, delay and response. Tackling these areas is the best way to determine what your school’s needs are and what they aren’t.

Deterrence can scare away the bad guy by making him think the target is too tough. Detection is important because it involves finding a threat and letting everyone else know there is a threat to be wary of. Entrance cameras can be helpful, but most main office secretaries are not going to notice the bad guy on the monitor unless he walks into your school with an I.D. that says, “Hello my name is… Bad Guy.” Trained faculty and staff can be much more effective in identifying the threat, but also need some sort of communication devices to relay that information to others in the school. Delay is made up of several aspects: like properly locking doors and effective lock down procedures. It is often dependent on training your staff and students and the speed of their actions. Response is how quickly we and/or the police can take care of the problem. Depending on your school’s location, the police should be able to arrive within five minutes. Since every situation is unique, you can’t always count on law enforcement arriving in time, or even being able to help once they do get there. All of these areas should be improved to reduce the risk as much as possible.

Going back to Mayberry and the inner-city school examples, threats are unique to each situation because each situation is unique. The Mayberry type school I visited happened to border on the edge of a public forest preserve. Just their luck I guess. Anybody who wants to can legally come to within less than 100 ft. of the jungle gym. It wouldn’t take too much to fix problems like this, but we too often choose to ignore the man in the pink spandex, even helping him by not taking measures to make sure he never gets a chance to do anything. Granted, the guy could be the nicest man in the world who just likes to watch kids play, but  when I’m a parent, I hope that I’m going do something about the chance that he could be a sex offender or worse.

The staff is the first place I would focus on to improve this awareness. Yes, teachers, janitors and principals are the ones that make up your potentially great security system. Unfortunately, convenience and comfort may be affected in our efforts to improve awareness, but they also don’t need to be sacrificed. We are not, despite what some may assume, looking to scare people — that’s not the point. The point is to get staff trained and aware of their school’s security and help them to recognize, for themselves, lapses in the security system — such as, don’t prop open outside doors, ask visitors how you can help them and wear your ID badges. These simple steps can help your school be as secure as possible with only limited awareness training and small adjustments.

I’m not going to tell you that your school needs a fence and the higher the better. I hope, simply, that I have helped you understand the importance of improving and sustaining awareness. Ignorance may feel like bliss and, oftentimes, awareness may feel uncomfortable, but I know that I would rather be slightly inconvenienced and safe than completely comfortable and at risk. As a student, a teenager and not yet a security expert, I’m very aware… and that makes all the difference.

David Timm is a senior at Lemont High School in the Chicago suburbs. In addition to writing, his other interests include baseball, playing guitar and youth group leadership.

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