Safety

Less Invasive Security

school security

PHOTO BY NEC CORPORATION OF AMERICA

I’ve been a student for virtually my entire life. Until graduation from high school, almost every individual in the United States spends a huge portion of his or her daily life in school. Even after high school graduation, many go on to colleges and graduate schools. Given the nation’s increasing scrutiny on school security, administrators, parents and teachers have scrambled to determine cost-effective ways to ensure the safety of their students. Investment in measures such as cameras and security guards is the typical solution. But, there are atypical measures that can be put into place that can make a significant difference in reducing the risk schools face.

As a student and also the son of a school security consultant, I am uniquely positioned to discuss how to emphasize alternative and complementary practices and procedures that don’t necessarily require a huge investment in physical security. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about school security, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is, while no security measure can make you completely safe, there are practices and concepts that can effectively reduce risk in our schools. In this article, I will be discussing incident reporting and student inclusion specifically, and modern school security practices in general.

I mentioned earlier that the typical solutions to school security problems include measures such as cameras and security guards. These kinds of solutions are considered physical security solutions. One of the problems with this approach is that these measures are, for lack of a better term, invasive. It’s similar to encountering a doctor who offers two possible options to combat an illness: surgery or antibiotics. The first is particularly invasive and might make you feel great trepidation, while the second works on your body from within, and doesn’t require exposing you to unnecessary harm. The physical solutions I mentioned are not risky, per se, but they are unnecessarily invasive for students and school employees, and may, in fact, be counterproductive on some deeper levels.

This is especially true when we know we can make our schools safer and better equipped for emergencies for far less money and with custom-crafted concepts and procedures. Antibiotics in this situation, or security practices and procedures that aren’t strictly physical, tend to be more cost-effective, and can either supplement or replace some physical security investments that I’ve referred to.

The analogy about invasive surgery I have been using is actually transforming into a common concern of parents and students who sometimes feel as if their schools have been turned into maximum-security prisons. This introduces a morale problem that, for the most part, has only existed in schools since Columbine. It seems in our rush to protect our students, certainly a worthy cause, we have encountered consequences that are less tangible, but can be damaging nonetheless. Specifically, students, teachers and parents suddenly feel this new and foreign pressure of surveillance, seemingly unnecessary security measures, and the fear that accompanies being constantly reminded that their schools are no longer safe. This can be entirely demoralizing, and it is gaining traction as people begin to vocalize how it makes them feel.

Recently, there was a BBC report on students in Washington, D.C. with the headline: “We go through jail life.” Students describe how they feel going through metal detectors every morning before school and how distracting it can be to see police walking through their hallways. This kind of report combined with many of discussions with administrators, teachers and peers, leads me to think hard about how to tread carefully along the line between making our schools safe and unnecessarily burdening our schools with security measures that are too invasive.

A couple of caveats

First, I want to make it clear that physical security solutions can be an effective way to make schools safer and I want to emphasize that I fully support security measures such as cameras and school resource officers when they are necessary. Further, some physical security solutions, like classroom security locks, closed campus practices and locked vestibules should be standard fare for most schools. These measures are almost universally helpful physical security solutions. However, we do need to tread lightly in these measures for a couple significant reasons including expense, morale and convenience.

Second, I want to recognize that some or most of these types of security measures might be appropriate for some schools. High crime areas, schools with gang problems or alternative schools might want or need these because they are necessary, given the risk levels. But that brings me to my point, which is that each school is unique, and should be treated that way. In general though, I have to say that this kind of security shouldn’t be implemented so quickly upon the majority of schools in the United States without very good reasons.

Incident reporting

Let’s examine the practices and procedures that I referred to earlier as alternatives to overly aggressive physical security measures: incident reporting and student inclusion in the security process.

Incident reporting is a set of policies and procedures that govern the way in which incidents are seen, reported and recorded. Schools are notorious for under-reporting incidents. Many times, incidents such as vandalism or a minor scuffle between students are essentially swept under the rug and ignored. This usually happens because teachers and students don’t think it is worth the trouble to file whatever paperwork has become standard at their school throughout the years. Or, even worse, the school might not even have established practices regarding the reporting of incidents. Further, there is often a mentality where administrators and teachers are ashamed that they are having problems and, as a result, they refrain from writing reports on things that might even be quite serious. Finally, even if a school is perfectly reporting and filing all of the incidents that are taking place, it might be that no one is tasked with looking for trends, repeat offenders, students at risk, etc.

All of these situations are problematic for very apparent reasons. If incidents in the past have any bearing on the future, we are essentially blinding ourselves when we don’t file reports or never look at the ones we’ve received. Some states require incident reporting, but that requirement is largely toothless when there is not much follow-up or oversight.

Now, it would be unhelpful for me to detail exactly how every school should treat incident reporting, because each school is unique. Generally speaking, however, there are certainly ways we can improve. For some schools, it might be as simple as directing teachers to file reports when they encounter problems. For others, it might mean taking the next step and appointing a committee to review trends and data that the school has accumulated. For still others, it might involve transitioning from written reports to electronic applications. The bottom line is that incident reporting is a vital part of generating positive safety and security awareness. Keep in mind that incidents should probably include everything from student fights, maintenance issues, and online indiscretions. There is valuable information to be gleaned from these reports, and letting it go unnoticed is akin to avoiding routine dental checkups.

There are many more reasons to prioritize incident reporting and to make sure it is done efficiently, but each school is different and each school district will want to pursue its own course. I’m fine with that as long as we take the initiative to start taking reporting seriously.

Student inclusion

Transitioning to student inclusion is easy because schoolwide awareness is the most important tool that we neglect when we seek to improve security. Incident reporting is just one way that we can raise awareness and train our teachers, administrators, and, yes, our students to pay attention to everything that happens on campus. Focusing on students as a resource allows us to tap into their world and use them to predict and prevent crises. But to start using this valuable resource, first you have to generate trust between administrators, teachers and their students. This is no easy feat.

The best way to approach making this change is to consider students, especially those in high school and college, as adults who have concerns just like faculty and staff. Clearly, looking to the youngest students for information isn’t quite as effective. Generating trust won’t happen overnight, but it can be developed by taking students concerns seriously, and showing them that you are willing to take action based on what they say. Many students feel left out of the decision making loop at school already, and doubt that adults would value what they have to say. Combating this perception is the key to changing your school’s climate for the better.

The fact is, students know more about their school and their peers than we will ever know, and coaxing this information from them requires patience and relationship development. The rewards are scintillating, of course. I know a school security director who had a student come to him about another student who he saw had a gun at a fast-food restaurant before school. They found out there were some gang-related issues going on outside of school and the armed student was looking to shoot another student during the first passing period. Thanks to the tip, they were able to quietly find and detain the student with the gun and diffuse the potentially disastrous situation. These are the stakes that we are dealing with. If they had never received that tip, there could have been a terrible tragedy in school that day.

I would like to leave you with a very clear idea of exactly what practices and procedures to institute at your school, but I can’t. The best I can tell you to do is start somewhere, and plan on improving as you go along. We already have good ideas about physical security in this country, and I don’t want to take anything away from that. I only want to suggest taking a step back and looking for tools, infrastructure and resources that already exist in our schools and utilize them more effectively.

In my opinion, two of the most overlooked resources and infrastructure we can take advantage of are our students and how we treat them, as well as taking incident reporting seriously. Update these practices, make them more efficient, more applicable, and use the data to make educated guesses about the future. Get to know your students: what are their concerns about school safety and security? Can you form a student security planning team? Consider allowing a student to meet with your existing security committee. Do what it takes to enhance relationships with students. Let them know you are there for them. Results will come, and you will be glad you chose to emphasize an inside-out approach to school security.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

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