Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

High-Stakes School Security

School Security

PHOTO © LARRY ST. PIERRE

Security professionals know that no security program is foolproof. A smart, persistent criminal can always find a way through a security net, whether it protects homes, commercial buildings or public schools.

In the case of public schools, school security programs are uneven across the country. Some schools provide adequate to excellent security. Others provide some security. Still others don’t really provide much security at all.

Today, schools must redo poor security programs and tighten up the good ones. It isn’t safe for schools to allow their security programs to have any holes in them.

“The stakes are raised today,” says Paul Timm, president of Lemont, Ill.-based RETA Security, Inc., a security firm with several specialties, including school security.

Timm points to the continuing eruption of violent incidents in public schools across the country. Violence in schools is forcing officials to rethink and redo security across the board.

“In some school districts, there has been a progressive mind-shift about school security over the past five years,” says Toby Heath, an electromechanical specialist with ASSA ABLOY, a Stockholm-based security firm with offices around the world. “Today, teachers must approach any stranger walking the hallways, ask for identification, and take the individuals to the office to get a visitor’s badge.”

Still, when teachers encounter strangers that have made it into a corridor, the school security program has not done its job.

And this happens all to often. Too many superintendents continue to be reluctant to adopt adequate security measures. “We do security master planning for commercial facilities and some master planning for K-12 school districts,” says Michael Amaro, PSP, CPTED, a security project engineer with C&S Companies.

“Some district officials still say ‘it won’t happen here; we’re too remote,’” Amaro continues. “It is kind of a luck-hope approach to security, and, of course, it doesn’t work.”

Toby Heath agrees, saying that many school security programs need work. “Districts really need to retain experienced, professional security consultants to help develop programs,” he says.

Many district budgets simply can’t afford it. Security professionals are expensive. “Yes, consultants are expensive,” concedes Heath.

Not only that. When a superintendent hires a professional to consult on security in a school that needs help, the first step is a security assessment that comes with a written report identifying security problems.

If such a report is made public, it can provide fodder for lawsuits when security breaches occur. As a result, many superintendents and principals shy away from commissioning such reports.

There’s another approach that might avoid that problem. What if a district or principal publicly announced plans to commission a security study with the goal of finding weaknesses and setting a schedule to solve those problems — over time, as money permits.

In light of recurring security travails, the public might well approve the idea of a plan to strengthen security.

“I haven’t seen a school try this,” says Heath. “If you decide to consider the idea, you should certainly discuss it with an attorney in your legal department.”

Assemble A Team

Once a security assessment is complete, a school must, or at least should, respond. Paul Timm says an adequate response will require a specially assembled team of people.

“One person cannot secure a school today,” Timm says. “It is no longer a one-person job. A modern security program must address physical and IT security. The average security director doesn’t know about IT.”

Modern school security must also understand and address threats coming from the surrounding community as well as from the students themselves.

Are you familiar with the various social media? Can you scan Facebook for possible threats?

“You may need to enlist a school social worker to advise you about the students and their world today. You may also need someone to scan social media for you — if you can’t do it yourself. This is just one of the many new issues that security directors have to consider.”

Consider this concrete example. A recent school client of Timm’s is trying to work through security issues involving a transgender student. In this school, fights are breaking out. Parents are mounting protests. News media visits to the school are common. These and other issues require the attention of school security programs. Does your school’s security assessment have a paragraph about emerging security challenges such as this?

Timm also raises concerns about school resource officers (SROs). SROs are sworn police officers that help with school security.

Schools without SROs must develop relationships with local police and fire departments. Have you invited emergency responder representatives to inspect your school and advise you about their security concerns? Security professionals directing school programs insist on this.

It isn’t enough to assemble a team of people to help with security. Amaro emphasizes that it is also important to have to support of top management, from the superintendent and school principals. Without the attentive support of top management programs invariably wither.

In developing or updating security programs, security professionals all start with visitor management policies. “Visitor management is standard practice today,” says Amaro. “Don’t let faculty and staff think that visitor management is just one more chore to take care of. Today, it is critical. Schools were considered safe for so long that it can take a while to get people to care about visitor management.”

Security consultants all insist on taking time to make sure visitor management policies stick.

“It is worth having a general discussion about what visitor management means today. If you, as a teacher or staff member, see someone without a badge, you have to take him or her to the badging station.

Think of it this way: visitor management is the first line of defense against an active shooter. Done right all the time, it might prevent a shooting incident.

Combatting Today’s Greatest School Security Fear: An Active Shooter

Active shooters are today’s worst security threat. It is important to think about active shooters in the right way. Ninety-nine percent of all K-12 schools will never have to face an active shooter.

But what if an active shooter does visit your school? Administrators, teachers and students have to be ready for it.

Time was, school fires killed and injured students and teachers. Then we developed fire-resistant building standards and evacuation procedures that we practiced and practiced. Today, schools suffer few fires and no one has been killed in a fire for decades.

Experts are working to develop standards and procedures that will enable as many students, teachers and administrators as possible to survive an active shooter attack.

“Today, it is important to set up a series of security layers to deal with an active shooter attack,” says Heath. “The layers are familiar to experienced security people. In order, they are deter, detect, delay, deny and defend.”

The idea is to use each step as a way to stop an active shooter. If one step fails, move on to the next and so on.

Deterrence involves the perimeter of the school. A school designed to deter an attacker. It might be set back from the street and require an attacker to travel across lots of open ground, making early detection possible. Facing difficult deterrence, an attacker might decide to go elsewhere

Locked doors may deter attackers too. If not, door alarms will detect an intruder, while protective laminate over the glass panels of doors will make it difficult to break through, creating a delay. Gunshots might break the glass, but the laminate will hold the glass together and cause further delay.

A vestibule with a second set of laminated glass paneled doors will continue to delay an attacker that gets through the first set of doors.

With luck, a 911 call placed when the initial alarm sounds will enable police to stop the intruder before both sets of doors are breached.

If an intruder gets through both sets of doors into the building proper, fire doors create more levels by blocking the corridors. “Make sure that your school’s fire doors lock,” Heath says. “Some haven’t been equipped with locks.”

Should an intruder make it through the fire doors, the corridors with classrooms become vulnerable.

More delay is possible, however. “There are products available today that provide a remote control fob that teachers can carry,” Heath says. “Teachers can use the fob to lock the classroom door wherever they happen to be in the classroom.

“The idea is that seconds count, and if the teacher can lock the door from the other side of the classroom by using the fob, the lock may deny entry to the intruder long enough for the police to arrive.”

In the end, cameras, access control and other components of school security aim to deter, detect, delay and deny final access to students until help arrives. Every security layer deployed works to prevent an intruder from reaching the final layer — defend, by any means possible — with a club or other weapon or by physically attacking the individual.

School security that prevents an attacker from ever getting far enough to require a physical defense is successful modern school security.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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