This year marked the tenth anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, a stark reminder of the worst-case scenario of a violent incident that can befall a school. When considering how to protect faculty, staff, and students, however, administrators must address a range of less severe but more common concerns from gang violence to loss prevention—and even public health issues. In 2009, schools have already had to respond to health incidents related to contaminated peanut butter and the H1N1 (or swine flu) epidemic, for example.
School threats can range from smaller scale and predictable to unfathomable. “We tend to very narrowly focus, look for a snapshot issue or picture at a point in time and say that, ‘Our biggest threat today is school shootings.’ Or ‘Our biggest threat today is bullying.’ And the reality is that our threats and risks vary, school district to school district and even school to school, within the same school district over a period of time,” says Kenneth S. Trump, of National School Safety and Security Services.
Security Management interviewed experts around the country to get a snapshot of the security technologies and strategies being used to mitigate this formidable range of risks.
The number one issue for schools is to attempt to control who gains access. There are several steps schools are now taking to make sure that if someone isn’t supposed to be in a school, they are either kept out or discovered quickly.
That’s not a new concept, of course. The use of access control measures was already quite widespread a decade ago. However, access control in some form is nearly universal now; between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of students who reported a visitor sign-in requirement at their schools increased from 87 to 94 percent, according to Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2008, released in 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Fortunately, access control can be cost effective, says Steve Kaufer, CPP, president of Inter/Action Associates. It doesn’t necessarily require a grant or a major capital expenditure to implement a program as simple as having visitors sign in and wear badges.
Design. Many new school building designs are facilitating access control by taking safety and crime prevention into consideration. They’re putting the administrative offices up front and funneling any visitors through that office before they enter the rest of the school.
“The problem is, the older schools weren’t designed that way. They were designed to be very open campuses, and it’s very easy to come in. So those schools have a much bigger challenge to try to figure out how to do that,” says Kaufer.
Many older schools had their offices more towards the middle of the school, he says. But they are finding ways to remove that vulnerability without investing in a new structure.
One approach schools have taken is to switch the office with something that might have been towards the front of the building, such as the library or a classroom. That’s cost effective, “because they’re not constructing something new, they’re just repurposing an existing area,” says Kaufer.
It’s also important that other external entrances are monitored, are locked, or direct visitors to enter through the front. “And if we don’t have a good line of sight on the front door, we don’t even want that one unlocked. We’ll have a video intercom on that door and people can get buzzed in after they’ve spoken to a receptionist,” says Fred Ellis, security director for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.