The importance of providing a safe school environment for students, staff and visitors cannot be overstated. However, administrators routinely encounter difficult questions as they negotiate the ever-shifting landscape of school safety and security: How much security is too much security? Will parent and community backlash be encountered if changes are made that affect convenience? Where should security priorities be placed? Whose opinion can be trusted?
The dizzying array of options stakeholders will suggest, or even demand, may include uniforms, cameras, additional security personnel and entry-control devices. While any or all of these measures might bring some value, districts are realizing that building access may be the most important — unlocked or propped exterior doors often attract theft, vandalism and violence.
In 2007, the state of West Virginia tackled these issue, literally, at the front door. “We wanted to be proactive in the measures we took to address security and controlling access was the most obvious area,” stated Mark A. Manchin, the executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority. As a result, Gov. Joe Manchin, working cooperatively with the West Virginia legislature, established a “School Access Safety” grant program that makes funding available to every district in the state, specifically to improve access control. “Some of the solutions we are funding include locked vestibules, exterior-and interior-door hardware upgrades and entry control,” Manchin says. Solutions funded by this grant program are not based on individual preference: Every school in the state is required to complete a comprehensive security audit and the audit results help determine prioritized solutions.
Long ago, most schools adopted standard operating procedures that required visitors to sign in at the main office and wear a sticker in the lapel area. Experience demonstrates, however, that some signatures are illegible, some visitors do not sign in at all, some stickers do not stick (or stick too well) and very few visitors bother to sign out. To improve visitor management, companies such as EasyLobby, STOPware and LobbyGuard have introduced software solutions. “Our system requires visitors to provide a driver’s license, which gets swiped through a reader to automatically capture their information and photo,” says Howard Marson, CEO of EasyLobby Inc. “Before the visitor badge is printed, their information is passed to our online web service that checks the name against all 50 states’ registered sex-offender databases. Within a second or two, the operator of the system will be alerted if there is a match; otherwise if there is no match, the badge prints immediately and the person is checked in.”
Visitors, or “outsiders,” however, do not pose the only threat to a safe learning environment. In fact, “insiders” — students and staff — may present the greater threat. What measures can be implemented to address this? On the
procedural side, schools are conducting random searches using metal detectors, requiring all adults to display identification badges and calling upon local law enforcement K-9 units to detect contraband such as drugs on school grounds. On the technology side, schools are using closed-circuit televisions, installing local door alarms on those exterior doors that are difficult to monitor and equipping hall monitors with personal digital assistants to access student-scheduling information. “Today’s access control systems can integrate a duress signal with a supervised and recorded video image to provide video verification at a modern monitoring facility,” says Randy Knepper of F.E. Moran, an Illinois-based alarm and monitoring services firm.
As helpful as these measures can be, schools must also be prepared to protect students, staff and visitors in the event of a real or potentially violent situation. This mitigating set of procedures is known as “lockdown” and involves moving persons into designated safe havens as quickly as possible. Designated safe havens include those rooms or areas inside the building that can be locked to prevent or delay intruder access. Most door-hardware vendors, such as ASSA ABLOY, BEST and Ingersoll-Rand, will assist districts with identifying potential safe havens. Schools designed as open-learning environments or those that have acquired additional, portable structures to meet capacity issues face unique challenges that require collaborative solutions. The majority of school classrooms are outfitted with locking mechanisms that can only be secured from the outside of the door. Staff members in this circumstance may opt to keep the door locked or carry the room key on their person at all times. If key-control issues prevent these options, it may be worth considering an upgrade in classroom locks. “The Schlage D-Lock is offered with two different functions: One allows teachers to lock the classroom door from the inside by simply pushing the button on the lever, the other utilizes a key,” says Charlie Sasso, regional director, Education Market for Ingersoll-Rand Security Technologies.
Once basic lockdown capabilities and procedures are in place, administrators should ensure that drills are planned for and conducted on a regular basis. In terms of planning, potential issue-raising questions include: Have we considered nonteaching staff members (such as administrative assistants, custodians and cafeteria personnel) in designating safe havens? What communication methods will be used to notify personnel who are not in traditional classrooms? How will we account for students who are not in classrooms when the lockdown
announcement is made? Keep in mind that drills permit “trial-and-error” learning and may uncover new vulnerabilities. These identified errors and vulnerabilities can be proactively addressed to make measurable improvements to lockdown procedures.
Effectively controlling access is both vital and challenging. The pursuit of this goal will require careful planning, appropriate devices and ongoing evaluation. Assistance with these efforts can be found from internal/external stakeholders, hardware vendors and grant funding. No matter how daunting the task may seem, please remember that providing a safe learning environment is not an option — it is a responsibility.