10 Tips for School Security

The “ABCs” of Loss Prevention
Recent tragedies have magnified the threat of school violence in the minds of students, parents and educators. Unfortunately, the reactionary response is to purchase trendy equipment in an attempt to upgrade security. Before spending valuable school funds, however, it is crucial to take a more thorough approach. In fact, since the primary purpose of schools is to teach, why not make educated decisions? Here are 10 areas to consider in effectively reducing the risk to school security:

Briefings & Drills
Risk Prioritization


Schools today are very good at managing “safety” programs. For emergencies, like fire and natural disasters, schools have well-developed plans. These plans include actions to be taken by students and staff. The actions include clearly defined roles and procedures that are both documented in formal written plans and practiced regularly. Unfortunately, many schools lack this same level of preparation when it comes to the security. The cornerstone of a good security program is a comprehensive security plan. This plan should be a living document detailing current assets, threats, hardware, procedures, etc. Teachers, staff and administrators should be familiar with the contents and understand their specific roles and responsibilities. Finally, management of the plan should be well defined. Those in responsibility must be held accountable for its effectiveness.

All security programs are developed for the same purpose – the protection of assets. Not all programs, though, are protecting the same assets. Those developing a security plan must ask and answer the question, “What is the program going to protect?” Assets can take many forms, ranging from people (students, staff and visitors), to facilities (buildings, grounds, equipment, furniture and supplies), to information (records and files). Assets should be identified and prioritized. Children, quite obviously, are of highest priority. Physical facilities, on the other hand, typically fall lower on the list. When drafting and prioritizing the asset list, it is important to get the input of everyone affected by and involved in the security program.

Just as assets are listed and prioritized, threats to those assets must also be. Threats are defined as the people that the security program must protect against. Additionally, threats can be either internal or external. Examples of school threats include students, staff, disgruntled family members and community offenders. Once identified, threats must be accurately described. Such a description should include the number of people acting together to commit the act, the behaviors and characteristics of the people, and the degree of the threat. Schools can use many different sources of information to develop threat descriptions. Demographic data can predict threat levels. School incident logs provide historical data and patterns. Police registrations can identify potential community threats. The information from these and other sources should be collected and used to build the threat list.

Deterrence is one of the most basic elements of a security program. The goal of the deterrence is to keep a security incident from being attempted. The key to deterrence is high visibility. Signs can draw attention to security features and policies. Effective lighting can eliminate dark areas and shadows that serve as hiding places. Well-marked guards and escorts can make people on the school grounds more difficult and/or less attractive targets. In short, if your school makes aspects of its security program very visible, certain threats will choose to go elsewhere.

Detection is the first of three components of a security system. Delay and response are the other two components, but are dependent on detection occurring first. Successful detection requires two steps. First, a sensor must signal that a security incident has occurred and send an alarm. Second, someone must identify and assess the cause of the alarm. For example, a door sensor will send an alarm when a door is opened. Assessment may be achieved by an on-site respondent or remotely via CCTV. In some cases, sensing and assessment may be performed by the same element. For example, a staff member may observe a trespasser (sensing) and use a two-way radio to report the incident (assessment). Security systems are designed to operate in two modes. Generally, the first mode is during daytime when facilities are open and the second mode is during nighttime when facilities are closed. Even though the security system uses different methods in different modes, the system must maintain a balanced profile. In other words, the ability of the system to detect an incident must be equivalent for both daytime and nighttime.

Delay in a school is not simply about locks and doors, but about the door itself and other surfaces adjacent to the door. Doors include hinges, glazing and the basic construction. For interior doors a basic need is to list all of the doors in the school by room number. Next, determine the use for the room (i.e. teaching, administrative, utility, etc.). Finally, list room function (i.e. standard classroom, computer lab, etc.). Obviously, the computer lab is a more attractive target for theft than the typical classroom. For daytime use, a simple door bolt on the door will allow the teacher to quickly secure the room from the inside to prevent a series of violent acts from progressing unimpeded from room to room. At one school we visited, the teachers are instructed to lock their doors when the security alarm sounds. Unfortunately, teachers have to find their keys, go into the hallway to set the locks, re-enter the room and close the doors behind them! The total time to lock the doors is more than 60 seconds and the teachers risk exposure to hallway activity.

Response is based on a security person arriving at an incident on campus in a timely manner. As a general rule, the first responder must act within two minutes or fewer from the time an alarm is reported. The local law enforcement agency is typically 15 minutes away from responding. Obviously, the campus security has to be ready to respond quickly. Important questions that involve policy, procedures and training include: What are the security persons trained and equipped to do (i.e. simple assessment, mitigate an escalation of the incident, etc.)? Do they use physical force to restrain or interrupt altercations? Are they armed and can they use deadly force to protect themselves, students and faculty? All telephones should have a list of local law enforcement numbers posted nearby. We know of one school whose property spans two incorporated towns as well as county property. Who is called first and who has jurisdiction? Liaison on a regular basis is important so that police know of the current status of facilities, enrollment and incidents.

Mitigation involves actions after an incident has occurred or during an incident of long duration, such as a hostage situation. The long duration incident usually makes use of either an improvised or fixed emergency management center. Those in charge must have familiarity with the facility and surrounding area. Current facility maps and floor plans depicting doors, windows, etc. should be on hand. Other important information that should be noted includes: stairwells, lighting panels, telephones (including their numbers), fire panels, HVAC controls, gas lines, etc. A simple, “walk through” videotape recording hallways, doors and office information should also be available to provide cognitive orientation. This information should be readily accessible at an alternate location. A central repository for the school district is not a good idea. One possibility is to retain the information at a sister school in a reciprocal relationship.

During a recent visit to a local school we asked a teacher if the school had a written security plan. She answered, “No.” Later, we went into the main office to meet with the principal. While we were waiting, we noticed a document on the bulletin board labeled “Security Plan.” We read the document; the teacher was right! The “Security Plan” contained nothing more than building evacuation procedures. At a preliminary visit to another school, we tried various exterior doors around the building and found some unlocked. We questioned an administrator regarding school policy for secondary entrances and were told that they should be locked. When informed of our findings, the issue was dismissed as a mistake. Regular awareness training, briefings and drills for students, staff and PTL help correct these problems before an incident occurs. Security awareness should be as much a part of contemporary school life as are “D.A.R.E” programs. Signage in school hallways should serve as action reminders when strangers, unlocked doors, etc. are found. Prompt notification of trained security personnel will address issues and may deter or prevent a more serious incident. Practicing security drills is as important as practicing fire drills – both are emergencies. Staff and students should know the difference in their roles. In a fire drill they should leave the building in an orderly manner and go to a prescribed assembly area. In a security drill they should remain in the room and move in an orderly manner to a designated area away from the door while the teachers lock the door.

Schools are bound by budgets. Funds must, therefore, be wisely used to “balance” security and, thus, risk. Risk is directly proportional to the threat. A school without risk is unobtainable and unaffordable. As risk is balanced across school facilities, it must also be balanced across a district or geographical area. Additionally, it should be taken into account that demographics and situations change regularly. Risk is reduced not just with gadgets and guards but with a disciplined program of management-deterrence-detection-delay-response-mitigation that is measured, tested and drilled. Funding should be prioritized and allocated so that the individual school or district improves uniformly from poor to fair to good to excellent – just like a remedial program for a student that has “fallen behind.”

A thoughtful consideration of the 10 areas described above is foundational in addressing school security. There is no way to overestimate the value of providing children with a safe learning environment. Detecting, correcting and protecting is, indeed, an important assignment.

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