A Holistic Approach to School Security

Question: What is the best way to address the threat of school violence? Answering this question is one of the greatest challenges and most important assignments facing school administrators today. Suggestions provided by local law enforcement, state agencies and/or product vendors are often subjective and simplistic. Sifting through the myriad of possible solutions under varying degrees of pressure can be reminiscent of taking a multiple-choice test. Consider the following:

The most effective way to prevent school violence is:
a) Zero tolerance policies
b) Digitally recorded CCTV
c) Bullying prevention programs
d) Web-based crisis management plans
e) None of the above

Unfortunately, no single solution can effectively address the school safety issue. It takes time and effort to develop safety policies and select appropriate security products. In fact, the correct approach to school security must be both comprehensive and collaborative in nature.

In order to build an effective security program, schools must first frame the issue by identifying their assets and their threats. Assets consist of people (i.e. students, staff and visitors), places (i.e. buildings and grounds) and things (i.e. computers, band equipment, positive climate). Once identified, assets should be prioritized. Obviously, people are always the highest priority. It is important to understand that administrators that do not undertake this kind of planning still demonstrate asset prioritization. For example, a school that does not attempt to control access but has invested in an expensive alarm system is unwittingly placing higher priority on places than people. Threats can be identified through means such as incident records and local law enforcement. From typical criminal activity to the possibility of a disgruntled individual becoming violent, schools should be aware of when, where and how they face risk.

Having established a planning foundation, schools are ready to begin addressing the components of school security. A comprehensive security program addresses the following five areas:

1. Management (Policies & Procedures) – How do we control access to our facility? What are the district’s policies governing off-site events? Are staff roles and responsibilities for “lock down” procedures clearly detailed and routinely disseminated? Questions like these serve to raise issues that, no matter how difficult, must be considered. Too often this area is neglected until after an unfortunate incident occurs. Schools interested in preventing loss and guarding against liability manage proactively. It is also important to remember that policies do not officially exist until documented.
2. Building Security – School administrators are inundated with marketing that touts shiny and expensive security products. Cameras, metal detectors, alarm systems, communication devices, etc. may all boast advanced technological characteristics and outstanding performance, but to what end? Failure to consider things such as engineering specifications and maintenance issues can result in buyer’s remorse. Prudent choices follow careful planning. Deterrence, detection, delay, and response make up the basic elements of security. Low-cost deterrence items such as signs and the replacing of low-level lighting with brighter bulbs can discourage criminal activity. Motion sensors and duress buttons are examples of detection items that signal the need for security response. Appropriate kinds of doors and locks serve to delay adversarial activity. Since security incidents are dynamic, the most critical factor is time. How much time from the initial contact does it take for local law enforcement to arrive on the scene? Who has been designated to respond in the meantime? What actions are first responders trained and equipped to perform? A disciplined security program involves planning and testing.
3. Violence Prevention & Intervention – Character education programs, after school activities and parent resource centers attempt to reduce the likelihood that risk factors will result in a violent outcome. The key question regarding violence prevention programs and curriculum should be are they evaluation-based? Administrators should avoid, exceptions granted, acting as the “beta test site” for unproven programs. Independent agencies such as the Hamilton-Fish Institute and the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence review and recommend model programs.
4. Staff Training – School faculty forms the front line of a loss prevention program. In addition to teaching staff, faculty also includes substitute teachers, custodians, administrative assistants, etc. Although time and travel can be obstacles in providing adequate training in the traditional sense, meaningful learning opportunities still exist. For example, in-service days provide an excellent opportunity for brief instruction and/or review. Internet-based or eLearning courses are also now available. In many instances, such courses can be taken at the user’s home while providing required staff development credits. Schools that are willing to engage in a little research will find that many local agencies offer low-cost training, briefings and prevention materials.
5. Crisis Management – The purpose of the crisis management plan is to minimize the amount of loss during an incident. Unlike the other four areas, this area is reactive in nature. Unfortunately, for many schools, the entire security program consists of an outdated crisis management plan that primarily addresses environmental emergencies. Administrators should resist the temptation to purchase generic crisis manuals. These manuals are likely to gather dust on a bookshelf. Furthermore, mass-produced manuals often leave out potential emergency situations and/or contain protocols that do not apply to your specific school. There are only two ways we can measure the effectiveness of our crisis plans. The first, and least used, way is to test the plans. Whether we run a one-hour “table top” exercise with our crisis team or a full-blown drill that also involves community responders, theoretical practices must be tested. The second way is, of course, the crisis itself. Don’t wait for a real emergency to expose deficiencies in your crisis plan!

Increasing pressure in academic/performance standards often tempts administrators to make quick, unilateral decisions in matters of school security. A comprehensive program, however, necessitates collaboration. Ideally, every school should formalize collaborative efforts by establishing a “safe school” committee. In order for meetings to be effective, an administrative level representative (i.e. business manager, assistant superintendent, etc.) should act as chairperson. The safe school committee should involve at least one of the following internal and external stakeholders (see chart):

· Internal – secretary, principal, teacher, social worker, custodian, nurse, facility user (i.e. Boy Scouts), student
· External – police, fire, medical, parent, community representative (i.e. church)

Demonstrating that the list above is not exhaustive, some schools have even chosen to include a security consultant, a local media representative, an insurance company representative, a concerned neighbor, etc.

Once the safe school committee has been established, the five components of school security can be addressed with stakeholder involvement and expertise. What is the student perspective on causes of violence? Which areas of the facility does the custodian deem most vulnerable? How many staff members are trained in CPR? Why don’t our visitor sign-in procedures work? With proper facilitation, committee members will participate in a problem-solving environment and benefit from a heightened awareness of security issues. Ultimately, the committee will document existing security measures and provide a prioritized roadmap for future enhancements based upon management principles of scope, schedule and budget.

For those still hesitant to undertake a comprehensive and collaborative approach to school security, we offer, in closing, the following three points:
1) Everyone benefits from a safe learning environment. Providing this type of environment for students, staff and community requires on-going attention. Whether your security program is just getting started or boasts years of maturity, the goal is to continually improve. Even though there is no such thing as perfect security, risk can be significantly reduced. As protection-effectiveness increases, risk decreases.
2) School safety funding and resource assistance is readily available. State and federal agencies, charitable foundations, industry periodicals, and other sources offer significant help in addressing security needs (see list).
Token/Cosmetic efforts aimed at addressing school security issues are similar to ignoring the issues altogether. In both cases, certain stakeholders are already aware of existing deficiencies. As a result, courts will be aware of them tomorrow.

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