Close It Up & Lock It Down?!?

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a retired school administrator on the topic of access control. He mused over memories of actually arguing against the need to lock exterior doors at his suburban school just a few years ago. At that time, he really did not see a need to secure the building. Today, he clearly understands the value of controlling access to the building! While the need for access control may be obvious today, effective implementation presents a number of challenges. Some of these challenges include the ever-elusive quest for key control, door propping, visitor management and door hardware issues.
Before we tackle these challenges, however, let’s begin with a frontline stage of access control – vehicle barriers. Main entries should be areas where students, staff and visitors benefit from barriers, such as bollards (see photo above), that protect against wayward vehicles. Vehicle barriers should also be utilized in areas where playgrounds and athletic fields are near roadways and parking lots. The cost of vehicle barriers should not be significant and pales in comparison to the cost of an accident involving people.

Moving to the perimeter of the building, key control issues have traditionally necessitated periodic and expensive commitments to rekeying. In certain circumstances that approach may be the most viable option. Increasingly, however, schools have begun to implement electronic access control. This computer-based solution attempts to solve the inherent limitations of mechanical locks and keys. User-specific credentials such as cards and fobs can be utilized to replace mechanical keys. The electronic access control system grants access based on the credential the staff member presents at a designated reader. When access is granted, the door automatically unlocks for a brief, predetermined amount of time. In addition, the transaction is recorded for audit trail purposes. When access is denied, the door remains locked and, once again, the attempted access is recorded. Brian Smith, PSP, director of Education Solutions for Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies has seen the trend of schools moving toward electronic access control. “Schools are realizing that they no longer have to send custodians around at least twice a day to manually lock and unlock doors. As a result, they can save on labor costs and avoid human mistakes.” Electronic access control systems can also monitor the door and send an alarm notification if the door has been forced open or held open for too long of a time period.

The most important operational practice to strive for in perimeter access control is known as “closed campus.” A closed campus simply describes a facility where all exterior doors are closed and locked, unless monitored by a staff member. Due to the fact that the typical school building has dozens of exterior doors, administrators and facilities personnel tend to adopt a mentality that it is impossible to keep doors from being propped. In actuality, however, most exterior doors are not being propped. In fact, schools often know which handful of doors are being propped, the reason why they are being propped and, in most cases, who is responsible for propping them.

The exterior doors that most often get propped open include delivery doors, recess and physical education doors, and parking lot doors. The devices that are most often used to prop doors include wood wedges, rocks, bricks and safety cones. The reason that most doors get propped open is, simply, convenience. In some cases, students are responsible for propping doors, but, in other cases, school staff members are culpable.

Smith offers another solution to help address this issue. “For doors where electronic access control is not required, a local alarm can help eliminate propping. Local alarms discourage propping and unauthorized egress by sounding a loud alarm right through the exit device. Of course, the alarm can be overridden with a key.” In instances where local door alarms will not meet the need, administrators can require facilities personnel to routinely inspect exterior doors. When they encounter propping devices or door maintenance issues, that specific information should be reported and recorded. Where propping devices are found, they should be removed immediately.

Once you have secured the outside of the building and required visitors to enter through a monitored entrance, another layer of access control should take place. This next layer prevents visitors from having full access to the building by placing them in a locked vestibule. A locked vestibule provides a contained area where visitors can be sheltered from weather conditions and school personnel can authorize those visitors before granting them further access. Increasingly, building architects are designing this feature into new construction projects and even renovations. The visitor authorization process undertaken in a locked vestibule determines the value of yet another important aspect of access control – visitor management.

Visitor management is a vital, yet often ineffective, component of access control. Most schools make two mistakes (based in good intentions) as soon as visitors encounter a main desk: 1) they permit visitors to sign themselves in and 2) they ask visitors to wear a sticker. First, allowing visitors to sign a registry is problematic because there is no way to verify that what they are writing is accurate, if it is even legible. Second, stickers are ineffective! In fact, some schools use signs that indicate a fine print cautionary note that warns against the use of stickers on clothing materials made of leather, silk, suede, satin, corduroy or any delicate fabric!

As a far more effective option, we recommend adopting a credential exchange practice. This visitor management procedure requires all visitors to produce a photo ID, be signed in by a designated staff member and be authorized by that staff member before building access is permitted. In exchange for the photo ID, the visitor is given a badge that hangs on a colored, break-away lanyard. Ideally, all adults, including visitors and staff members, should be required to wear ID badges on colored lanyards. Visitor lanyards should all be one color and staff lanyards should all be another, separate and distinct color. Visitor management software, such as Raptorware, LobbyGuard and EasyLobby, provides another layer of protection as these programs can search sex offender databases and identify other individuals that are not welcome in the school. Since all of these systems print out a sticker, the best remedy is to leave the backing on the sticker and place it in a clear badge holder that, as mentioned, hangs on a colored lanyard.

Regular staff training and stakeholder awareness efforts serve as a foundation for all of your access control measures. Since the value of these products and procedures is directly determined by the people that implement them, invest time into educating and reminding students, staff and visitors. For example, electronically disseminate access control practices to staff at the beginning of each semester and periodically reinforce those practices at staff meetings. Routinely mention your access control practices in parent notifications and take opportunities to affirm or correct related behaviors. Involve students by soliciting ideas on how to improve existing issues and by rewarding compliance. These kinds of training and awareness efforts can move a school culture from one of apathy or resistance to one of support.

No matter what your memories are of school days gone by, there can be little debate about today’s need for improved building security. Meeting the need to protect students, staff and visitors requires the effective implementation of access control measures. Take steps to gain the support of all of your stakeholders groups! After all, one of the greatest retirement goals we can hope for is leaving a legacy of having provided a safe and secure learning environment.

Paul Timm is a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), President of RETA Security, Inc., and a nationally acclaimed expert in school security. He can be reached at

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