Reducing School Risk

The single-room schoolhouse of yesteryear depicts an idyllic image of education. Recent incidents of school violence, however, have significantly altered that image. As a result, today’s public spotlight is on school security. School boards are scrambling for solutions. Parents want assurances. Students and school faculty are increasingly uneasy. While statistics suggest that the annual number of school violence incidents is decreasing, public fear continues to rise. Somewhere between the flurry of reactionary expenditures and staunch apathy lies an appropriate response. One such response can be found at the Chicago suburban village of Frankfort, Ill., where, successful, collaborative efforts provide a model for addressing school security issues.

Such efforts are necessary. Tragedies in Littleton and Paducah have shown that no community is immune to school violence. With a low crime rate, Frankfort is known as the “Community With 1890 Charm.” Located 37 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, this affluent community’s population is climbing towards 10,000. Serving a student enrollment of 1,500, Frankfort Community Consolidated School District 157-C consists of two elementary schools and a middle school. Each of the three facilities also provides kindergarten classes. A joint extended daycare program with the Frankfort Park District is operated at one school.

School security should take into account all operational modes.
An independent, data-driven view of school crime risk supported Frankfort’s safe image. Pennsylvania-based CAP Index Inc., which takes a quantitative approach to predicting crime, used its newly developed “School Crime Check” product. This assessment confirmed low levels of risk and rated each of the district’s schools as A+.

Although the school district has experienced no significant incidents of violence, the school board and district administration, under the direction of Superintendent Pamela Witt, was not content only to hope the pattern would continue. Even though the district has demonstrated timely response to security concerns, its goal was to proactively develop a comprehensive security program.

A number of issues stood in the way. Firstly, the district faced architectural challenges; in two of the facilities, office staff had limited visibility of the entranceway. Secondly, the district was aware of issues regarding access control. At any given time, school administration could not be sure of who, specifically, was in a building. Written policies and procedures governing the Frankfort Park District’s use of the facilities were incomplete. Thirdly, budget constraints dictated that security expenditures needed to be prioritized and phased in. Taking these issues into account, the school district decided to seek assistance from an outside source to comprehensively review and analyze all aspects of school security.

“We knew that we needed expert assistance and were looking for a consulting firm with credentials applicable to school security issues,” says Ernie Tonelli, school district business manager. They selected RETA Security Inc., a security consulting firm specializing in analysis, engineering and training. RETA Security has been providing security consulting services for 15 years, and has developed and patented a methodology for analyzing and optimizing security systems. RETA Security has worked with many schools in areas such as physical security assessment, security plan development, emergency preparedness and staff training.

Coinciding with Frankfort School District’s pursuit of effective loss prevention, the state of Illinois unveiled a program of its own to assist to organizations committed to preventing violence. The Illinois Violence Prevention Act of 1995 created the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA). The IVPA is the first state agency of its kind dedicated to violence prevention in the United States. The IVPA is co-chaired by the Illinois Attorney General and the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. In 1999, an amendment to the Violence Prevention Act directed the IVPA to establish and administer the Safe to Learn Grants Program. This program provides $13.9 million to support and fund school-based safety and violence prevention programs that address the following components: physical security, crisis management, violence prevention and intervention and teacher/staff training. Every public school district in Illinois was given an opportunity to apply and compete for this funding on a fast-track timeline.

Frankfort’s Grand Prairie Elementary School, serving grades K-2, is benefitting from the District’s proactive approach to security. Working together, Frankfort School District and RETA Security devised a review and planning process that would most effectively address school security. In an effort to involve all school stakeholders, the district named a security committee consisting of a teacher, principal, secretary, nurse, counselor, and custodian from each school. In addition, they included parents, park district representatives and local police and fire departments.

“The ultimate success of our security program would be greatly enhanced by including a broad range of school and community infrastructure representatives,” says Witt. RETA Security provided leadership by coordinating the committee’s activities.

A school safety audit prepared by the Illinois State Board of Education was selected as the basis for the committee’s effort. The audit was partitioned and distributed to the committee members by area of expertise. School counselors reviewed bullying and intervention programs and assessed the effectiveness of student involvement along violence-related topics. While the school participants conducted their evaluations, RETA Security examined security policies, interviewed staff and visually inspected the physical structure and security components of each facility. They also provided analysis of the audit results generated by the committee. One week later the committee was reconvened for a briefing on results and to prioritize initiatives.

Important lessons were learned through the committee process. Staff and community input is invaluable. Varying perspectives, insights and suggestions helped bring to light specific needs and solutions. It is necessary to bear in mind that security solutions involve the entire facility — the parking lot, the playground, off-site events, as well as the building. In addition, security must be tested. System testing, staff policy training and procedural drills are necessary to maximize protection effectiveness.

Among the many legitimate needs, the three top security priorities were identified. These priorities directly corresponded to the IVPA funding areas of physical security, violence prevention and crisis management. Physical security improvements included redesign of entranceways, regulations requiring visitors to wear badges and the re-keying of buildings. Two of the firms being considered for re-keying are Schlage Lock and Medeco Security Locks Inc. Violence prevention measures included the hiring of additional counselors to implement programs dealing with conflict resolution, peer-mediation, bullying and sexual harassment. Crisis management initiatives involved revising and updating existing district security and crisis management plans as well as training staff on protocol and procedures. Due to the number and cost of the security needs identified, a three-year implementation plan was developed and supported by the committee.

Frankfort School District submitted its program plan to the IVPA and was selected to receive grant funding. “This entire process demonstrates what can be achieved through collaborative efforts with expert consultation to draw attention to areas of risk and away from fear. We anticipated what could happen and determined the degree to which each situation could be avoided, controlled or its impact lessened,” says Witt.

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