In the modern age of school security and the reality of the potential threats we face in every school district, school boards everywhere are struggling with ways to ensure their buildings are as safe as possible. One of the biggest struggles we face is that of finding the money to fund these projects.
A quick look at your email inbox or in any school-related magazine reveals the fact that there are thousands of options, each one with its pros and cons as well as its price tag. Upgrading an individual school or multiple buildings can easily run into millions of dollars.
As we all know most districts are simply not repositories of cash, just sitting around waiting to be used. So how then can you address the pressing and legitimate security needs of your schools without breaking the bank?
As the Director of Security for a large school district in central New Jersey, I was tasked with upgrading and modernizing the facilities, training, and policies for everyone.
It was a challenge when I realized that the money for these changes was not open-ended, but the needs were great. The first thing I had to do was break down the project into its most important areas and prioritize what had to be done, what should be done, and what I would like to do.
It is a common mistake for anyone undertaking a new project, especially one that involves the safety of children, the expenditure of large amounts of money, and the pressure from all of the stakeholders, to see the job as overwhelming. The key to getting it done is to first break the project down into its parts, this way it is not just some gigantic all-encompassing monster that you can’t control or make sense of.
So, the first step is to conduct a Threat Vulnerability and Risk Assessment, also known as a “TVRA”. This assessment is a simple, but comprehensive look at the existing security protocols and equipment you currently have in place.
Physically walk the building and look at the doors and windows, the property, and the surrounding neighborhood. Take an inventory of the equipment- like cameras, monitors, visitor greeting areas, classroom phones, radios or other communication devices, entry barriers, visitor management systems and emergency notification systems, strobe lights or other warning devices, numbered doors, intercoms, and visitor badges.
Next, consider the training you provide for your staff. Do you train them in lockdown procedures? Shelter in place, Evacuation, reunification, fire drill, and medical emergencies? How often do you train on these topics? Most of us run fire drills and some form of a lockdown drill, but are you doing it correctly?
Once you have looked at all the areas of security write them all down and ask yourself, “Where are we vulnerable to attack by an intruder or a student bent on violence?” Make a list of each area and its strengths and weaknesses, this way you have a solid road map to upgrade or enhance your security.
With that document in hand, the next thing to do is prioritize the road map, based on the potential threats it reveals, and go about addressing each item until the threat has been minimized as much as possible or eliminated.
I will say at this point you need to understand something; eliminating all threats to your school is impossible. You can never completely remove all danger. To do so you would have to lock down the school at all times, have many security people on hand at all times, and search every student and backpack as well as every visitor and employee. It would leave you with a prison-like facility and no one wants that.
Understanding you can’t remove every possibility of danger is an important realization that will help you prioritize and enhance the security of your buildings. Because even though we can’t remove all the dangers we can significantly reduce the chances of being victim to a violent incident, and that is our real goal.
OK then, now you have your road map to tighten up your security, and you have prioritized the list so you can begin to remediate the weaknesses or security “Gaps”. How do we move forward?
I will walk you through some of the 10 things I see in most districts that need the most attention and suggest ways to close the security gaps as quickly and as financially responsibly as possible.
Lock Your Doors:
This seems like an obvious thing to say, but believe it or not, in this day and age many schools leave their doors unlocked. You must adopt a policy that includes locking all school doors at all times.
Once your doors are locked you must control who comes into your buildings. Visitors are welcome in our schools and enhance the life of the school, but we must know who is coming to the school, when, and for what reason. There are several options for visitor management protocols. Some have a cost attached, others simply require a change in thought process and action on the part of your visitors.
- The options that have a cost attached include an electronic visitor management system. This is a computer-based program that allows parents, guardians, and others to register their visit electronically before they arrive, so the school staff and administration know who is coming to the building and when. We should never be surprised by an unannounced person at our schoolhouse doors. Electronic visitor management systems vary greatly in scope and cost from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are efficient and keep a log of who, what, where, and when. At an average cost between $20K and $50K, a basic visitor management system allows visitors to register their visits from a home computer, a desktop, a tablet, or a smartphone. With this system, your staff is aware of who is coming and when at all times. Managing who gets into your buildings is the first line of defense for your staff and students.
- The next visitor management system that has no cost attached is implementing a policy that all visitors must call or email the office 20 minutes in advance of any visit. Anyone who does not notify you 20 minutes in advance and just shows up at the door, must wait 20 minutes before being granted entry. Of course, there will always be those who say “they forgot” or have to drop off their child’s lunch or homework. You must enforce your rule and make them wait or can purchase a large plastic bin with a lid, secure it to the area near the door, and have the person leave the item in the bin. Your staff then retrieves the items either at regular times or whenever there is a need. With either the electronic system or the no-cost system, if you enforce the rules, the visitors will accept them and use them. It takes some buy-in, but your goal is to secure your students, staff, and building.
Once you have a visitor management program in place, you have to be sure that your office staff knows who is at the door and can see them and what they have with them. The easiest answer here is a camera mounted at the front entrance. One to see the face of the person at the door and one to see them as a whole and what they have with them. Since we are discussing cameras, we need to understand the truth about cameras. Cameras are not the best security item in the world. They are good and have their place in your security plan, but most cameras are used in the identification of people at the door, and if you have a recording system hooked up to it, it helps you see what happened AFTER an incident took place. Vandalism comes to mind as one area where having recording cameras at your buildings is a handy thing. With cameras in place, your office staff will know who is at the door and if they are carrying anything dangerous or suspicious. If they are or it appears that way- don’t let them in and call a lockdown and call the police. Used as “eyes”, cameras have a greater value.
The next logical step demands we keep looking at the front door. Statistics tell us that attackers almost always attack at the front door. In the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack and the Covenant School attack, the intruder came through the front doors after shooting out the glass windows in the front door. The need here then is to stop intruders from gaining access to your building by breaking your glass. “Bulletproof glass” does exist, but it is very costly. Bullet-resistant glass is a real thing and also very, very expensive whether installing it in new construction or during a retrofit or upgrade. The purpose of hardening your glass is to slow the intruder down long enough for you to initiate a lockdown and call the police.
There is an alternative that does the job very well at a fraction of the cost of bullet-resistant glass; that alternative is window safety glazing. Window safety glazing is available from many different companies and manufacturers. It got its start in the world of anti-terrorism protection for buildings in war-torn areas. It acted as a blast shield from bombs. It is a very tightly woven plastic material made up of numerous layers to form a very strong barrier and it is crystal clear. Once installed on your glass doors and windows at the entrances it is then finished by placing an adhesive all around the window that seals the glass to the frame, further hardening the glass/ window unit. Once this is done, an intruder can smash the window with a sledgehammer and the window will not yield for up to several minutes. On average it takes a 220-pound man multiple strikes with a sledgehammer to break the glass and frame. That is enough time for your staff to lock the building down and call for the police. I suggest you glaze the front doors and adjoining windows of your entryway, as well as other exterior doors and entryways in each building. At an average installed cost of between $9 and $14 a square foot, it is very cost-effective and provides a great layer of security for your buildings. As far as ballistic protection from bullets, a bullet with go through the glazing but the intruder will not be able to rip the small bullet hole open large enough to gain entry. The material does not stop bullets, it doesn’t allow the bullet holes to be the start of a way into your school either.
Training for Students and Staff:
This is one of the most important things you can do to protect everyone in your building. Practicing how to respond to emergencies will save lives and has no cost associated with it. Preparing a lockdown plan, a shelter-in-place plan, and an evacuation plan or any other emergency response is simple to do. There is a multitude of information available on the internet and from the local, state, and federal government on how to conduct a lockdown and other types of safety drills.
- During a lockdown, everyone immediately closes their classroom door and pulls a shade, then hides the children along a wall out of sight and silent until the police arrive. It is best if the classroom door is already in the LOCKED position, so the teacher or student only has to pull the door closed to create a state of security. An obvious problem with keeping the door in a locked position is the reality that children and others have to come in and out of the room all day long. Requiring the teacher to stop and open it each time someone has to enter or leave is a waste of valuable instructional time. The answer is simple and inexpensive: lockdown magnets. At about $5 to $8 each, these magnets attach to the door frame at the locking mechanism and prevent the lock throw from engaging. This allows the door to open and close without restriction. In an emergency, you simply slide the magnet out of the way, from inside the classroom, and close the door which then locks tight.
- Safety bar straps are used in a similar way as the door magnets, except they are used on cafeteria/lunchroom/ auditorium and gym doors. The safety bar strap is made of a woven material with a release snap. The door is locked, and the safety bar is pushed in to open the throw. The strap is wrapped around the safety bar and snapped into place, which allows the door to open and close without restriction. In an emergency, you simply pull the strap and the button pops releasing the locks throw and locking the door.
- Training should include ALL personnel in the district. This includes secretarial, administration, custodial, bus drivers, support staff, lunch staff, and teachers. Substitute teachers must be addressed as well and document the training.
- Staff should receive training on the following topics:
- Surviving an Active Shooter
- In school Investigations
- Crisis in the classroom
- Bus security during the route/ pick-ups and drop-offs
- Cyber security threats
- Bomb threats and response
- Assessing a threat
- Evacuation and Reunification
- Ethics for student-athletes and coaches
- Staff should receive training on the following topics:
Swipe Cards, Biometrics, or Other Access Controls:
These devices maintain control of who has access to your buildings and when they can visit. Staff members have access while non-staff people do not. Swipe card access is one of the best methods of entry to your buildings as they can remain locked and only staff can enter.
Emergency Notification Systems, Gun Shot Detection and Building Mapping:
These systems come in various forms and price ranges. They add a great layer of security in that they allow staff to call for help in an emergency very quickly. A key to surviving a violent incident is to be able to let the police know you need help. Time equals life in these situations, so finding quality equipment to enhance your security should be a priority.
A gunshot detection unit is also helpful in speeding a response. When a unit detects the sound of gunfire it can make a notification to school staff as well as the police, this can significantly speed up the response time of law enforcement.
Finding a sensor unit that does all of these things is possible. The HALO Smart Sensor and the Sentry ERS Lockdown and Emergency Response System are two examples of state-of-the-art technology that can help any facility be more secure. These two systems provide gunshot detection, as well as emergency communication.
The Sentry ERS system has a cell phone built into it that can be removed from the base and taken with the teacher if he or she has to flee the area; the system automatically calls police and security. On-board cameras are also activated creating a visual record of the event.
The use of code words such as “Green Alert” or “Code Blue” are old and outdated and not considered best practices anymore. In an emergency, people can get confused by codes, forget them, and react improperly.
Instead of codes, “clear talk” should be employed such as, “Lock down, intruder in the building”, “Shelter in place, police activity on the roadway”, or “Evacuate to rally points A and B due to gas leak”.
These clear talk terms are unmistakable in a crisis.
This is a low to no cost safety addition to any school. It allows students to anonymously report anyone who is planning violence to themselves or others without fear of retaliation or blame.
Once the tip line is established, post the number in various places around the school and announce its use and misuse.
Many state regulations require 2 drills a month in our schools, one a fire drill and one of another such as a lockdown, shelter in place, evacuation, or other emergency.
Once in a lockdown mode no one should leave the room or open the door for any reason unless:
- The “all clear” signal is given by an administrator.
- An administrator or police officer enters the room.
- Students should be instructed that if they are in the hallway during a lockdown go to the closest room. If all doors are locked go to a bathroom and into a stall, put their feet up, and wait for help.
- A random selection of teachers or staff should be chosen to activate a lockdown.
- Full-scale and semi-full-scale drills should be planned and run once a year, to include local police, fire, first aid, and OEM personnel.
Conclusion: These 10 concepts are the basics of a secure facility. The costs of implementing these ideas vary depending on the equipment and services you use, so shop around and see what’s available.
Whatever you choose to do, this list can help you plan out your moves as you secure your school. Take some time to create a plan and write it down. If you are going to be led by budgetary concerns, then prioritize the plan by cost, but do the inexpensive items first; in many cases doing these will provide an immediate increase in security. As more funds become available tackle the more expensive projects; but do it in an orderly way as you follow your plan.
Creating a plan and a timeline demonstrates your proactive approach to enhancing the security of your schools as well as providing you with some liability reduction should an incident take place in one of your schools.
Integra Services is here to assist with any of your school’s security needs. Contact us today and we will assist in ensuring your school is as secure as it can be.