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Schools Learn Security Lessons

THIS YEAR MARKED the tenth anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, a stark reminder of the worst-case scenario of a violent incident that can befall a school. When considering how to protect faculty, staff, and students, however, administrators must address a range of less severe but more common concerns from gang violence to loss prevention—and even public health issues. In 2009, schools have already had to respond to health incidents related to contaminated peanut butter and the H1N1 (or swine flu) epidemic, for example.

School threats can range from smaller scale and predictable to unfathomable. “We tend to very narrowly focus, look for a snapshot issue or picture at a point in time and say that, ‘Our biggest threat today is school shootings.’ Or ‘Our biggest threat today is bullying.’ And the reality is that our threats and risks vary, school district to school district and even school to school, within the same school district over a period of time,” says Kenneth S. Trump, of National School Safety and Security Services.

Security Management interviewed experts around the country to get a snapshot of the security technologies and strategies being used to mitigate this formidable range of risks.

Access Control

The number one issue for schools is to attempt to control who gains access. There are several steps schools are now taking to make sure that if someone isn’t supposed to be in a school, they are either kept out or discovered quickly.

That’s not a new concept, of course. The use of access control measures was already quite widespread a decade ago. However, access control in some form is nearly universal now; between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of students who reported a visitor sign-in requirement at their schools increased from 87 to 94 percent, according to Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2008, released in 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Fortunately, access control can be cost effective, says Steve Kaufer, CPP, president of Inter/Action Associates. It doesn’t necessarily require a grant or a major capital expenditure to implement a program as simple as having visitors sign in and wear badges.

Design. Many new school building designs are facilitating access control by taking safety and crime prevention into consideration. They’re putting the administrative offices up front and funneling any visitors through that office before they enter the rest of the school.

“The problem is, the older schools weren’t designed that way. They were designed to be very open campuses, and it’s very easy to come in. So those schools have a much bigger challenge to try to figure out how to do that,” says Kaufer.

Many older schools had their offices more towards the middle of the school, he says. But they are finding ways to remove that vulnerability without investing in a new structure.

One approach schools have taken is to switch the office with something that might have been towards the front of the building, such as the library or a classroom. That’s cost effective, “because they’re not constructing something new, they’re just repurposing an existing area,” says Kaufer.

It’s also important that other external entrances are monitored, are locked, or direct visitors to enter through the front. “And if we don’t have a good line of sight on the front door, we don’t even want that one unlocked. We’ll have a video intercom on that door and people can get buzzed in after they’ve spoken to a receptionist,” says Fred Ellis, security director for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

Cameras. While the use of a camera to see who is at the front door is logical when integrated with the rest of the program, not all camera applications are so well conceived. Richard Sem, president of Sem Security Management, notes that many schools don’t plan well enough before implementing the surveillance systems to ensure that they get the most out of the technology.

“I’ve seen some schools with literally hundreds of cameras, and yet nobody monitoring,” Sem says. He questions the value of those cameras and wonders whether school officials devised a strategic plan before installing the system.

Michael Dorn, of the nonprofit Safe Havens International, agrees that when schools put cameras in without live monitoring, they may not get the positive security results they anticipate. Dorn conducts “red team assessments” during which he enters schools and tests their security by trying to steal computers and vehicles; he even stages fake abductions of students, teachers, or staff.

“I have never been caught by anybody watching a security camera. And we have done this in some of the most heavily secured schools in the United States from a technology standpoint.”

Schools Dorn has tested have more technology than major airports do, he says, and yet, “we’re able to get into the building and steal a lot of stuff.”

He attributes the problem to the tendency of schools to invest only in technology and not to also invest in people to work the equipment. “The cameras will work, if you have people to work with those cameras. But you can’t just slap cameras on the wall and expect the problems to go away,” says Dorn.

Kaufer explains that sometimes the problem is that “very few districts have the personnel or the funding to allow live monitoring. So, most of the time, the camera is only used if they’ve got to go back and see a particular incident that may have happened.”

But even the investigative aspect of the system won’t work if images can’t be retrieved. Chuck Hibbert, president of Hibbert Safe School Consulting LLC, says that schools don’t formulate comprehensive surveillance policies when they install cameras. They don’t consider, for example, whether and how long they will store the images from the camera.

The bottom line is that cameras should not be installed simply as visible proof that a school is committed to security, because there is a lot more to safety than a camera on the wall, says Paul Timm, PSP, of RETA Security, Inc. He notes that Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado, and Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, both had sophisticated camera installations that did nothing to prevent the shooting incidents they suffered.

Current statistics on the use of cameras are hard to come by; Indicators’ most recent data is for the 2005-2006 school year. The numbers, while a bit dated, do show that use has been trending up. The report found that the number of schools using one or more cameras in the school year spanning 2005-2006 was 43 percent, compared with 19 percent for the 1999-2000 school year.

Metal detectors. Metal detectors are often purchased in a knee-jerk reaction to an incident rather than as part of a comprehensive security program, say several experts. If the school does not consider the rest of the building design and other ways in which weapons can be brought into the building, the money spent on metal detectors is likely wasted. For example, many schools have first-floor windows that weapons could be passed through.

“So the whole thing of being able to keep weapons out of schools by having kids walk through metal detectors, I think is just a feel-good scam, quite frankly,” says John Weicker, security director for Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana. Hand-held detectors may make sense in some situations, he says.

Kaufer agrees that metal detectors should not be purchased unless a school has integrated them into an overall security plan, he adds. This is actually good advice for all technology.

Perhaps because the technology is more intrusive than surveillance cameras, metal detectors have not seen the same growth. Their installation at schools stayed fairly steady between 1999 and 2007 and was the least observed school safety measure, according to Indicators.

Lockdowns. Experts agree that schools should have lockdown capability. As police psychologist John Nicoletti points out, school shooters do not historically take time to kick a door down, although they may shoot into it in an attempt to injure someone on the opposite side.

But Nicoletti warns that just being able to lock outside doors isn’t sufficient. In an active shooter situation, that approach could potentially be making a “burial tomb,” because the shooter is often already inside when officials realize there is a threat.

Many experts recommend that teachers have the ability to lock classroom doors from the inside during an emergency and that schools establish safe areas that faculty and students can go to and secure in case of violent intruders.


Design and technology can only do so much, experts note. The human factor always plays a significant role, which means that people—faculty, staff, and students—must be educated about security issues, including everything from threat assessment to response.

Unfortunately, it may take a tragedy for schools to emphasize training. “We wait until we feel some pain. So training is not happening much. We don’t have the time to do it, and there are not a lot of great trainers,” says Timm.

Training must be inclusive. For a while after Columbine, schools were focusing on training teachers and administrators on how to react to a threat. However, the training should reach beyond those personnel to include substitutes, staff, and students. For example, a janitor might see threats on a bathroom wall. Instead of just cleaning up the graffiti, that staff member must understand the importance of documenting and reporting the incident.

What schools need to do is train personnel to spot behaviors that might lead to incidents, says Dorn. Nicoletti, agrees. He advises schools to take every threat seriously, because, particularly in violent incidents, students often provide signs before they strike.

Schools should be aware of the ways in which students may send signals of impending issues, such as via the Web sites Facebook and YouTube.

Nicoletti says that schools have improved at picking up on signs of potential behavior and violence issues. But, he notes, “One of the mistakes schools and companies make is they start focusing on mental illness and those types of things. And that doesn’t correlate with violence because there are many mentally ill people who don’t become violent. So if schools start looking for depressed people and loners, that’s the wrong thing to do.”

Instead, Nicoletti advises that schools look for the threat-making “and what we call practice sessions, developing a hit list and dehumanizing their target. Those have the highest predictability.”

Ellis says Fairfax County has had its administrators and psychologists go through a comprehensive threat assessment program to pick up on student threats. And Linda Watson, of security consulting group Whirlaway Group LLC, advocates having teachers complete threat assessment programs.

Another aspect of training is ensuring that all the school members are on board with security plans. For example, if a school wants a closed campus, students and staff have to know that it’s unacceptable to prop open doors. Additionally, everyone must be trained in what do to if they see someone they believe does not belong on campus; there has to be an accepted protocol for how to ask the person who they are and for funneling people to the front door rather than letting them in the side doors.

Once intruders know they are being monitored or once they have been approached and questioned, they are less likely to stick around and commit a crime, according to experts.

Weicker says that something schools have to get away from is their tendency to be appeasers. He says that any incident should be reported to law enforcement or school authorities, because violent behavior is typically not the first offense. Reporting these earlier, seemingly small, incidents can provide signals of more significant impending problems.


Schools must also work to establish trust among students, faculty, and school resource officers to whom students can report concerns. In many situations, students are the first ones to know what is going to happen. Nicoletti recommends “safe to tell” types of programs through which students can be confident that they won’t get in trouble or be disregarded by authority figures.

Peter Pochowski, executive director of the National Association for School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers (NASSLEO), agrees. “If you get your kids and your staff accepting that safety in a school is everybody’s responsibility all the time, not just the adults, the kids will pick up information. They want to be safe.

They hear things that are going to happen,” says Pochowski, adding, “We’ve got study after study that showed that practically every one of the school shooting incidents, somebody knew about it before it happened. And in some cases, kids came forward and stopped it by reporting it to adults. So one of the most important factors in keeping a school safe is that your staff is approachable.”

There are several incarnations of these programs, including anonymous tip lines and peer-to-peer programs.

Emergency Preparedness

In some cases, no amount of preparation can prevent an incident, whether manmade or a natural disaster, such as a spill from a nearby chemical plant. That is why it is essential for schools to develop, rehearse, and update emergency preparedness plans, with clear designations of responsibilities for staff members and students.

With regard to emergency response, plans must take into consideration that at any given time, there may be on campus any number of people who are not permanent staff or students. For example, William J. Smith, of American School Safety, says that in his company’s vulnerability assessments, up to 20 percent of teachers on site are substitutes, who may not know what the emergency plans are.

Timm recommends having flip charts in each classroom. He suggests not having too much information on the chart, but enough so that anyone—such as a substitute—can still quickly ascertain his or her role in an emergency.

A common refrain regarding emergency preparedness plans is that schools write them because they are legally required to do so, but the plans then gather dust on a shelf somewhere and go unpracticed. Chris McGooey, whose company, McGooey Consulting, audits schools, notes that when he asks for the emergency plan, administrators generally have to stop and think where it is, which shows that they are not working with it as a live document.

Many state laws require that plans be updated at least once a year, but experts note that administrators have to go beyond the letter of the law; the updates can’t just be for show or to fulfill a requirement. Serious considerations must be given to addressing changes over time, such as turnover, which might require alteration of the plan and reassignment of a role to a new employee.

Scenarios. Emergency preparedness plans cannot just cover what to do in an active shooter situation or during a terrorist attack. They have to be developed from a broad assessment of a school’s vulnerabilities. For example, schools have been repeatedly advised and encouraged over recent years to have well-thought-out pandemic plans.

The problem is that schools may develop plans that are pro forma, lacking substance, says Trump. He says that in his experience, the plans are on paper, but administrators haven’t really thought through the details or developed the relationships they will need with public health first responders. Trump says that one of the most important aspects of planning is that it allows schools to make rational and economic decisions, rather than emotional knee-jerk decisions, like what he says many schools have done in the swine flu crisis.

Additionally, there are other situations that have to be planned for, such as when a school is hosting an athletic event, and it is suddenly responsible for 3,000 additional people in close quarters. The emergency response plan should address how the school would respond if an incident occurred in the midst of such an event.

Drills. Schools must practice their plans among staff and students. Fred Ellis says that Fairfax schools require fire, tornado, and lockdown drills. Ellis augments the drills by having his security planning officers conduct tabletop scenarios on a rotating basis among district schools. The exercises run a broad range of scenarios, such as bomb threats and fires.

Dorn’s group goes a step further and puts schools through red-team exercises to see how they respond to various crises as they unfold.

It’s also important that drills are about increasing preparedness, which may mean putting some inconvenience in a drill. For example, Weicker points out that drills were traditionally not done during lunch hours because it was less convenient. But that simply didn’t make sense.

“Fire has no conscience. It seems to me [that] you’ve got the hot ovens... maybe that might be a time when [a school] might have a fire,” says Weicker. Additionally, he says that if schools have an off-site evacuation area, the school should try to practice evacuation drills to examine the practicalities of moving so many children at once to see what issues the school may be dealing with in a true evacuation. It’s also important that schools have shelter-in-place plans ready for when it might be dangerous for students to leave the classroom or school buildings.

Communications. Communications are, of course, especially important in an emergency. This is an area where technological advances are helping. Schools are making more use of radios and telephones in classrooms. Additionally, comprehensive mass-notification alerting systems are now used by all types of schools.

These systems received attention after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre; many thought students might have been saved had they received a text message about a shooter on campus rather than merely email after the killer’s first shootings. Now, schools are sending alerts through text, on desktops, on flat screens, inside the schools, and outside of the schools, to students, parents, faculty, and others.

Technology still cannot be the end-all of the equation. Effective communications systems must be based on comprehensive plans of action.

Schools will need to have protocols in place that dictate how and when they will tell their students and faculty that there is a threat inside or outside the building, and they must have an established process by which they will provide instructions on how to proceed.

Weicker advises against formulating complicated code systems, however, saying schools should instead use plain English. He points out that there could be substitutes or parents in the building who do not know how to react to the code.

One thing that schools must start considering in their emergency management plans, says Trump, is the ubiquity of text messaging. Thanks to messaging systems, students can often spread news much more quickly than anyone else can.

“Rumors fly in seconds and minutes rather than hours and days. And that has created a situation where more and more, we’re seeing that rumored security, rumored threats around school safety issues have actually gotten a greater life than any real threats or incidents themselves,” says Trump.

He adds: “The problem is, school safety officials are trying to deal with whatever legitimate threat or issue exists at hand, and simultaneously deal with a crisis communications issue, where they’re trying to respond to the rumors that tend to be greater than the actual problem or incident they’re dealing with.”

Trump says part of planning for this situation is making sure that there are ways to get accurate and up to-the-minute information out to parents, as mentioned earlier. One solution is for the school to maintain a Web site where information can be updated constantly, to supplement the briefings and periodic text alerts.

Door numbering. Another aspect of emergency planning that many schools are adopting is a door numbering system. Ellis explains that this entails labeling exit doors with numbers in an orderly manner, such as numbering them clockwise, so that if there is an emergency and outside help has to get in, they know which door is which.

Additionally, Ellis, Weicker, and others are providing floor plans with door numbering and CD-Roms with school information on them to first responders in the area. This is an example of a simple and inexpensive measure that can make a big difference in an emergency.

Incident command. Pochowski and others point to the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as having assisted in preparing schools to deal with various potential hazards and incidents.

Watson says “schools that take the time to train a few of their key people” in understanding the NIMS and ICS [incident command system] will be much further ahead, because now they’re working on the same playing field with the police and the fire. All the first responders are on the same page.”

NIMS compliance is also tied to various types of security funding for schools.

Community Involvement

Experts stress the importance of cultivating community relationships. Watson suggests having memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with various organizations, such as an agreement with a hospital that the school will be sending injured people there in case of an incident. She says that having MOUs can be helpful in the planning process so that schools know where to turn in an emergency situation.

Weicker is cochair of the Allen County School Safety Commission, a much-praised organization that helps public and private schools work with law enforcement and first-responder agencies. He says his schools split the cost of the school resource officers with the town police departments. He is able to do that because he has community buy-in and partnerships, which are often required for schools to get the support they need.

Weicker also points out that schools that cannot afford consultants can go to the community for experts, such as fire department officials, who will be willing to provide advice free of charge.

Community task forces can also be a way to diffuse tensions after an incident. Charles McCrary, a security consultant who was the security director of St. Louis Public Schools when they had a series of violent incidents, said that forming a task force with the community at that time brought school and community together.


Budgets are continuing to be cut this year due to state economic problems, and many grants that were once solely dedicated to school security are shifting and changing. The funding issues are causing districts to lose school resource officers who liaise with students and offer them a convenient way to report crimes or concerns about suspicious behavior.

There are still various funding opportunities out there for schools, such as the grant programs from the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. And Weicker warns against placing too much emphasis on money. He cites schools that implemented programs with grant money knowing full well that they wouldn’t be able to continue the programs when the funds were gone as an example of poor planning.

Schools need to figure out what they can control for themselves, rather than waiting for more money, says Weicker. “You can do things cooperatively, and everything doesn’t take bucks…. If you sit back and wait for somebody else to do it or you’re waiting for dollars to do it or if you’re tied into the almighty buck, then nothing gets done. Everybody just whines.”

Some experts think that it will take legislation and regulations to force schools to get better. “Schools have a very short attention span. And outside of their educational practices, they tend to focus on what’s required, and very little else. So, unless there’s a regulation or some requirement, they’re reluctant to do certain things. Especially security related,” says Chris McGooey.

He adds that school officials are aware of the cyclical nature of the public’s attention to school security. “People will do things for awhile, knowing full well that it won’t be followed through on. Or the next time they have a budget issue, which is daily, they’ll do away with the service.”

Under that sad scenario, if an incident occurs, everyone will act surprised, and the cycle of attention to security will begin anew. Unfortunately, the lives lost will not.

Laura Spadanuta is an associate editor at Security Management.