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The Evolution of School Security

Every time a school is attacked by some maniac intent on killing innocent children, the nation becomes outraged and people demand more security, stricter gun control on automatic weapons, and more government funds to add security devices and procedures to stop the horrific rampage and mass killings. Such an event took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Twenty children, and six adults were killed before the shooter took his own life. That put it among the deadliest mass shootings in recent history worldwide.

The same outrage occurred after Columbine, the Amish school murders, and after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech massacres.

Each incident brings a wave of sometimes newly minted experts who offer up all types of remedial solutions. Some are ridiculous; most are simply ineffective.

I have been designing school security systems for some of the nation’s most troublesome school districts since 1978, and some of my recommendations have made a notable impact on lowering the rate of school vandalism, and stopping drug dealers and pedophiles from entering the school buildings. I have also helped schools develop training for staff so that they can be adept at handling emergency situations, but like the thousands of other consultants, I have never found a practical solution that can stop a deranged individual from entering a school and slaughtering students and killing himself.

Just as we can never stop terrorists from flying into high-rise buildings or prevent all bank robberies or keep out all undocumented immigrants, we cannot make schools 100 percent safe. As schools evaluate the need for added security after the Newtown incident, we have to keep that reality in mind.

But that doesn’t mean we should not try to make schools safer. Schools that think of security and reject it sometimes quote the statistic that the chance of one child being shot in a school is one in a million. Those that follow that dictum fail to recognize that the only statistic they should really be concerned with is that a child is one in a million.

While school security is an area where there are no simple solutions, a brief history of school security may place the situation that occurred at the Sandy Hook school in proper prospective. To ignore past history will only encourage school administrators to repeat the same mistakes all over again.

Evolution of School Security

Schools placed security low in their list of priorities until the late 1970s, and the security industry had traditionally neglected school security by concentrating on developing protection devices and surveillance systems for other type of facilities where card access and CCTV systems predominate. These type ID and surveillance systems are impractical in a school environment. When security in schools started to become a concern, many, if not most, public schools developed their own protection systems, which consisted of chaining their secondary exits against intruders and then focusing on the problem relating to night-time vandalism and theft of visual-aid equipment.

In the early 1980s, some schools tried to solve the night-time vandalism problem by installing audio detectors throughout the empty building that would send an alarm signal to the police when the noise exceeded a preset decibel level (caused by vandals breaking the furniture). It had so many false alarms that it never became a reliable solutions and was followed by other short term security systems that were purchased before undergoing adequate testing.

Most of those early devices focused on protecting the building with little attention given to protecting students and teachers. In 1984, a high school in Newark became the nation’s first building (not just school buildings – but any building) to install a fail-safe electromagnetic lock on a fire exit that had become legal in 1980 when the NFPA added it their Life Safety Code 101. It was very effective alternative to the common practice in those days of placing chains on the panic hardware but over time schools stopped locking these doors with the fail-safe mag-lock because they believed it was still illegal or posed a safety hazard.

There was an institution in the New York City School System that had installed only one mag-locking system in 1984, and school officials did nothing to expand the system to other district schools, claiming they had more important issues to address with their limited budgets. An intruder entered a high school through the secondary door and killed a student in 1986. The very next day the district allocated $20 million to lock exits in most of their high schools. This was a typical example of how security is initially treated as a low priority until some disaster takes place, and it is only then the school district finds the funds. School security has always been reactive rather proactive as seen by the reaction for stricter gun control only after a mass killing.

Designing Blunders

Architects design school buildings with little attention to security and protection because they have traditionally left that concern to building owners, or the school district supervisors, after the building is occupied. In working with some of the most prodigious architectural firms in the country for almost a half century, I have found far too many architects with no interest and no knowledge of the latest technology in security controls. They, with few exceptions, are indifferent to concerns of building managers and schools administrators and some even dislike locks on the doors because it breaks up the esthetics of the hallway.

As a perfect example of this short-sighted approach to security was the round school that won design awards because during the course of a school day, the sun would revolve around the structure giving light to each classroom part of the time. In suburbia, it was enthusiastically welcomed but when the same concept was erected in an inner city with a long history of lacking proper control of an unruly student body, it proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Teachers were unable to control the classes as they moved from one room to another because the curvature of the hallway restricted observations to only few feet – rather than the length of a straight hallway. The school district had to replace the building three years after it opened.

Changing Teacher Concerns

In the mid-1980s school security was still a low priority but there were a few school districts that were concerned about the safety of teachers in the classroom After threats to teachers made by their own students, three schools in one city installed a hand held device for every teacher that was the size of a cigar. Activating the device was done by pressing a button which transmitted a coded radio signal to the principal’s office alerting the administration to a potential problem and identifying the room of the disturbance.

As an indication of how attitudes change, when the engineer that designed the system had to explain how the system would add a safety factor to each classroom, the teachers in the audience expressed their total displeasure with such a system by describing it as if “big brother” was watching their every move. There was so much opposition to the $50,000 system that the schools had it removed. There were some technical issues as well as issues with some teachers leaving the devices on their desks and kids grabbing the devices and setting off false alarms. Many of those problems can be dealt with, and panic devices do offer a very effective way to try to minimize the number of victims there will be if there is a shooter in a school, assuming that the alert can be followed by other effective actions, like getting children to a safe place.

Twenty–five years later, one of those schools had a teacher attacked in an incident. That led it to have all doors locked with a police officer at front entrances. There is a metal detector that each student and visitor must pass through, and students carry a picture ID card. The school has recently installed a management entrance system, similar to the one installed at the Newtown grade school, which requires all visitors to submit a photo ID that is automatically sent to the state criminal justice data bank to find out if the visitor had a criminal record, particularly as a pedophile. But, of course, no data bank can identify anyone coming into the building with the intention of killing the children and their teachers.

The Sandy Hook school had done a lot of things right, like conducting training drills where the children were taught to stay low and quiet and to turn off the lights, but when the real event occurred, it is not surprising that the plan could not prevent panic among very young children and loss of lives. Though panic alarms, access controls, and other measures can help, no system is going to be 100 percent effective in preventing this type of incident.

Two final comments: A great deal was made over the fact that a teacher had crowded students into a small room and locked the door to keep the roving killer out. Having locks on these doors can backfire, however, because if the killer had gotten into the room, he would lock the door preventing a SWAT team from entering or slowing them down for precious moments, enough to cause further loss of life. Students would then become sitting ducks. It is just one of the solutions that should be considered but not automatically adopted in developing an overall emergency response plan.

Another issue apart from security measures at schools is gun control. The nation’s outrage after the Sandy Hook massacre has once again been directed toward the lack of gun control laws, especially focusing on automatic weapons that can rapidly fire 30 rounds in a few seconds without reloading. It is doubtful that Congress will now act on the gun control. Outside the Northeast, a gun culture exists that has been shown to resist any kind of firearms regulations despite numerous other tragedies, including recent shootings in a mall and in a theater and the shooting of a Congresswoman and staff members meeting with constituents.

It seems that when a postal worker kills their supervisors little attention is paid to the event and when college students are killed in their classrooms, the outrage lasts only a little longer. Even killing high school and elementary school students has not had much of an impact on existing laws. We will now find out whether the slaughter of young children is the only way to get a change in the law. That said, it should also be noted that most guns used in mass killings were obtained legally, and it's doubtful the laws would or could be changed sufficiently to really prevent them from being obtained and used by determined mass murderers.

Charles Schnabolk, P.E., PSP, is principal partner at Security Design Group, New York, New York. He has been a security consultant for 45 years, and has worked with many school districts to design their security systems. He is a member of ASIS International.