Practical Protection Plans
A 12-year-old student with a shotgun opening fire in a middle school gym in Roswell, New Mexico. An argument in the parking lot of Rebound High School in Carbondale, Illinois, leading to the shooting of a student’s father. A 17-year-old boy getting shot in the wrist after attacking police officers with a kitchen knife at a high school in Honolulu, Hawaii. These were only three of the dozen attacks that took place in U.S. schools in just one month—January 2014.
According to media reports, in the last three years alone, 80 shootings have occurred in or around schools all over the United States.
The proposed solutions to such incidents have taken a variety of forms. More than 500 school safety and security bills were introduced last year, ranging from reforming mental health services to training teachers to use weapons to increasing the presence of armed security officers in classrooms.
In the midst of the social and legislative debates on how to better prevent school violence, school security and emergency management personnel are trying to find better ways to secure schools while dealing with tight budgets. Some schools are employing unusual solutions, such as bulletproof backpacks and safe rooms, which have been met with criticism from some parents.
“Some of the buzz since the Newtown shootings, albeit from a relatively small percent of overall parents and schools, has been on ridiculous extremes,” Kenneth Trump, president of consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, told news outlets. “People are looking for the ‘wow’ but not thinking about the ‘how’ in terms of the inability and unreasonableness of implementing these and other ideas.”
Other school districts have been lauded for their comprehensive but sensible security plans, which involve creating integrated systems that use multiple school and community resources. Frederick County Public Schools in western Maryland and Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia have both garnered praise from industry experts and parents for their innovative approaches to security. Though close in location—both are commuting distance from Washington, D.C.—the two districts each face distinct challenges in securing their campuses.
Following is a look at how each school system uses community and classroom resources to keep students safe.
Leveraging Size for Safety
Securing the 11th largest school district in the nation is a full-time job for Jim McLain, CPP, who has worked as the security and emergency management coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools for 12 years. McLain oversees many departments, including the central security office, uniformed security guards, the emergency call center, the security and technology group, and the planning and assessment group. He pulls these groups together to keep more than 206,000 students and staff at 200 schools safe.
“This isn’t typical of most schools,” McLain tells Security Management. “A lot of schools will have cameras, door access, visitor management, and a lot of times those are handled by the facilities and IT departments. We have our own security technology group in Fairfax County Public Schools. We work with our network, design, and construction folks, but we do a lot of security design deployment and implementation in the schools.”
While many schools take the “boots-on-the-ground” approach to security, which focuses on physical security and placing resource officers in schools, McLain says he tackles security from the ground up by involving the staff and the community in security efforts. When a building is being constructed or renovated, for example, McLain and his planning team are involved at the inception of the design instead of trying to enhance the security of a completed campus.
“We work in close partnership and collaboration with our security vendors and our IT department as well as our facilities and design construction folks,” McLain notes. “It’s a multidisciplinary approach and it’s important that we’re involved very early.”
Fairfax County Public Schools has an advanced, constantly-growing physical security presence, which is enhanced by integrated security technology, McLain explains. For example, while all elementary, middle, and high schools in the county have electronic door access, a number of schools also have an automated visitor management system in place. Upon entering a school, parents, volunteers, and other visitors must electronically check in through the system. The system will automatically run a background check against sex offender registries using the visitor’s information. Once the check is complete, school personnel will print off a photo identification badge for the visitor to wear while on the premises.
Most Fairfax County schools are equipped with exterior cameras and lighting, and some high schools have interior cameras with video analytics installed as well, McLain says. The school system’s security goes far beyond perimeter and physical security, though. Fairfax County has a security planning department and a security technology group, which sets the security program apart from most other school divisions, McLain says.
With all the technology involved in securing the campuses, McLain has to rely on IT and facilities personnel to maintain the systems. The security technology group helps implement and train these employees on the technology and periodically troubleshoots and assesses the systems to make sure they are being used to their full potential. The security planning department helps individual schools train on a continual basis, which allows teachers and administrators to focus on academics instead of developing training programs.
“Having a body of well-trained instructors go out to the schools and help train them and develop a crisis plan is something we’ve found very advantageous,” McLain notes. Each school has a unique crisis plan written by the school’s administration and the security planning division, he says. The plans employ countywide standards but also take into account each school’s unique challenges and layouts. For example, each school’s plan lists staff-specific qualifications, such as CPR and first aid training.
These plans, which are given to local law enforcement, are more than just written documents, McLain says. “We have a large variety of drills that each and every school executes every year,” he explains. “Every school goes through tabletop exercises on a mandatory cycle. These are essentially practical exercises where we take the school’s crisis team through a specific crisis and assess their ability to manage critical incidents.”
Off-site evacuations, lockdown drills, and tabletop exercises are some of the drills and exercises performed with security staff, public safety personnel, school administrators, and faculty, McLain says.
Teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones who receive regular training, McLain says. Fairfax County school security personnel must complete a recertification process every two years. This involves completing a number of training hours and classes. McLain says his security and emergency management response network is constantly looking for ways to improve and update security at the county’s campuses, and that events like the Sandy Hook shooting force both the district and the wider community to reevaluate plans and address any shortcomings they might find.
“You grow fearful that folks will become complacent, and we very much embrace the ‘See Something, Say Something’ policy,” McLain explains. “After an event [like Sandy Hook] occurs, when you’re reevaluating and addressing the community’s concern, it’s important to remind people that you always have to have situational awareness so we can institute our prevention and intervention measures to avoid anything like that happening.”
Collaboration Creates Solutions When Cliff Cornwell started working at Frederick County Public Schools seven years ago, security system integration at its facilities was unheard of. Since then, he’s worked to build a security and emergency management department for the 40,000 students who attend the 66 schools in the county. “Integration is a big part of things if you want to get something done,” he tells Security Management.
Frederick County covers the largest area of landmass in Maryland, with its borders spanning from Virginia to Pennsylvania. Schools in the county range from 150-student elementary schools in the Catoctin Mountains to a 1,500-student high school south of Frederick, the largest city in the county.
Cornwell says schools rely on collaboration with local law enforcement officials to develop and provide superior security measures. Each school’s crisis response plan is developed with and sent to nearby law enforcement officers, fire departments, and health department officials. Schools near the Fort Detrick military base have special plans, and base officials are trained in school crisis response as well, Cornwell explains. First responders also practice active-shooter drills inside the schools in the evenings.
Cornwell stresses the importance of the relationship between local first responders and the schools in their jurisdiction. If a fire department needs to respond to smoke in the building or a deputy comes to investigate reports of a trespasser, it’s important that they are familiar with the school’s administration and the building layout, he says. “Training with our first responders is a normal, natural part of what our schools do,” Cornwell says. “This provides for seamless interaction and quick response during emergencies.”
The first responder exercises and open communication between officials and administration paid off recently when a student lit a fire at a Frederick County campus. A staff member who saw the smoke pulled the fire alarm, and the fire department and emergency medical personnel responded. Incident command procedures were immediately implemented, and, by the time the first responders arrived, all students and staff had been accounted for. Medics quickly attended to a student who needed treatment, following plans set up and rehearsed by the school team and emergency responders. And, in the aftermath of the event, administrators, fire officials, and deputies worked together to identify the student who lit the fire by studying video surveillance.
When it comes to perimeter security and technology, Cornwell says he’s focusing on strengthening entrances and improving campuswide communication, especially after the recent spike in school shootings. All visitors must enter schools through the front entrance, and they are contained in the front office until they’ve signed in and been approved by administrators. All doors have keycard systems, which can be accessed by security officials and some administrators.
At one point, the access system was working well but wasn’t conducive to after-hours use because a high number of false alarms were occurring at the schools when teachers tried to enter the building after hours. Cornwell says he worked to integrate the keycard access system and the overarching security intrusion system so that if an administrator’s card was swiped, the intrusion system would disarm. Motion detection cameras were also installed at after-hours entrances to verify the identity of the person entering the building.
Frederick County Schools recently installed a mass notification system in all its buildings. The system, called AlertUs, can be remotely activated in any or all schools and emits a piercing sound, flashing lights, and a scrolling message. In response, administrators must press a series of buttons on the system, which acknowledges that they’ve received the message. AlertUs is used to communicate weather warnings, police activity, and other important events to any school in the county.
Both Cornwell and McLain agree that supporting the safety of students and staff and balancing security, convenience, and cost are the most important aspects to protecting schools. McLain notes that one of the most fundamental pieces of learning is a safe and comfortable learning atmosphere. "We focus on helping our schools teach the children in a secure environment.”