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Illustration by Michael Glenwood

Private School, Public Protection

​Until Sandy Hook, elementary schools seemed immune to the gun violence plaguing the nation. But after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, the administrators of Harding Academy carefully studied the incident to determine how to better prepare for the unthinkable.

Harding Academy, located in the city of Searcy, Arkansas, is a private school instructing almost 700 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The school is owned and operated by Harding University, which maintains an armed security force responsible for the safety and security of the academy.

Prior to December 2012, Harding Academy maintained an open campus, allowing parents and other visitors to access the building by obtaining a visitor pass from one of the administrative offices. Access was granted through unlocked main entrance doors; however, there were many times when visitors could gain access to the school through an unobserved door thanks to helpful students. There was video surveillance in some areas of the school, but the video was not actively monitored by administrative personnel. Nor was there a practical way for school staff to be alerted to an open or propped door. 

Immediately after Sandy Hook, Harding Academy administrators met with security experts from the Harding University Department of Public Safety, which serves both the university and the academy, to review existing security measures at the school and to recommend needed changes. 

Academy officials also surveyed all parents with children attending the school to gauge how its security was perceived and whether parents recognized the need for increased security. “The Sandy Hook incident hit a nerve of vulnerability with parents here, across the nation, and world,” says James Simmons, Harding Academy superintendent. 

Faculty, staff, and parents agreed that security took precedence over open access to the school. Harding Academy officials and public safety personnel determined that changes were needed to better secure the facility. The dilemma was finding a balance between an open, inviting feel to the campus and properly securing the facility.

Key to securing the facility was implementing the security principles of deter, detect, and delay. Harding Academy needed a level of security that would deter wrongdoers from attempting harm. If a person was intent on harm, then a method to detect the person before he or she breached the facility was crucial. Finally, realizing that completely denying entrance to a determined intruder was impractical, the last layer of perimeter defense would be designed to delay entrance to the school long enough for first responders to arrive.

To properly evaluate the security needs at Harding Academy, public safety personnel conducted a risk analysis survey. The survey sought to identify the risk to the facility and its occupants, assess the impact of the risk were it to occur, prioritize the risk according to implementation costs as well as the impact of the event, and lead to the creation of a risk mitigation plan based on the highest-priority risks.

The goal was to find the most cost-effective solution that would provide the highest level of security possible. For example, bullet-resistant glass was found to be a poor choice because the delay it would provide was minimal and the glass was expensive. Reinforced glass was cheaper and provided similar amounts of time for responders to arrive on scene. 

A proposal was drafted, and public safety and academy administrators met with Harding University’s president to determine what measures were appropriate to ensure that the school was inviting, yet safe. The proposed measures were prioritized according to greatest impact on securing the facility while being fiscally responsible. The goal was to mitigate the most realistic threats or threats that would have the greatest impact—not to get caught up in the minutiae of “what ifs.” 

The group chose seven of the recommendations: installing more video surveillance cameras, updating the intercom system, adding handheld radios for academy administrators, installing networked access control, replacing door hardware, installing reinforced glass at entrances, and placing panic buttons in administrative offices.

The key factors of the security upgrades at Harding Academy were effectiveness, ease of use, and comprehensiveness. Each piece of the layered security approach was carefully considered using those key factors. The system was designed with the knowledge that in an active shooter situation, every second counts. The upgrades were designed to provide instant notification of an emergency in the building and provide responders with valuable time.​


The improvements made to Harding Academy’s physical security were implemented over a two-year period. They were designed in a layered approach to provide physical security from the exterior of the building to the classrooms. 

Surveillance. The first phase of the project included the installation of additional video surveillance cameras. Cameras were added to all of the entrance points to the buildings and in many of the hallways. The academy added six Honeywell analog cameras that were compatible with its existing Nuvico DVR system, increasing its number of cameras from 10 to 16.

The video system is networked over the existing IT system, providing instant visual imaging of the school to both Harding Academy personnel and to the public safety office. Personnel are able to quickly assess exterior door alarms via the video cameras to determine the source of the alarm as administrators are sent to the area. This enables school personnel to ensure that the building remains secure and that any breach of security is dealt with quickly.

The academy plans to add additional cameras soon and transition its analog cameras to a digital networked system from Milestone, which is used on the university campus and can be integrated into the school’s access control system.

Access control. Before beginning the two-year improvement process, the academy did not have an access control system for the building. Instead, mechanical locks were used. To harden the facility, the academy decided to switch to a networked access control system that allows academy administrators to have complete control over access, eliminating old keys that may have been unaccounted for.

The new access control system includes networked access control at main entrance points and video intercom systems at the main entrance doors. The access control installed in the school building is part of the Open Options DNA Fusion platform. The system is networked, allowing both the public safety office and Harding Academy administrators to see and control the exterior doors to the building. 

Proximity card readers were placed beside most of the main doors. School faculty and staff, as well as public safety and maintenance staff, can now use these cards to access the building. The remaining exterior doors were wired with alarm monitor contact points. This allows Harding Academy and public safety officials to be instantly notified of unauthorized access to these doors or of doors propped open. 

The system was chosen because it was already in use at Harding University and had a track record of reliable, effective service. Also, Harding personnel had been trained to install and program the equipment themselves, resulting in substantial cost savings.

Tied into the networked access control system are video intercom stations at each of the main entrance doors. The intercom system has dramatically changed the way that parents and other visitors are granted access to the school. The entrances to the building remain locked at all times, and visitors are allowed in only after identifying themselves and the purpose for their visit through the video intercom system. 

School employees can then look for any type of threat before releasing the magnetically controlled lock on the entrance door to let the visitor enter. Once inside, the visitor is immediately directed to the office where he or she is instructed to sign in and obtain a visitor badge before proceeding into the school.

Target hardening. The school installed several target-hardening devices including push-button locks for classroom doors, panic alarms in the administrative offices, a schoolwide emergency annunciator system, and reinforced glass at the main entrances to the building. 

The reinforced glass at the main entrances does not have bullet-resistant properties, but it does deter and delay intruders intent on gaining access to the school. It also adds valuable seconds of response time for public safety and local law enforcement.

The key locks on classroom doors were replaced with push-button locking mechanisms. The new devices allow teachers to quickly lock classroom doors from inside the classroom, eliminating the need go into the hallway to secure the door. This is both a time-saving measure, designed to allow for quick and efficient lockdown, as well as a safety measure—teachers no longer need to venture into potentially dangerous situations.

Panic alarm buttons were placed in all administrative offices. The buttons are tied into the access control system, allowing public safety officers to receive an immediate alarm notification if the buttons are pressed. The panic alarms were installed to allow officers to respond quickly without alerting the intruder in the room that help would be coming. Using a silent alarm could also assist in the de-escalation of tense encounters between administrators and upset, or even violent, visitors in the administrative offices. 

As the final security improvement, a schoolwide annunciator system was installed in the building. Harding personnel knew that the ability to communicate an emergency message schoolwide was an important feature of emergency management for the school.

Prior to the installation of the annunciator, the school used an intercom system, but the high school and elementary sides were separate from each other. Therefore, there was no ability to speak to the entire school at one time. The annunciator system allows for simultaneous broadcast to the entire building.

Various methods of communication, such as intercom systems, were considered, but the vendor that Harding University used for its fire alarm systems proposed the solution: a Notifier First Command NFC-50/100 system tied into the Notifier fire alarm system. 

The annunciator uses the fire system speakers to broadcast prerecorded messages in case of an emergency. With the touch of a single button from any of the administrative offices at Harding Academy, administrative personnel can instantly notify the entire school of an emergency. Outside speakers were also installed so children on the playground or visitors coming to the school can be notified immediately of an emergency and can follow the proper protocols. 

In addition to the one-touch buttons for prerecorded messages, the Notifier First Command NFC-50/100 System allows a person to speak through a microphone to give more specific information about an emergency or to provide further instructions.

Communication. Additionally, Harding Academy officials were provided with two-way radios, which enable them to communicate directly with the Harding University Department of Public Safety during an emergency, such as a school lockdown. Public safety officials ordered radios identical to the ones carried by public safety personnel to ensure that communication is reliable. The radios are used daily for internal communication among Harding Academy administrators for routine matters. 

The radios are also programmed with a channel that allows direct communication with the Harding University Department of Public Safety for emergency situations. This allows public safety officers responding to an emergency scene to obtain as much information as possible before arriving at the site. Additionally, it allows for coordination and better information flow once public safety officers arrive. 

Harding Academy officials were also concerned about accountability in the event of an emergency, such as a tornado or building lockdown. The solution was a simple one: a Google document shared with all faculty. 

The document can be used to convey information to administrative officials to account for all children in the classroom, as well as any other children who were in the hallway and are now sheltered in each particular room. Information regarding the condition of each person in the classroom, such as any medical issues associated with the emergency, can also be conveyed via the Google document.

The Google document solution allows for simultaneous accountability from all areas of the school. This also replaces the need for the separate intercom systems on the high school and elementary sides of the school for accountability purposes.

In addition, teachers can now communicate with administrators over the Internet, which saves secretarial personnel from checking in with classrooms individually over the intercom system. It also allows office personnel to remain in a safe place, instead of tied to the intercom system in the main offices.​


The emergency management plan for the school was thoroughly evaluated, and several adjustments were made in accordance with the physical security improvements to Harding Academy. Quick reference flip charts were placed in each classroom to provide specific instructions to follow in the event of various types of emergency situations. 

The academy and the university routinely conduct drills and exercises. Harding Academy administrators use the Notifier First Command NFC-50/100 System to activate drills. Public safety officers are present at the drills to ensure appropriate response. 

The panic buttons in the administrative offices have been tested regularly to ensure that they are functioning properly and that an alarm is being triggered in the public safety office. School officials routinely monitor and respond to open or propped doors to ensure that the facility is secured. Video surveillance is also monitored for building security. 

As part of the testing, training for all faculty and staff at Harding Academy was conducted to ensure familiarity with emergency procedures and policies. In addition, Harding University public safety officers presented specific information on what to do in case of an active shooter. 

Furthermore, a survey of all parents was conducted at the end of the two-year period to gauge parent satisfaction with the numerous security improvements that were made at Harding Academy. Parents noted the many positive measures that were taken to increase the security of their children, Simmons says, adding that parents “feel very confident about and appreciative of our efforts.”


Three key training pieces were introduced at Harding Academy. First, Harding Academy administrators and public safety professionals revised the school’s lockdown policies and procedures to make them applicable to the new physical security improvements. 

For instance, the addition of networked access control allows school administrators or public safety to lock down all of the exterior doors to the building with the click of one button. This relieves school administrators from the burden of locking exterior doors manually.

Additionally, the annunciator system allows for simultaneous notification of a lockdown of the entire building, alleviating the need for administrators to make separate announcements on the high school and elementary sides. The two-way radios also come into play by allowing academy administrators to speak not only with each other, but also with public safety responders.

Drills were then conducted quarterly to ensure that the entire school population understood their roles and responsibilities during a lockdown. The drills also tested the new physical security improvements to make sure they were properly used in an emergency. Students, faculty, and staff responded favorably to the drills, recognizing the importance of preparedness. 

The second training piece, introduced by public safety professionals, was in-service training for all faculty and staff at Harding Academy using the Run.Hide.Fight. concept developed by the City of Houston in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This training was designed to allow faculty and staff to quickly analyze a situation and make the best decision possible for their classroom about evacuating or sheltering in place. Physical security improvements were key to the “hide” portion of the training, allowing teachers to better protect their classrooms while first responders were en route to the scene.

The final piece of training was a continuation of live active shooter simulated response training that was previously conducted by the Harding University Department of Public Safety. Public safety officers were equipped with protective gear and simulation weapons that fired paint projectiles at simulated active shooters. 

Hallway movement and room entry practice are conducted periodically to ensure that officer response is quick and efficient. Officers respond to various encounters at Harding Academy, using the entire building. This allows officers to be extremely familiar with the layout of the building, saving valuable time in the event of an actual incident. 

Public safety officers conduct active shooter, armed intruder, and other incident-based scenario training at Harding Academy regularly. The training is conducted with simulation pistols, starter pistols, and blue guns—inoperable plastic replicas of weapons. 

The responding officers practice quickly identifying the situation and responding rapidly and effectively to neutralize the threat to the school. Public safety officers also practice building searches to locate a threat in the event that shots are not currently being fired. This training, especially the building search training, allows officers to become intimately familiar with the layout of the building. It allows officers to know potential danger areas such as recessed corners and to identify ways to best respond to those areas.

Harding Academy personnel also work closely with public safety officials to ensure that the new physical security improvements, as well as the policy and procedure updates at the academy, provide a safe environment for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. 


Kevin Davis, J.D., CPP, is the assistant director of public safety for Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. He is a member of the ASIS International School Safety and Security Council, A former vice chairman for the Arkansas Chapter, and a member of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.