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Restructuring School Security Planning and Awareness

As school districts attempt to normalize the school day after various lockdowns, remote schooling, and vaccination efforts, there is a desire and commitment to increase onsite education.

While this is an exciting time for students, teachers, and parents, it’s also a time for caution. School districts must consider added security measures as schools reopen with a higher student population, consequently increasing security concerns. Staff and faculty need to be reminded that security should be at the forefront of their daily activities as they create an environment that fosters a positive educational experience.

In addition to physical structures, a facility’s most valuable asset is its people within, and there is no price tag for peace of mind where safeguarding students is concerned. Proper screening compliance, enforcement of policies and procedures, and security technology upgrades are crucial to successfully minimizing risks.

Visitor Screening Compliance

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were typically very regimented about the main entrance security of their buildings, including visitor screening policies. Most schools adopted a two-door policy to enable proper screening before allowing visitors access to their facility. It was rare to find a school that didn’t have this policy with strict enforcement.

Security assessments conducted during the pandemic, by contrast, illustrated a very relaxed main entrance security posture. While the exterior main door was often closed or locked, the secondary door leading from the main office to the remainder of the building was often propped open for convenience. In addition to doors being propped open for free air or additional ventilation, the screening process was rarely fully enforced. The threat of a security event felt low to the onsite population based on the reduced number of students in the building. Although data shows that security events at academic facilities were reduced during the pandemic, it was never zero.

Security assessments conducted during the pandemic illustrated a very relaxed main entrance security posture.

As many schools take on the newly adopted safety processes for screening staff and students for COVID-19 symptoms, they also need to remember the importance of enforcing existing visitor screening processes. Implementing a layered approach—including controlled access to the building and school grounds during school hours, using security cameras to monitor the school, and requiring visitors to sign in properly—is crucial. Enforcing the existing visitor screening process is nearly a zero-cost investment with a very high rate of return if it successfully keeps possible threats from entering the building.

Security Policy and Procedure Enforcement

Understanding that school districts created security policies for a safe learning environment and procedures to help ensure compliance with the policies, assessments conducted during the pandemic illustrated a significant complacency regarding compliance. While the exact reasons vary, the most common reason is that complacency is human nature.

After an incident, attention and awareness on how to react to the security event are elevated. This stands true whether the security event occurs at your facility or you see it on the news. However, as time passes after the event, we tend to think about it less and less.

The average time between active shooter events increased during the pandemic, and awareness around these events decreased—creating a serious vulnerability. When interviewing teachers on proper security event response, many had forgotten several key steps or had them in the wrong order. Some failed to grab the radio or the attendance sheet during an evacuation drill, for example. While it may seem unimportant during drills, these missed steps can cost lives in a real-life event. Additionally, some of the drills observed never ran the full course of an event, stopping only halfway as time didn’t allow for full execution.

A proactive approach needs to be taken to instill the importance of a proper response. Staff and faculty need to be tested on the proper steps to ensure full compliance. A blended approach incorporating in-person, hands-on training, and digital or off-site training amid social distancing requirements offers a well-rounded approach to teaching life-saving skills.

Faculty and staff need to become experts on how to respond during an emergency.

Still, the biggest value comes from being onsite. When the training is completed in the actual environment, rather than digitally or at a different location, the more an appropriate reaction comes naturally, which allows staff and faculty to fully execute the drill and go past the point of recovery to contact the parents and provide crisis management. Testing can be done with or without the students present, but perhaps additional drills need to be conducted outside the state or local municipality requirements. Faculty and staff need to become experts on how to respond during an emergency.

Similar to visitor screening compliance, the return on investment for enforcing appropriate policies and procedures is significant. While additional hours may be needed to execute the proper training, the cost is minimal compared to the possible cost of a mismanaged emergency and the realization that staff and faculty were not fully prepared to respond to a security event.

Implementation of Security Technology

While most schools have some level of security technology in place, such as video surveillance or electronic access control, many do not actively monitor the perimeter of their building. The cost may appear too high for implementation, or there are no personnel available to monitor it remotely. While the exterior walls of the building act as a secure perimeter, they must also be actively monitored.  Monitoring the exterior walls is as simple as installing low-cost door contacts on each opening and connecting them back to a second electronic access control system that has the capability of being monitored from a mobile device and allowing personnel to react while off-site.

Installing technology pieces without assigning a person, policy, or procedure to respond and enforce compliance will be completely ineffective. Instead, a more proactive approach would be installing the technology, writing a policy and procedure for enforcement, and training a responding force to act accordingly to keep the building safe and secure.

Academic facilities need to take a proactive approach in their security posture as many are experiencing the highest onsite populations since early 2020. Proactive measures include enforcing compliance with all visitor screening requirements, in-depth drills for onsite security events, and implementing security technologies to ensure the facility’s perimeter is truly complete. By taking these proactive steps, the school district sets the tone for a safe, secure environment, allowing for the highest level of educational engagement with its students.


Toby Heath, CPP, PSP, CPTED, LEED, is life safety and security manager at CHA Consulting, Inc. (CHA). He oversees CHA’s life safety and security team, performing vulnerability/risk assessments and security system design and consulting, including access control, video surveillance, intrusion detection, and mass notification. Heath’s experience ranges from his real-world missions with the U.S. Army to designing all levels of security systems as a security engineer. Contact Heath at [email protected].