How Best to Secure U.S. Schools

The cases present largely the same way: A troubled white male with a gun gains entry to a school in a leafy green suburb of a small, majority-white, middle- or upper-class community known for being safe and having a good education system.

They’re places like Benton, Kentucky; Rockford, Washington; and, most recently, Parkland, Florida, where a former student killed 17 children and adults last month in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The towns could generally be described as “sleepy,” their populations often not even creeping into the five figures. Violent crime usually isn’t a factor. Parkland, for example, recorded just one homicide in the last 15 years – a 2014 domestic killing in which a husband fatally stabbed his wife after seeing her with another man. They’re often not places traumatized daily by local headlines of gunplay and death.

They stand in stark contrast to urban areas like Chicago and Baltimore, where killings come annually by the hundreds, poverty persists, and gun violence in neighborhoods immediately outside the schools can be unrelenting and unsparing. Young people in those predominantly black places experience a different, and no less damaging, type of trauma. But to now, they have largely been spared the mass-shooter scenario.

The schools in areas where gun violence is part of everyday life are not securing their campuses very differently from the seemingly “safe” schools where mass shootings have taken place, school safety experts say. In fact, they say, when it comes to securing schools, each strategy is unique.

“There is a no template for school security,” says Erroll Southers, professor at the University of Southern California and director of the school’s Safe Communities Institute. “Every school is different. Every school has its own vulnerabilities, it has its own assets and it has its own cultures.”

He similarly says there is no single security weakness that shooters exploit when they attack a school.

“I’m really reluctant to suggest that there is some commonality other than there was a vulnerability that these individuals took advantage of,” says Southers, a former FBI special agent who has served in counterterrorism and public safety positions at every level of government and who currently helps perform risk assessments for schools across the country. “And I wouldn’t necessarily say the schools were inadequately protected.”

In the case of Parkland, for example, the school had security cameras and armed resource officers who patrolled the grounds. The perpetrator, who had been reported to authorities multiple times, was a former student with behavioral issues who had been expelled. In Newtown, Connecticut, where in 2012 a gunman fatally shot 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six school staff members, emergency drills involving teachers and students had recently been conducted. The shooter, a former student with mental health issues who lived near the school, killed himself at the scene.

While schools may conduct safety drills and while parents and politicians debate the pros and cons of arming teachers, school security experts say there are major lapses that need to be addressed. Only 12 states have established guidelines or standards for school facility security, for example. And only 12 states provide school districts with funding for school security. While 48 states require training based on individual school emergency plans, only 27 require schools to audit and assess their facilities.

Six major safety measures as identified by the Secure Schools Alliance. Information was gathered and reviewed by the Police Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Safe Communities Institute.

Those are a few of the six major school security measures states should consider, according to the Secure Schools Alliance. Those measures include having: established funding for districts to use for school security, an adopted set of safety standards that districts can use as guidelines, a requirement that schools have emergency plans and conduct trainings for school staff and students to practice those plans, a requirement that districts and schools audit and assess their facilities and emergency plans, and the creation of school safety centers.

The alliance compiled state school security data in collaboration with the Police Foundation and USC’s Safe Communities Institute and found that only five states currently tick each of the six boxes: Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia. Eight states have established all but one.

Two – Hawaii and South Dakota – have none of the identified security measures in place.

“What’s the first thing someone says when they’re interviewed on network TV after a school shooting?” Southers asks. “‘I never thought this would happen here.’ That thinking has to go out the window.”

One of the major hurdles, Robert Boyd, the executive director of the Secure Schools Alliance, says, is that schools and districts are often hesitant to perform vulnerability assessments because, if they don’t have the money to make the recommended upgrades, it could legally implicate them should something happen.

“If I’m a school principal or school superintendent, I don’t want to go assess my schools and figure out where the liabilities are if I don’t have the money to fix them,” Boyd says. “States need to be making grants to schools and districts to implement things they learn based on standards the states set.”

But that shouldn’t be an excuse, he says, since the most effective and impactful things are often the least costly.

“It’s just basic stuff that works,” he says.

One of the most effective deterrents to threats is having established protocols for how people enter the school. Signs directing visitors to a single entrance, for example, where they must sign in, present identification and be approved before gaining entry to the school itself, ideally via some sort of remote locking and unlocking system, is crucial, experts say.

Emergency drills should become as common as fire drills, so students and teachers know exactly what to do. And when it comes to locks, giving staff key cards instead of actual keys to access doors is another low-cost major threat deterrent.

“When you lose keys, that’s a security risk,” Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, says. “But if you have a key card, then all you have to do with the click of the computer is turn that card off and it’s a piece of plastic.”

Security cameras, which can be more expensive, also add a relatively simple layer of protection – though only if they work, are maintained properly and someone is watching them.

“If cameras are just up there and look pretty and look good but maintenance is not kept up on them and they have a tendency to break or quit functioning, then what’s the point?” asks Hardy, who previously worked at Hoover High School, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, which had 187 cameras running. “If you don’t sit there and you don’t have somebody who’s monitoring cameras for the whole school day and that’s their job – their job is not supervising students – then cameras can just be reactive because an incident occurs and you go back and look.”

In Chicago, for example, each school has an individual safety plan that’s tailored to address the unique challenges associated with each neighborhood. In all cases, exterior doors are secured during the school day and visitors must ring a doorbell from the outside that’s equipped with a camera so that staff can see who is trying to enter.

In all schools, safety officers hold posts in different locations, and some schools also employ resource officers from the Chicago Police Department and benefit from staff members that patrol various routes students take to and from school. Students and staff wear identification badges, and some schools utilize metal detectors.

What Chicago benefits from the most, its officials say, is an intensive focus on social and emotional learning and a restorative justice approach to discipline in which schools focus on ways to counsel students who commit nonviolent offenses instead of giving them out-of-school suspensions.

Indeed, schools need to do more than simply secure their campuses, experts agree.

“It’s great to be fortifying our buildings, but I’m also going to say too is that the biggest thing we can do as school officials is try to be more proactive in the mental health areas,” says Guy Grace, the director of security and emergency preparedness for the Littleton School District in Colorado.

Littleton school district, whose neighboring school district suffered through the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where two seniors fatally shot 12 students and a teacher, performed a risk assessment in the wake of its own school shooting in 2013 at Arapahoe High School, where a student fatally shot another student before killing himself. What they found is that they were actually well-equipped when it came to security protocols but lacked in offering mental health services.

Since then, Littleton has focused on integration of mental health services into their security protocols, so that school psychologists work hand in hand with school resource officers and others to constantly assess potential threats. The district also established a “safe to tell” system that allows students, teachers and other staff to report when someone is acting out of character or violent or making threats.

“That has been really, really helpful for us as a schools district,” Grace says, noting that the safe to tell system has allowed them to interrupt at least two instances in which students were making threats and had made hit lists.

Whatever states, school districts and schools decide to implement, security experts say, the most important thing they can do is constantly reassess their security protocols to avoid any oversights or new issues that arise.

“Once you have it in place and it’s there and you’ve paid the money for it, you’ve got to check on it,” Hardy says. “When you have to answer the question why – why didn’t you do this, or why didn’t you follow up – we hope that your answers for why are very positive because I don’t want to answer the question of why from a parent who just lost a child.”