Working in the school physical safety and security space, I am always asked, “What are the five things every school can do to make themselves safer?”
Generally, the inquiring person is looking for hard answers like ballistic entrances, metal detectors, locks, cameras and access controls. But the reality is that no two schools are alike. Those in the school safety space have a saying: “If you have seen one school, you have seen one school.”
Indeed, there are some 100,000 K-12 public schools in America, and they are on average more than 45 years old. These dated buildings rarely follow a consistent design, and what’s more, no two communities are identical. Diverse schools and communities require solutions tailored to their precise needs, challenges and vulnerabilities.
It must also be said that any solutions toward improving the safety and security of our schools should be part of a holistic strategy that also provides mental health counseling services, relationship-based policing as practiced by school resource officers, anonymous reporting systems, welcoming and environmentally healthy school environments, and of course solid academic programs.
Mass school killings, such as those at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland or Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, are low frequency-high consequence events. Violence on that scale is rare, but when it happens, it devastates families and communities and tears at the heart of our society. As such, those of us working to create more secure schools have an obligation to look far beyond single static measures like locks and detectors. Instead, what’s needed is a holistic, nuanced approach to improving security infrastructure and incorporating security technology and life safety systems.
Recognizing there is no single solution and that every school is unique, there are five things all administrators and communities can do to begin taking steps toward school physical security:
1. Perform facility risk assessments: Before vulnerabilities can be addressed, a school must first understand which vulnerabilities exist. A comprehensive risk assessment can reveal numerous opportunities for enhancing security, many of which may not be obvious.
2. Create a plan, policies and procedures to address deficiencies: Once a school understands where vulnerabilities exist, they need to codify the actions they intend to take. A holistic approach to school security requires a roadmap to get there, and that begins with detailed plans, policies and procedures. Policies and procedures are important because they can be no-cost or low-cost solutions to addressing deficiencies. Examples include limiting the number of entrances to the facility or staggering the start of the day for different grades to accommodate fewer entrances.
3. Budget for security implementation: Plans are well and good, but they must be supported with the resources they require for implementation. This does not mean throwing money at a vulnerability, such as buying the most expensive or most recent systems. Instead, it means analyzing each portion of the security plan,, determining how much funding should allocated and balancing that against the many other financial considerations schools face each year.
4. Implement the plan: Just as every school is different, so too is every school physical security plan. If you can’t implement the plan, it isn’t worth the paper on which it is printed. School administrators should work with partners, such as local police departments, school resource officers, parent organizations, students, and teachers to apply the policies, procedures, new security infrastructure, and technology.
5. Train, train and train: It’s said that in an emergency, we do not rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training. The first time security plans and infrastructure are tested must not be during an episode of violence. On an ongoing basis, everyone in a school must have opportunities to think through and rehearse the actions that will keep them safe in a real emergency.
There is no magic solution that will deliver the safety and security we all want for our children and the people who educate them, but there is a clear path forward. Ultimately, the schools that have assessed, planned, trained and prepared will be those best positioned to protect our most valuable national assets: our students and teachers.