Secure Schools: Part of Healthy Learning Environments

Part of the Secure Schools Alliance Issue Briefing Series: “A Toolkit for K-12 Learning Institutions and Law Enforcement”

The physical security of schools is not just critical to protecting against all types of incidents of school violence, it is an integral part of promoting healthy learning environments for America’s children. However, while safety and security have always been an important part of school planning and design, when schools implement stringent security measures, school administrators, law enforcement and parents sometimes begin to question the appropriate level of physical security. How can schools ensure security without seeming fortified, or disrupting the healthy learning environment? Striking a balance between school security and healthy learning environments is a challenge that is still being further explored. Keeping the momentum of efforts to secure schools is paramount, and continually cultivating an environment conducive to learning is critical.

Ensuring physical security, aesthetics, and functionality of schools requires a delicate balance that can be challenging for constructors and school administrators when making decisions on school development. A 2002 review conducted by the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), found there has been a slow but gradual increase of research on the impact of public school facilities on educational achievement. Just as air quality, thermal comfort, building age, and school size are linked to student performance, so are safety and security. In one study, modern building with new security enhancements, was directly tied to students feeling more secure. Studies by Earthman and Lemasters (2009) found that “fourth-grade students in non-modernized buildings scored lower than students in modernized or new buildings,” indicating having a quiet, secure and comfortable environment directly affects the success of teaching and learning. Small schools and classes have also been shown to reduce violent and disruptive behavior for students in general. Still, if physical security measures are ignored, or if modernity or aesthetics are prioritized over security—schools may be more vulnerable to threats.

Considerations in School Security Design

School security design and emergency preparedness cannot be addressed with a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, in rural schools where law enforcement is located further away and may need more time to respond, it may make more sense to leverage surveillance technology than it would in city schools with law enforcement agencies in close proximity. School districts in various states must consider varying budget and expenditure decisions, state legislation requirements, and the size and demographics of the student body in their school security planning.

Within an individual school district, each school is unique in the type of threats it faces and subsequent security needs. Additionally, securing smaller schools with fewer buildings versus one with many buildings, and managing schools that have additional portable classrooms bring different challenges. Similarly, the use of various security procedures can change depending on whether a school is a primary, middle or high school.

Another consideration in the security planning process is that school buildings across the country range in age. According to the most recent data available, “as of 1998, K-12 public schools are an average of 42 years old, based on the years since original construction.” Even within a school district, it is not uncommon for some facilities to be older, some schools to have been renovated since, and others be new buildings, which creates varying security needs and requirements that vary from school to school. This can be a costly undertaking that must be balanced with other school priorities.

Target Hardening While Maintaining Schools as Safe Havens

While some target hardening security measures can be implemented quickly and easily, others require school administrators—in partnership with law enforcement and other relevant partners—to consider their unique needs, current threats and priorities, and long-term possibilities to identify ways to improve overall security. A recommendation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is that all schools, at minimum, manage visitor access and implement barriers to slow down an active shooter and allow the school or law enforcement to mitigate or neutralize the threat. Myriad strategies exist to improve physical security in schools.

Cost-Effective Strategies to Maintain Security – Indoor Space

School indoor spaces offer a number of possibilities for target hardening. Some schools have increased security measures for vestibules in school entryways by creating a locked, bulletproof entrance to secure the space and limit access. At the same time, these types of entry spaces can be made welcoming and open by using clear glass on the windows and doors. Other schools have expanded the use of bulletproof glass to classroom doors, administrative offices, and exterior windows. Another option some schools have invested in is security glass film—which has three primary benefits: it is a cost effective option; it can slow down an intruder; and, if penetrated, can limit flying glass shards and reduce potential injury to students and teachers in the building. A few schools have even installed military-certified ballistic steel sheets in bulletproof walls or under the paint and projects of children so that the security measure(s) are hidden from plain view.

Schools nationwide have adopted measures to improve classroom security in unobtrusive ways as well. Some schools have changed policies and procedures to require classroom doors to be locked while children are inside. These schools have installed doors with the hardware to lock from the inside and prevent classroom doors from being opened by anyone on the outside. In addition, installing doors that are mechanical and able to latch in a single motion without requiring a key, allows a student or teacher to lock the door more promptly. Other schools have redesigned their door systems to be centrally managed to have classrooms and halls locked when rooms are in use and only open during changing of periods. These are simple changes that protect students and teachers in the event of an intruder, trespasser, or other emergency situations on campus.

Other indoor school security measures include identification badges for students and staff so that faculty can differentiate between attendees and visitors. In a 2014 survey, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 4.1% of primary schools required students to wear badges or picture IDs, while 16% of high schools required IDs or badges. Likewise, 5.5% of primary schools required random checks by school police K-9 teams, compared to 57% at high school settings. However some schools require the same security measures—regardless of the ages and grade ranges of the students—including controlled access to buildings during school hours. In fact, 95% of middle and high schools and 89% of primary schools instituted standard security measures. Some schools also issue temporary name badges to visitors after showing identification, which must match names listed on file for the student. Visitor identification cards are normally larger and more visible, which make it noticeable for the trained teachers to look for. This type of policy, coupled with access control procedures, help keep those who don’t belong in school away, and make students and teachers feel more secure.

Cost-Effective Strategies to Maintain Security – Outdoor Space

School grounds can be more challenging to control, but schools have adopted strategies to secure premises while creating a positive learning environment. Securing the perimeter, or outer circle, with protective tools such as high fences made of open pickets and solid panels, which serves limit line of sight for possible intruders, as well as maintaining privacy of students on campus. Other schools have taken to constructing fences around courtyards, to protect areas where students congregate, with the goal of reducing opportunities for intruders to target students while out in the open. Natural barriers such as trees, bushes and defensible shrubs can be strategically planted to create barriers that can both obscure an intruder’s vision, deter a potential trespasser, and make it highly-noticeable if an intruder enters school property from anywhere other than the authorized entrance.

Some schools have even relocated playgrounds or shared spaces completely out of plain sight to limit views from public sidewalks, side roads, or parks to create a sense of security for the students while playing. Likewise, requiring teachers to monitor these types of areas or increasing school-police partnerships yield the same result.

Support and Opposition to Security Measures

Some schools have employed highly-visible metal detectors or wands and x-ray machines; increased presence of law enforcement officers in a non-SRO capacity; and obtrusive security cameras. These measures have been met with intense scrutiny by some students, parents and teachers, who perceive this technology as not contributing to a positive school climate. Some believe that fortifying schools in this manner can diminish the learning environment and have unintended, harmful consequences.16 Dr. Russell Skiba professor of Counseling and Education from the University of Indiana, believes that a large part of school security planning is creating a positive school climate, that focuses on conflict resolution, classroom management and parent/community involvement. While technology measures are also important, controlling school climate can dramatically reduce incidents of school violence. Skiba et al. also support preventative measures over ‘zero-tolerance policies,’ where installing measures like metal detectors can actually be inefficient.

However, some schools with high weapon related violence tend to favor these measures. Even though these types of security measures are often in place in middle or high schools with older students, some literature contends that those students can be intimidated by these security measures; create a prison-like environment “where many young people feel unwelcome and under siege;” and, lead students to feel like they are not allowed to talk, are over compliant, and their movement is restricted, hence the prison-like comparison. Determination of the effectiveness of these security measures on actual rates of violence or whether they cause the students increased fear and feeling less safe in school is difficult to determine. However, being responsive to students’ needs and their perception of their school security should be considered when decisions are being made.

A number of circumstances can affect how security measures may be perceived in schools. For example, some measures may be considered too harsh for younger students. Placing imposing fences and metal detectors in elementary schools may be less acceptable than if they are placed at high schools. As illustrated in the 2016 CSM article, the debate of, “how to protect students in an era of violence, without turning campuses into fortresses” is the focus of community engagement and relationships with students in schools. At the same time, local culture may also have an impact on the perception of security measures. For example, the administrator for Culver City Central High School (CA) opposes metal detectors and random searches as he thinks it is, “counter-intuitive and the most counterproductive measure,” while parents of Southside High School (SC) push for “metal detectors to be installed, along with security cameras and requiring ID cards of all students.” Keeping schools secure, and the discussions surrounding the issue, are very much locally based, and solutions vary from school to school, or county to county.

Expectation of Privacy?

Schools should consider the costs and benefits to using technology, such as cameras, and whether cameras will be installed to provide protection from vandalism, monitoring common areas and points of entry, or to aid fire safety purposes. Also, whether these systems are monitored by local law enforcement agencies with real-time access, or whether images are just recorded and having the capacity to assist in criminal investigations, is important to consider. While perceived privacy rights of students related to the installation of electronic surveillance in schools have sparked a backlash to administrators/law enforcement, a careful balance must be struck between providing security without being intrusive and protecting some level of privacy.

According to one report, “People have the right to be free from intrusion into personal matters, even in a school setting. The right to student’s privacy extends to educational records, admissions and school violence.” Administrators have to balance students’ privacy rights with the public’s right to know. However, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), says that, “videotapes may be shared with parents and outside law enforcement authorities as appropriate…K-12 educators may disclose any educational records, including personally identifying information, to protect the health and safety of a student or other individuals.” Balancing children’s, parents’ and teachers’ perceived security, with crime prevention can be a challenging effort, but when all stakeholders understand the use and implications of these technologies, the systems can work well to protect the school environment.

Training as a School Security Measure

Schools, depending on the city or county construct, have the discretion to create school-police partnerships, particularly having officers train and mentor youth about security and emergency preparedness. The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) train School Resource Officers (SROs) to work closely with children, and to serve as liaisons between the school, police and community; ensure the campus is safe from intruders by monitoring technologies and locations; educating students on threats; promoting ALICE training; providing family counselling services after incidents have occurred, and much more.

Similarly, School-based Police Officers (SPOs) who are sworn police officers from local departments, can maintain order and provide security for school grounds. “School-based policing is one of the fastest growing area of law enforcement.” SPOs are hired directly by the school districts to play a vital role in securing schools. Their specialized training to work with youth, coupled with law enforcement expertise, contribute to a great strategy to enhance school security in a welcoming/secure fashion.

Some schools also utilize teachers and parents as a way to bolster school security—a subtle way to maintain schools as safe havens. For example, schools can provide both stakeholders with specific emergency training, like ALICE and ways to talk to children about fear and violence, as individual parents or groups of teachers. Resources from the National Education Association (NEA) are available for school educators on topics related to school security, and to keep up with current trends. Including both teachers and parents in emergency preparedness planning and in open dialogue, will allow schools to find successful strategies.

Helping K-8 Understand Emergency Preparedness

Grasping emergency preparedness is no easy task, especially for elementary school children. Often parents and teachers shelter them from the realities of school-based violence, and the critical incidents that can occur in K-12 schools.37 When active shooter scenarios like Columbine or Sandy Hook occur, it stirs discussion on how much emergency preparedness to provide children of younger ages, what tactics they should use if an incident occurs at their school, and their abilities to conceptualize a threat situation.

Instructional storybooks designed for elementary school students, such as “I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared,” written by the ALlCE Training Institute and Julia Cook, a children’s author, can help in preparing young children for emergency situations. These books have been praised for explaining difficult topics in a child friendly, non-threatening manner. The age-appropriate books are used in many school districts, by NASRO, and parents to help educate their children on crisis scenarios. Starting the school security conversation at home and mirroring during school, will ultimately increase a child’s awareness and sense of empowerment needed for prevention and resilience as it relates to emergency situations.

Treating younger students more delicately by softening the scenarios and choosing gentle words is more appropriate; creating a calm assurance, rather than filling the child’s mind with the scary prospect of an incident—their imagination can perpetuate fear. For example, choosing words when practicing drills such as ‘shelter in place’ versus ‘lockdown,’ or explaining during a drill that “the teachers are here to protect you” and “we are waiting for the good guys to come and get us,” rather than focusing on the obvious terrifying situation that is being rehearsed.


Just as a school’s educational curriculum is vitally important to each school district, teachers and parents; maintaining a positive and healthy school climate to ensure students feel safe while learning, and proactively working to solve school-based issues that could lead to violent incidents should all be major considerations. Choosing appropriate security measures for each school is an on-going process, and threats, along with the solutions, continually evolve. School administrators should reflect on school security policies or decisions balanced with how safe students feel in school, the type of threats that are common, and the cost of physical security measures versus personnel protection. Special attention should be paid to those who are younger and may not understand the realities of school-based violence. While crisis preparation and establishing a safe and nurturing school environment is no easy task, finding the right balance will have far-reaching effects.

About These Issue Briefs

The Secure Schools Alliance, with support from the Police Foundation, has developed this series of issue briefs to address and enhance school security. These briefs are designed for school administrators and law enforcement, as well as all stakeholders in the school community, with a toolkit that helps advance the conversation and offer ways to collaborate on this topic. View the other briefs in this series:

View the PDF of the Secure Schools Alliance Issue Brief – Secure Schools: Part of Healthy Learning Environments.