As the bells toll to signal the beginning of another school year this fall, many a school district administrator will ponder the issue of security for each of his classroom buildings. An effective school security program should be measured by the balance and synergy of the composite measures employed. The balanced security program should include operational aspects such as security staff, policies and procedures; physical aspects, such as barriers, lighting and locks; and electronic aspects, such as video surveillance, access control, alarms and communication.
Many school districts employ a staff of security officers whose primary duties are to monitor and patrol each facility’s perimeter and corridors and to act as the “concierge” at select entrances designated for visitors. Depending on the time of day and staffing availability, school security officers may be assigned to a number of different tasks which may include lunch room patrol, directing traffic in the parking lot, crowd control at special events or just patrolling the halls of each classroom building.
In addition to a criminal background check, potential school security officers are required to successfully complete training requirements which vary from state to state. Training courses are usually offered through the state police or through private state certified programs.
The School Resource Officer program or SRO is a nationally accepted program involving the placement of law enforcement officers within the educational environment. In cooperation with local municipalities, the police officers are usually involved in a variety of functions aimed at prevention and may be viewed as a resource for students, parents, teachers and administrators regarding law enforcement issues. To signal the presence of the SROs on school property and to provide a visible deterrent, their police cruisers are usually prominently parked on campus. Some school districts have used their Web sites as a conduit to promote their SRO and security programs and to personalize the SROs as well as their district security staff by posting brief biographies and pictures of each officer.
Security policies and procedures, as well as emergency/crisis preparedness guidelines should be treated as living documents that are reviewed and updated annually. Administrators, teachers and support staff should receive crisis preparedness training on plans that have been customized for their school. Just like fire drills, these plans should be tested and exercised by school administrators in cooperation with their local public safety and community partners.
Emergency lockdown plans are heavily dependent on the physical security aspects of a building — where classroom doors can be pulled shut to lock without the use of keys and using door hardware that automatically locks through a simple push of a button from anywhere within a school building. The use of electronic access systems in a school environment will provide the ability to monitor and control all perimeter doors as well as selective doors to higher security areas within the building, such as the computer room.
A card reader, the electrified door hardware and a magnetic door position switch are the components that comprise a typical electronic access-controlled door. These components are wired back to an intelligent field panel with power supply that is centrally located within the building. The software to run the system resides on a computer which communicates with the intelligent field panel. The school network can be used as communication medium between them.
In order to keep costs down, many schools have been selective in the installation of card reader-controlled doors. For example, staff entrances located near the parking area would be card reader-controlled. All other perimeter doors except for the main visitor’s entrance would be mechanically locked. By electrifying the door hardware, the electronic access system can automatically lock and unlock these perimeter doors based on schedules without staff interaction. Through the use of magnetic door position switches, the doors can be monitored for a “door forced” or “propped open” condition to generate an alarm for display at the system’s workstation. This workstation could be located at the visitor’s reception desk or in the office alerting security or administrative staff members.
Installation of video cameras at those perimeter doors will enable staff members to quickly assess an alarm event. Areas for potential congregation of large number of students such as lunch rooms, gymnasiums and hallways are other places where cameras are typically located. Exterior areas under surveillance may also include the athletic fields and playgrounds, the parking lots and areas such as the school bus stop. Cameras may be viewed live on monitors located in the administrative areas or at the lobby security reception desk. Most often the camera views are only recorded for review after an event has occurred.
Depending on the age of the installed CCTV system, the recording medium could consist of video cassette recorders (VCR), digital video recorders (DVR) or a network video recorder (NVR). Newly installed systems will most likely consist of IP cameras that can be viewed via the school or district IT network with images stored on a computer’s hard drive that resides on the same network. A number of large municipalities have upgraded to these types of digital camera systems which provide the ability to view images from a central district location and send images to emergency response vehicles during a crisis situation.
During times when the school premises are unoccupied, commercial burglar alarm systems can be used to monitor unauthorized entry. Activation of devices such as motion sensors, glass-break detectors and door position switches will alert and notify a central station or a designated staff member. Building environmental alarm events as well as secondary fire system alarm signals can also be transmitted to designated responders using this system’s communication medium. Interfacing this system with the electronic access system is recommended when both systems are used within the same facility to provide after-hours intrusion monitoring of card reader-controlled doors.
Hard-wired telephones located in all classrooms and offices provide a simple and reliable means of communication in the event of an emergency or crisis. Cell phones in the right hands can be lifesavers as long as they are charged and have good reception. Professional quality radios that operate on FCC reserved frequencies for school districts should be a high priority for daily operation as well as emergencies to permit communication with first responders. School districts contemplating a system with many users spread over a large area may want to consider a trunked repeater system which can function like cell phones and permit simultaneous broadcast of messages to multiple users.
Past school tragedies have made many districts realize that school violence can occur anywhere and at any time and have taken a proactive approach towards protecting their children. A large number of districts across the country have opted to move towards technology solutions.
Fred Miehl is a Certified Protection Professional with the consulting firm Aggleton and Associates. He is a member of the American Society for Industrial Security, and a past member of its Standing Committee for Banking and Finance; he is also a member of the International Association of Professional Security Consultants.