Schools Require Distinct Solutions

Reported incidents of violence, theft, vandalism and drugs on public school campuses nationwide are an all-too-familiar story. According to the federal government's "Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2003" report, 71 percent of K-12 public schools reported at least one violent incident in the 1999-2000 school year, and 20 percent experienced serious violent crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault.

Data on homicides and suicides at schools show there were 32 school-associated violent deaths in the United States between July 1, 1999 and June 30, 2000, including 24 homicides and eight suicides. The same government report shows that between seven and nine percent of students in grades nine through 12 reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property in the preceding 12 months. This statistic has remained fairly constant in recent years.

Against this backdrop, school administrators across the country are placing increasing emphasis on school security. Providing a safe and secure environment for students and faculty while protecting valuable school property and facilities has become a primary concern. With this in mind, public school officials are using numerous steps to better safeguard schools. These range from developing a crisis management plan to increasing staff safety training to purchasing security equipment and systems. Following is a look at some of the security technologies currently being employed by schools to better control access and to improve surveillance of school grounds.

Access Control Systems
In many schools, lost and/or duplicated keys have led to theft or other problems with unauthorized visitors. To avoid such scenarios?and also to provide school administrators better monitoring capabilities?various types of access cards have come into use. Access cards allow schools to control who can enter a building when, and unlike most keys, can be deactivated when lost or stolen.

They can also be issued to staff and vendors who require access at varying hours, are generally integrated with computer software that allows very specific coding. The cards can be coded to allow entry only on certain days and times, such as for contractors or vendors who only work at the school on specific days. The type of card system ranges from magstripe to proximity, with some schools preferring the added protection of a required PIN.

Alarm Systems
Intrusion alarm systems, long in use in the private sector, are being adopted by more schools due to their ability to detect intruders after hours or in controlled areas, such as computer labs, that are to be accessed only by specified school personnel. Alarm systems may be triggered by various means: motion detectors, breaking glass or electrical devices designed to detect the opening of windows or doors. Some alarm systems can also be used to detect smoke or flames.

Schools are also making use of panic buttons, which allow staff to instantly signal school officials to an emergency situation. Wireless duress alarms can be carried or worn by teachers, school staff and/or specified students. These devices allow users to call for help immediately should a threatening situation occur. Locator technology then pinpoints the location of the person requesting help.

An outside service company may monitor the various alarm systems and immediately alert police if an alarm is activated. Some districts handle their own monitoring, often from a central station manned by school security personnel.

Surveillance Cameras
The use of cameras is becoming more commonplace in the school security equation due to their ability to deter crime and also to provide evidence after the fact should an incident occur. The cameras also serve as a deterrent to intruders, who are believed to be less likely to enter a school where they know there are cameras on the premises. In this vein, some school officials recommend prominently displaying cameras in use.

Similarly, school officials note that the cameras help keep kids out of mischief, since students are aware of their presence and will think twice before starting trouble under the camera's view. Most schools are using the cameras to monitor hallways, cafeterias and gyms as well as hidden areas that are attracting problem behaviors.

The recording of surveillance cameras can be accomplished using either VCRs or digital video recorders. Many schools have VCR-based systems, since they purchased them several years ago. However, as DVR prices have come down, some schools are looking to convert to DVRs or are buying DVRs from the outset due to their many advantages. These include faster image retrieval (DVRs cut research time drastically due to the ability to search by time, date or second), better image quality and increased storage capability (digital video can be stored for long periods and frequently accessed without any of the image deterioration common to videotape). Also, and perhaps most important, DVRs open up remote monitoring capabilities that allow schools to share video with local law enforcement personnel via e-mail or the Internet.

Metal Detectors
Metal detectors draw mixed reviews from school administrators. First, there are usually many entry points to a school, and posting metal detectors at all entry points may not be financially feasible. Second, using the equipment slows down students' entrance and may require staggering students' arrival time. Third, the equipment cannot operate on its own and must be monitored by security personnel.

Some districts, however, are not discouraged by these issues and view the metal detectors as a good investment. Some schools use a free-standing metal-detection portal, which students walk through upon entering the school grounds. Others opt for metal detection wands.

Choosing the Right Technology
Because of their status as public entities, most school districts will be required to go out to bid to select a security systems integrator to handle their systems' installation. When looking over the various proposals, school officials would be wise to look for a seasoned integrator with significant technical knowledge and expertise. Most preferable is a security systems integrator who has previous experience working with a school system and can therefore understand its issues and challenges.

Once a systems integrator is selected, the integrator can work with school administrators to determine which technologies are the best fit for its particular challenges. After determining the types of security technology needed, school administrators should ensure the equipment meets certain basic requirements before making any purchases. A knowledgeable security systems integrator can advise schools on the basics of a good system.

One consideration should be scalability. This refers to the system's ability to grow and expand. Scalability is measured not only by the number of doors or card holders a system can support, but also by the number of transactions it can consistently sustain without any loss in performance, and by its open architecture and integration capabilities. "Open architecture" implies that every major component of the system is designed according to industry standards. This is important because it enables interoperability and integration with equipment made by various manufacturers.

One cannot underestimate the importance of the support and service that accompanies a purchased system. A warranty is a necessity to cover any damage out of the box. And an agreement should be provided that ensures support coverage so that technical emergencies do not result in security lapses. A software support agreement should also include software enhancement updates and software maintenance and firmware updates.

A skilled security systems integrator can help school administrators navigate these issues, ensuring the selection and proper installation of the best system to meet the school district's needs.

Jerry Robinson is president and founder of ABC Security Corp., a 32-year-old Wheeling, IL-based security integration firm that is an eight-year member of SecurityNet, a group of independent security system integrators that provide globally integrated security solutions and services to the corporate marketplace.