Six steps for improving school security

Last month’s senseless attack at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School showed again how it takes tragic events such as this for school administrators, public officials and the general public to focus on campus security.

We’ve seen it before at other schools, the names of which have been seared into our minds including Columbine, West Nickel Mines Amish School, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois University just to name a few.

Fortunately, these types of shootings remain relatively rare. And to be fair, administrators have made progress in securing our schools and our children following 1999's Columbine massacre. However, there have since been more than 20 fatal shootings on American K-12 campuses and there are many more non-fatal shootings, stabbings, beatings and crimes against property that happen every school day.

Admittedly, we are at a significant disadvantage when dealing with individuals who are determined to kill, but that doesn’t absolve us from making every effort to deter or minimize their actions. The argument that additional security measures are too expensive have to be weighed against the incalculable costs of the life of a child, teacher or administrator — all of whom believe they are learning, teaching and working in a safe and secure environment.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll hear more about the need for stricter gun control laws and increased mental health services. Those are important issues that deserve discussion. But we can’t forget to ask ourselves this question: Have we done enough today to protect our 55 million students? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

We continue to make risk management and budget calculations that leave large gaps in campus security. Apathy, frugality, convenience and cultural considerations often trump the safety needs of our most precious national asset, our children.

While the memory of Sandy Hook is fresh, we are at heightened alert. But how long will that last? Judging by the past, we’ll soon lose much of the momentum for providing the resources necessary to make long-term improvements in securing our campuses. The time to act is now.

Here are six important recommendations for communities to follow:

1). Make security a top priority. All schools must have their current risk assessment plans reevaluated by an experienced, education security expert. This review should serve as a framework for school administrators, law enforcement, teachers, parents and other community stakeholders to identify strategies and solutions that will work best for each school and district. There are many different approaches that can make a significant contribution to campus security. Once plans are updated, school administrators must strictly enforce any new safety and security policies and procedures.

2). Look for ways to finance school security improvements. Unfortunately, properly securing a campus is not inexpensive and may require reallocating internal budgets. Both public and private grants may be available. The websites for federal and state departments of education are a good place to start looking for grants and how to obtain them.

3). Build strong relationships with local law enforcement. A strong relationship between schools and local law enforcement is a critical step in securing campuses. If your school does not have a regularly assigned officer for each campus, ask the police chief, sheriff or state police to make special assignments during school hours. Work with the officers to help familiarize staff and students with the appropriate emergency and security drills. Law enforcement response to an emergency needs to be in a range of one to three minutes to be effective.

4). Encourage parents to get involved. Parents are necessary to promote an environment in which children can comfortably talk about their fears and learn ways to resolve conflict without violence. Parents can be a tremendous force in lobbying legislators for additional funding for school security. And parents need to be reminded to make sure that if firearms are present in the home that they are securely stored and accounted for.

5). Teach students and teachers to be proactive regarding their own safety. More than anyone, students and teachers are aware of what happens on a campus. Yet they may be hesitant to report concerns to the proper officials. One option is to create a hotline and website that students, teachers and parents can contact anonymously to report suspicious activities.

6). Know who is on the campus at all times. All schools, especially elementary schools, must implement a closed campus policy. The main campus entrance should be controlled using electronic access through a video intercom system. All other doors should be locked throughout the day. Once a visitor is approved to enter, he or she must check in at the office, show government-issued identification to be screened before a temporary badge is printed for the person to wear at all times while on campus.

There are visitor management systems that tie directly into FBI, state and local law enforcement databases to check for criminals and registered sex offenders. It is also easy to program local information such as fired employees and suspended or expelled students. Temporary restraining orders can be added to help prevent a non-custodial parent removing a child from the campus. All classroom doors must be locked from the inside while classes are in session. No visitor should have access to students or teachers while they are in the classroom.

These are just a few of the measures that our schools need to implement in order to ensure the safety of students, teachers and staff. The combination of well-planned security procedures, risk assessments, crisis preparedness planning, security technology and training, along with the involvement of the entire community, can help to reduce incidents on and around school campuses. We owe it to our children to protect them as best we can. Let's not let our focus waiver this time.

About the Author: Patrick V. Fiel, Sr. is an independent security consultant currently working with Security Identification Systems Corp. (SISCO), maker of the FAST-PASS visitor management system. Fiel has served as public safety advisor for a large security integrator; executive director of security for the Washington, D.C. Public School System; and is retired from the U.S. Army Military Police Corps.