How Tragedy and Government Involvement Shape School Security’s Future

Aug. 10, 2018
Politics and lack of clear initiatives leave a national school security policy at crossroads

The increasing frequency of school violence incidents, especially those involving firearms, is alarming. All stakeholder groups are unsettled. The active-shooter threat may be the number one concern that keeps school administrators up at night. It motivates parents to demand immediate action. Across the nation, students walked out to remember Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims and to protest gun violence.

These stakeholder groups all share the same emotion – fear. Heated discussions involving topics ranging from the installation of metal detectors and the need to improve mental health services to the proliferation of classroom barricade devices and the arming teachers abound. Adding to the controversy, elected officials lend their voices to the fracas. The literal end of this past school year appears to have been anxiety’s only antidote.

Let’s examine some potential solutions to the school violence epidemic and, then, the government’s role in addressing the issue. Regarding solutions, we’ll consider the following questions. Where should schools invest their time and money? Which trendy solutions and magic wand fixes should be avoided? Where politics are concerned, we’ll attempt to answer two queries. Which government efforts have been successful? Which government actions have been of little value?

Where to Invest?

Time and money are precious commodities. Effective school safety initiatives often seem to require too much of the former without enough supply of the latter. Effective school security requires a collaborative approach. No single person has shoulders broad enough to carry the safety program. Establish a Safety Planning Team made up of internal and external stakeholders. Include support staff, teachers, facilities personnel, emergency responders, students, parents, etc. Remember that the most important stakeholder group is students. They are, and will always be, ahead of adults in technology and in measuring the pulse of school threats.

Invest in people in such a way that encourages them to invest in a safe learning environment. Remind teachers and staff to foster healthy, trusting relationships with students. Provide awareness training and promote a “See Something, Say Something” culture. Educate employees on security measures.  People determine the value of your products and systems. Hold employees accountable for safety practices. Compromises such as lax visitor management, door propping and poor exterior activity monitoring can result in grave consequences. Conduct emergency preparedness drills and exercises that equip and incrementally challenge staff, students and organizations that utilize facilities after-hours.  

Find ways to fund, or continue to fund, School Resource Officers (SROs) and school-based mental health professionals. An effective SRO connects with students, provides resources to teachers and staff, assists administrators with problem-solving, and protects against crime. The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) asserts that SROs serve in three ways, “educator (i.e. guest lecturer), informal counselor/mentor, and law enforcement officer”. School-based mental health professionals advocate for students. They attempt to foster partnerships with parents, teachers and community mental health professionals. From identifying at-risk behavior on the prevention side to providing support services on the recovery side, these individuals stand in a strategic place.

Where security products and systems are concerned, invest in communications and access control. Communication systems act as lifelines. Public Address (PA), intercom, telephone, two-way radio, and duress systems should never be anything less than excellent. Tolerate something less than excellent and Murphy’s Law will find you. Access control measures determine the safety of pathways and areas. Make strategic decisions regarding topics such as electronic access, closed campus, single point of entry, secured vestibules, and visitor management software. Schools must be able to account for who is in their buildings, who is no longer in their buildings and the whereabouts of those individuals.

What to Avoid?

In the aftermath of each school tragedy, the desperation to address the problem builds. People want answers. How could this happen? They want justice. Who is culpable and how will punishment be exacted? They want solutions. What will stop this from happening again?

Michele Gay, who lost a daughter in the Sandy Hook tragedy, chose to proceed down a redemptive path by co-founding Safe and Sound Schools. When asked to identify specific solutions, she responded by stating, “The call for meaningful change in the wake of recent tragedies seems to be stronger than ever. Though, what form that change should take is still an outstanding question.”

Gay’s note of caution does not stem from a small frame of reference regarding potential solutions. She and her organization have been inundated with entrepreneurs looking for product endorsements. Kevin Wren, Director of Risk, Security and Emergency Management for the Rock Hill Schools is a former Campus Safety Director of the Year. He agrees with Gay. Wren insists, “There is not a magic wand solution to school shootings. They are a human problem that cannot be solved by things.”

Unfortunately, some well-intentioned solutions inadvertently introduce significant risks. For example, school administrators have actually approved placement of items, such as baseball bats, buckets of rocks and soup cans, in classrooms. They mistakenly believe that equipping the good guys to beat up the bad guy(s) is the only potential ramification of stockpiling weapons. At the very least, the accessibility of these weapons immediately introduces potential risks such as equipping the bad guy and escalating the severity of student fights.

The issue of classroom security has also paved the way for retrofit security devices, also known as barricades. The market for these devices is driven by door hardware concerns. Most classroom doors swing out into the hallway and most locking mechanisms secure from the outside. It is unsettling to think about a teacher stepping into the hallway to lock a classroom door during an act of violence. Barricade devices seek to alleviate the need to lock the door, but inadvertently introduce significant safety and security risks. They fail to consider fire code violations, special needs considerations and the aforementioned risk of individuals using them for malevolent purposes.

The active shooter specter can warp perspective. People forget about fire safety and other potential egress issues. Schools, however, far more frequently experience fires than active shooter events. For example, the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) reports that “From 2011-2015, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 4,980 structure fires in educational properties each year.” Convenience can trump security. Classroom instruction can take place while doors are closed and locked. 

2018 editions of the International Fire Code (IFC), the International Building Code (IBC) and NFPA 101–The Life Safety Code carry the following classroom doors mandates.

  • Egress doors must be unlatched by one releasing operation from the egress side. Hardware used to release the latch(es) must be mounted between 34 inches and 48 inches above the floor. One operation must release all latches simultaneously—the model codes do not allow separate operations to release each individual security device.
  • Operation of the hardware for egress must be accomplished without tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist, and without the use of a key, tool, special knowledge or effort. Whether the lock is electrified or mechanical, it must allow free egress from the classroom side of the door.  
  • Locked classroom doors must be able to be unlocked from the outside with a key or other approved means, to allow access for school staff and emergency responders.
  • Door closers, panic hardware and fire exit hardware may not be modified by retrofit locking devices, and modifications to fire door assemblies must be in accordance with NFPA 80—Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives.
  • The facility’s emergency plan must address the locking and unlocking of classroom doors and staff must be drilled in these operations.
  • For new construction, classroom doors must be lockable from within the classroom without opening the door.

[These bullets are from an article that was originally published in Door Security + Safety Magazine – Lori Greene “Classroom security considerations”]

For liability reasons, any school contemplating the use of retrofit security devices should first obtain written approval from the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) on that entity’s letterhead. Buyers beware.

Successful Government Efforts?  

Let’s turn now to government efforts to address school violence. Ronald Reagan famously said, “I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.” Despite the humorous implication, some government efforts have been successful. The Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy (ISSSA) is perhaps the best example. In place since 1999, the ISSSA requires every school district in the state to have at least one “safety specialist.” Specialists must initially attend five days of training in school safety and security best practices. Every year after that, they must recertify with two days of training. The ISSSA does an exemplary job of selecting important topics and skilled instructors from the state and national ranks. As a result, most districts certify between two and five specialists. The state of New Jersey recently followed Indiana’s model in creating its own School Safety Specialist Academy.

The Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety (VCSCS) is another model program. By law, the Center provides training for stakeholders, develops resources, facilitates the annual school safety audit (a requirement for every school to conduct a safety audit), and provides technical assistance. The history of success caused the Maryland Center for School Safety to mirror VCSCS’s initiatives.

Unsuccessful Government Efforts?

A recent and ongoing study by the Police Foundation found that prior to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy; only 15 states had any requirements regarding school facility security. Those states include Indiana, Virginia, New Jersey, California, Nebraska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maine. In the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, many other states are scrambling to establish standards and best practices. 

Kevin Wren wonders why government officials are so reactive. “Why can't leaders learn from previous incidents and implement change instead of acting like they are always shocked and disturbed by the level of violence. We do not need to create another school safety task force to talk about the issue so we can tell our constituents that we are doing something. There have been safety task forces put together after every major event. We need to implement and fund the recommendations that were created from the previous conversations after Columbine, after Sandy Hook and the many other school shootings before reacting to the latest event.” 

Soon after the Parkland tragedy, the federal government introduced the Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act of 2018 (STOP School Violence Act of 2018). However, State Education Agencies (SEAs), Local Education Agencies (LEAs), and Local Law Enforcement Agencies (LLEAs) were given just a few weeks during the month of July to apply. Applicants were also required to contribute 25 percent in matching funds. Brian Moore, who is the School Climate Manager for the Delaware Department of Education expressed his concern in stating, “It’s very difficult for an agency to turn around something this important this quickly.”

Where does this leave our unsettled stakeholder groups? It is time to replace fear-based decision making with knowledge. Heated discussions can be healthy with proper education and accountability. Is there a remedy for anxious administrators, parent demands and student walk-outs? Michele Gay eloquently sums up the need for collaboration in addressing school violence. “In the years following our tragedy, Safe and Sound Schools has looked to partner at the community level, in industry, and at the federal level to lead us in a different direction. One thing is for certain: there will be no one-size-fits-all solution for the myriad and complex safety issues facing each unique school community across our country. As this reality sets in, we see communities come together in perhaps the most powerful way they can, at the grassroots level. Here is where insights, resources, and best practices are shared, here is where the work begins and a safer tomorrow is beginning to take shape.”

About the author: Paul Timm, FEA, P.C., is the president and second-generation owner of RETA Security, Inc. For 30 years, RETA (Ron E. Timm & Associates) has provided independent physical security consulting and emergency planning services. With the industry's only patented assessment methodology (ALPHA) and a passion to reduce risk, we assist administrators in providing a more secure learning environment. An acclaimed keynote speaker and author, Timm makes presentations to administrators, staff, and students, both on-site and online ( 

About the Author

Paul Timm, PSP | President, RETA Security, Inc.

Paul Timm, Vice President of Facility Engineering Associates, is a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), the author of School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program, and a nationally acclaimed expert in physical security. In addition to conducting numerous vulnerability assessments and his frequent keynote addresses, Paul is an experienced Crisis Assistance Team volunteer through the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA). He is certified in Vulnerability Assessment Methodology (VAM) through Sandia National Laboratories and the ALPHA vulnerability assessment methodology. He is also a member of ASIS International’s School Safety & Security Council and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials’ Risk Management Committee. Paul recently earned his Master’s degree from Moody Theological Seminary.