Federal lawmakers pressed to make real changes in K-12 security

July 5, 2017
Industry leaders, safety advocates visit Capitol Hill to discuss the issues facing the nation’s schools

According to a report published by the non-profit group The Rural School and Community Trust, there were 80 documented incidents of mass violence in U.S. K-12 schools between 1974 and 2013 which claimed the lives of 155 people. These incidents have become a far too common occurrence at our nation’s schools and the response of elected officials in the aftermath has become predictable.

After sending their condolences to the victims and their families and wishing a speedy recovery to the wounded, politicians engage in lot of hand-wringing about what can be done to better secure school buildings against armed intruders before quickly allowing the issue to spiral into a fruitless debate over gun control. What quickly becomes lost are some of the relatively easy and quick fixes that could be made at many schools across the country to prevent assailants from entering a facility or at least mitigating the damage once they do.

In conjunction with last week’s annual SIA GovSummit in Washington, D.C., a group of school safety advocates and security industry leaders briefed members of the bipartisan Congressional School Safety Caucus, founded by Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), about some of these much-needed upgrades and the resources they need from Capitol Hill to help get them implemented. The group consisted of Michele Gay, a former teacher who lost her daughter, Josephine Grace, in the shooting at Newtown and is one of the founders of Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative; Lisa Hamp, a survivor of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech; Robert Boyd, executive director of the Secure Schools Alliance; and, Tim Eckersley, senior vice president and president of the Americas region for Allegion.

Among the measures the group would like to see expedited through Congress includes H.R. 1636, known as the School Safety Act of 2017, which would renew funding of school security grants by the Department of Justice. Eckersley says one of the biggest challenges that school districts face  is aging infrastructure and security systems not being properly maintained with the passage of time. 

In fact, the “Condition of America’s Public School Facilities: 2012-13” survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average number of years since the construction of the main instructional building at schools was 44 years. Additionally, 29 percent of schools reported that their security systems were in fair or poor condition and another 21 percent said they had plans for major repair, renovation or replacement of their security systems in the next two years. 

Of course, funding is a challenge for schools in many cases when it comes to updating their security technology; however, Eckersley says education and awareness is another obstacle.

“Many of these school districts are operating under the ‘that will never happen here’ kind of mentality,” he says. “Virginia Tech, a very well-known university, didn’t even have a lock on their door; that’s a basic requirement of safety and security. We’re not talking about magic here or fancy electronics or anything else, we’re talking about basic things we’ve known how to do now for at least 20 or 25 years, so this isn’t  a complex challenge of ‘what should we do to fix the problem,’ but more a matter of how do we get this momentum building on fixing the infrastructure.”

Despite the fact that Sandy Hook had exterior door locks and even a visitor management system, Gay says that was all “rendered irrelevant” when the shooter, Adam Lanza, was able to gain entry to the building by shooting out a window. The school, which was built in the 1950s, also had locks on classroom doors but they had to be locked manually with a key from the outside of the classroom.

“That, in and of itself, is too much time and too many movements for the human brain to handle during a crisis situation,” she adds. “These are simple (improvements), it’s not new technology, it doesn’t require a new invention, it just requires the basic standard that we have in our homes and places of business.”

Following 9/11, Boyd says the federal government created the National Infrastructure Protection Plan that covered 16 different sectors and subsequently placed greater security requirements on them. But while the government has increased its focus on protecting what it considers to be critical infrastructure, Boyd says the threat landscape has changed to some degree and that schools have been left on the outside looking in.

“For the last 15 or 16 years our federal government has focused on high-value targets. Well, surprise, the world has changed. Today, the emphasis from a terrorism standpoint is on soft targets, which schools are at the top of the list, with high probabilities of mass casualties,” Boyd says. “We haven’t had one of those in this country, but around the world this a major, major focus and we haven’t dedicated any resources at the federal level to address the fact that we’re a soft target.”

Although the federal government, along with many states and municipalities, has by and large failed to take concrete steps to address the lack of basic security measures within schools, Boyd says there are a few notable exceptions. For example, the Indiana Legislature passed a bill that year will significantly bolster security in schools across the state. Among the requirements established by S.B. 147 include:

  • Requires the state department of homeland security to establish minimum standards and approve best practices for a school emergency response system by July 1, 2017.
  • State DHS must establish emergency response system guidelines with input from the division of school building safety.

In the push to bring about common sense security upgrades; however, Eckersley cautions legislators against allowing schools to adopt classroom barricade systems, which while seeming like a good idea can actually introduce other serious problems.

“These are mechanical devices placed on the inside of the door and can be implemented by anybody in that room. There are two big challenges with those: there are fire code violations and one of the other big challenges that are going on in schools is student-on-student and student-on-teacher violence. Those kinds of devices and apparatuses create safe havens for people to actually to take advantage of others in a room,” he says. “That’s on top of the fact they are not ADA-compliant and they don’t meet the fire code.”    

The Gun Control Rabbit Hole

While the near immediate inclination of politicians and lawmakers in the wake of recent mass shootings has been to turn these tragedies into referendums on gun control, the fact is this furor over the issue between gun rights activists and those calling for new firearms laws has drowned out any tangible discussion of other things that can be done to make substantial security improvements in schools and elsewhere.

“When everybody becomes so impassioned and distracted, frankly by an issue we have not been able to solve for decades and decades in our country, we tend to forget and overlook the things we have power over – the proven strategies, technologies, execution and training that we have seen work time and time again,” Gay says. “A great example is fire safety. Nobody has died in a fire at a K-12 school in over 57 years and that is because we have dedicated ourselves to codes, laws, education, and training for everyone.”

Hamp believes a lot of people are working under the false assumption that schools – both colleges and K-12 facilities – have some of these basic safeguards in place which is why the discussion quickly devolves into matters of gun control.  “I think people make the assumption that these locks are there, they just must not be working,” she says. 

Finding Funding

While being able to secure the financial resources necessary to implement some of these security products is a real issue for many school districts, Eckersley says it is also a matter or prioritization. He says many schools can afford to install these solutions but simply opt to allocate their money elsewhere.

“I’m close to this situation as an industry leader and I know what happens when tragedies occur,” he says. “The new Sandy Hook school in Newtown is a model school for how you would construct and build a safe and secure school today. And low and behold that funding just apparently became available. Virginia Tech has spent millions hardening their school. The challenge is that if it doesn’t impact you’re school district directly or you’re not close enough where it does impact you, you have this ‘it’s not going to be’ kind of mindset and therefore other priorities take over.” 

Hamp agrees and says that teachers and students alike oftentimes have the attitude of “not in my school” or “not in my town.” “At Virginia Tech we thought that too,” she says.

However, with budget constraints being one of most often cited reasons for why schools put off updating their security equipment, Boyd says several organizations including the Secure Schools Alliance, Safe and Sound, the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), and the Security Industry Association, have all signed a letter urging President Donald Trump to incorporate school security improvements into the infrastructure spending plan he touted that he would push through Congress during his campaign.

In the letter, Boyd says they proposed the president adopt the model used by Indiana which creates buy-in at every level for school safety with a third of the funding for security purposes being provided by federal, state and local sources each.  

“We can’t just say the responsibility for safe schools is a local issue. Terrorism is not a local issue and that is something we need to be concerned with,” Boyd explains. “A lot of the solutions that will protect schools with regards to terrorists are the same kinds of solutions that are going to protect schools against armed intruders that want to come in.”

Boyd also adds that the time for research studies into securing schools is over and that the time for real action is now. “The federal government has been spending tens of millions of dollars every year for the last decade studying this issue,” he says. “We don’t need study it anymore, we need to act.” 

About the Author: 

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief, SecurityInfoWatch.com

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of SecurityInfoWatch.com, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.