Improved visitor management needed in schools nationwide, experts say

April 18, 2017
San Bernardino murder-suicide puts school security in the spotlight once again

Last week’s murder-suicide at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, Calif., which claimed the lives of a teacher and a student, was a grim reminder that no organization is immune from the threats posed by workplace violence. For years, security practitioners have warned about the potential dangers of domestic violence spilling over into the workplace and this shooting, which also resulted in another student being wounded, is a prime example of the catastrophic consequences resulting from such a situation. What’s more, school security experts say this most recent tragedy should spur more districts across the country to review their visitor management procedures and make changes where necessary.

According to published reports, the gunman, identified as 53-year-old Cedric Anderson, checked-in at the school’s front office and said that he had to drop something off for his estranged wife, Karen Smith. He was then allowed to walk to Smith’s class where he proceeded to pull out a .357 Magnum revolver and open fire, striking Smith and her two students before turning the gun on himself.

Paul Timm, president of school security consulting firm RETA Security and author of the book, “School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program,” says that someone showing up and saying they need to drop something off is simply not a good enough reason to grant a person entry to a school.

“Remember, before (the gunman) ever got to that classroom, someone authorized him to be able to go there,” Timm says. “You would like to be asking a visitor: What is your purpose for being here?  I think, ‘dropping off something for my wife,’ shouldn’t pass muster. We make a phone call to the classroom or use a two-way radio and we verify that they are there for a legitimate purpose. This is an issue for so many schools that I deal with. When I tell them we need better visitor management procedures, a lot of times the school will say, ‘we already know each other anyway.’ Let’s assume that the person at the front desk knew who this guy was the husband of – that doesn’t qualify him to be able to have access to her room.”

Chris Mashburn, a former Texas state trooper and a vice president with the PinPoint Initiative, believes that improving the monitoring and tracking of visitors inside schools could help better mitigate against incidents like this in the future.  

“In this particular incident, no one knew what had taken place for such an extended period of time and even the first responders didn’t know that the shooter had been neutralized,” Mashburn adds. “Schools may, in fact, move towards a much more restrictive visitor management policy in who can or cannot be on campus during times in which children are there.” 

Mashburn says the incident also reinforces the need for schools to have some sort of centralized lockdown system in place. “Sometimes you’ve got an educator dealing with a lot of things in the classroom and when a situation like this happens, it might be difficult to get to every door and lock it down,” he says.

Timm adds that while bolstering visitor management procedures and technology may not prevent a domestic violence incident like this from playing itself out, it would at least, perhaps, keep it from happening within a school. In this incident, Timm says that if the teacher had been notified about her husband’s arrival prior to him entering her classroom that she could have made it known that something was amiss and that he shouldn’t be there.

“She obviously had no control and the kids had no control. Access control means we decide who comes in and we restrict access once they do come in, so it happens at the front entry and the person must ask, ‘how can I help you?’ which makes them state a purpose for being in the building,” Timm adds. “If we have visitor management software and someone lets us know (someone shouldn’t be allowed in), we can put that into the system and it gets flagged before we even decide if we have to authorize the person.”

Use of Metal Detectors

While both walk-through metal detectors and handheld magnetometers have been used in many schools for years, both Timm and Mashburn agree that there will likely be increased calls for their use following this incident.

However, Timm says that just putting technology measures in place alone will not be enough to protect against someone intent on causing harm in a school.

“I have found (metal detectors) to be minimally effective,” Timm says. “If somebody wants to bring in contraband when they know there is a metal detector, they are just going to find some other way to bring it inside. We’ve all been through the airports and we know that all kinds of contraband gets through as it is.”  

Mashburn says even if a school opts to put in a metal detector that it would have to be used by security professionals who know what to look for.

“Walking through a metal detector sometimes takes secondary screening and a lot of times that is due to an alarm that may or may not be an issue like a weapon,” Mashburn says. “It’s not just installing metal detectors but the complete security force that would go along with that. I think we’re a ways from having metal detectors across the board in schools and certainly it is even harder to envision when you’re talking about a school district of a significant size that has multiple entries and buildings on campus.”

The Push to Arm Teachers

Because most schools simply don’t have the resources to be able to place a police officer in every building, some school districts across the country have decided to allow designated personnel to have firearms to give their staff and students a fighting chance should an active shooter situation occur on campus.

While he’s all for having an armed police presence on campus, Timm doesn’t believe that arming staff members is the answer. “I think that opens a Pandora’s Box that we would really be sorry we opened,” he says.

Conversely, Mashburn thinks that personnel properly trained in the use of a firearm could help save lives in an active shooter incident.  “Obviously they would have to undergo all of the background checks that go along with that and then training would be key, but I do think that is a legitimate security measure that could be added to school districts,” he says.

The Need for Training

Moving forward, Timm says school staff members need to receive training related to dealing with potentially volatile domestic issues. For example, if a teacher or some other employee in the school is going through a divorce of separation or there have been reported incidents of domestic violence, Timm says they need to inform the school. Additionally, Timm says schools also need to keep better tabs on those who have been terminated or suspended to keep them from coming back and inflicting harm on staff and students.   

“Those are two things I would love to see improved, but I think instead of pursuing those two routes, most districts will say we need more equipment and we need to buy more products,” Timm says.

About the Author

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