School Safety and Security - an Advocate’s Tale

Aug. 24, 2023
Ensuring the safety and security of students, teachers and staff drives industry professionals to demand change

A wife who loses a husband is called a widow.  A husband who loses a wife is called a widower.  A child who loses their parents is called an orphan. 

There is no word in the English language dictionary for a parent who loses a child.  That’s how awful the loss is.  -- Jay Neugeboren

In 2006, School Psychologist Dr. Adam Saenz and I presented a comprehensive school safety and security program to the district leaders of one of the largest Education Service Centers in Texas.  We highlighted a comprehensive and unified school safety and security program that included layered and phased approaches in three primary sections:

1.   Mental Health (Prevention)

2.    School Hardening (Protection)

3.    Emergency Operations Planning (Response)

Mental Health (Prevention Measures)

When these three distinct but complimentary safety and security sections are in operation and practice within a district, schools that have established a trauma-informed and equity-centered culture can identify school-aged students that are in crisis from teachers, administrators or support staff member referrals who would then refer the student to a social emotional learning staff member who has been formally trained in the Heart-Smarts approach. If appropriate, the student would also be referred to a school psychologist (or trained assistant) in a caring manner for assessment and treatment

As no behavioral prevention approaches are 100% reliable and because the potential for an outside aggressor is always a consideration, the approach also includes layers of protection within the school hardening program.  This approach includes a comprehensive combination of people, protocols, hardware, and security technology with unified “school campus-specific” access and egress control capabilities. 

Depending on the needs of a particular campus, these could include automated school lockdown systems via unified electronic building entrances and exits with camera coverage for situational responses, unified classroom door locks so teachers would not have to lock the door under the extreme stress of an emergency and real-time emergency alerting and status updates.  These and other technology approaches, protocols and actions of staff can minimize the loss of life in a variety of emergency situations.  

The approach involves school personnel working closely with community partner agencies.  For example, if an active assailant event were to occur, law enforcement personnel have been trained and have practiced taking action to stop and neutralize the aggressor and emergency medical personnel could employ rapid medical aid such as emergency hemorrhage control measures to reduce fatalities.

The feedback from a group of the state’s most talented educators was surprising and focused on positive student outcomes.  The one response that I remember most clearly from a prominent district superintendent was, “We don’t need mental health programs or psychologists in our schools, we already have counselors and SPED Diagnosticians for that, that’s what they are for.”  Another was, “So now you want our teachers to be therapists, aside from all the other things they do?”   

Our reply was, “No, we want to teach them to recognize behavioral anomalies that students in crisis display (behaviors do not lie) and then intervene (as trained), then report their concerns to the appropriate school or district mental health professional for proper evaluation and intervention.”    

Based on this type of feedback, we decided to use analogies to help school leaders better understand what they could and should consider doing to prevent and prepare for incidents of school violence.

For example, one analogy that we found to be helpful involved a school football coach being certified in first aid by the school nursing staff.  Once trained, the coach would be able to perform CPR on a player in need, until the emergency medical professionals arrived.  Similarly, we pointed out that mental health first aid training can provide valuable prevention tools for teachers and other school personnel.  In the case of classroom teachers, this approach in essence gives them more control of their classroom environment by teaching hope and resilience, helping them recognize trauma-impacted students and building strong relationships based on trust.  

School Hardening (Protection Measures)

We should not be surprised that the lack of knowledge and understanding of attendees in the next section of our presentation focused on school hardening (from the grounds layer to the classroom layer) was at an even higher level than the information on behavioral prevention measures.  Educators are highly trained and educated professionals who are good at their core mission – educating students but are not typically trained as security experts.  One statement following the school hardening methodology was, “We have performed a security assessment and have a good school safety and security plan, and that’s what we are following to keep our school campuses safe.”

I replied “I applaud you and your team, sir.  That’s a huge step in the right direction.  Can you tell me who within your school was part of this risk assessment and plan?” 

He replied, “Me of course, and my deputy superintendent, two Principals and the IT Director.”   

“Oh, that’s great,” I said, “I would love to write your high school’s curriculum and instruction plan for next school year, will you allow me to do so?  I’ll even do it for free.” 

He chuckled, looked at his team, then with a smile asked me if I was qualified and experienced in curriculum writing.   I replied, “Not in the slightest, but neither are you when it comes to properly identifying and assessing risk and creating a structured plan to secure your school.  When it comes to performing a third-party independent, qualitative security risk assessment and comprehensive district-wide safety and security plan focused on protecting people, facilities and assets, are capabilities you can’t get out of reading a textbook. 

In addition to a perception that “we can do this ourselves and save money” and a different challenge where some educators are concerned that if the school board members or the public knows about risks that have not yet been addressed, they will be perceived as not doing their jobs, a major hurdle is the lack of dedicated security funding. 

Barriers to Improved School Safety

One thing I have learned over the past fifteen years is that there are some significant barriers to effective school safety and security enhancements.  Understanding these barriers can help security professionals more effectively help school leaders make better decisions.

We can understand why school leaders might ask “Why should we spend our school’s fund balance on security”? or "Why should we budget for this if there are no mandates or specific requirements for us to do so”?

Educators sometimes also point out that there were no audits being performed at the time and that there was no state or federal school security legislation behind it that had any “teeth”.  Occasionally, because there were no consequences except bad press or litigation, some school leaders have been less concerned about repercussions for failures to address security measures than the very real pressure they face to improve graduation rates and academic performance. 

Sadly, in the years following 2007, despite a number of catastrophic acts of school violence and government data to demonstrate the need for effective school security measures, school security is often an afterthought in relation to the also important core functions of schools.  In spite of the efforts of those of us who have been promoting and advocating for comprehensive approaches to school safety and security for many years, relatively little dedicated school security funding has been available, and a lack of standards at the state and federal levels resulted in vendors contacting school officials or responding to RFP’s (request for proposals) as the primary way for security companies to acquire school business. 

Another huge problem has been that the lowest bids for projects were often chosen even when they did not provide the best value.  This has resulted in numerous “nightmare” scenarios where school leaders invested large amounts of budget only to be stuck with security technologies and systems that do not meet their needs.  Even worse, this has often left school officials in a poor position when attempting to seek additional funding to retrofit inadequate systems.

Before the acceptance of IP-based technology, local dealers, locksmiths, and alarm companies were often doing most of the work in K-12, but in small tranches. In fact, it has been common for individual schools to select vendors and products at the campus level rather than as part of a strategically driven project for a school district.   

After visiting various schools, we decided to visit the state capital and attempt to demystify why so many schools were ineffective when it came to securing their campuses.  The Governor’s office insisted that schools have enough money, they just didn’t know how to use it. The legislators were firm that the state would not be providing school leaders additional funding for security. 

In 2008 we were invited to present and exhibit at what I believe was one of the first-ever Texas School Safety Center Conferences in Kerrville, TX.  The small event had less than 60 people and three vendors held at a small hotel.  Last month, the same event was a sold-out show with vendor sponsors from across the country attending and presenting many new and very applicable solutions for school safety and security.  The TSSC has grown in both size and scope, making great strides by focusing on prevention, protection and response.  

Texas Legislature presented a record number of bills on school safety and security this session.  Many state legislatures around the country have done the same.  I spent several days at the Capitol in Austin and although not perfect, there were some good wins for school safety this session.  It has been a slow process, but many of these lawmakers have school-aged children, grandchildren and relatives working in the public school system and want to see the same things we do.  Understanding that security is not a destination, it is a journey and schools don’t just become secure means that schools must practice risk management and ensure constant diligence and vigilance.

Board Member & Administrator Security Awareness Training

Until a school district’s Team of 8 (7 board members plus the superintendent) fully understands that a comprehensive school district security program is a process and not a product purchase, schools will remain vulnerable.  Training school board members and administrators on how to hire school architects and engineers based on their past performance in CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) would change the game.  Teaching trustees that it is imperative that their superintendents deliver a third-party comprehensive district-wide risk assessment to them, with recommendations, costs by department and timelines for mitigation prior to purchasing any security products would be a game-changer.  Emotional purchases that are made by school administrators because they “feel they have to do something” would be replaced with well-thought-out procurements that invest in security solutions based on risk levels. 

Daily, we read about school districts spending money on the latest security products, hardware, software and solutions to protect their campuses from active shooters and bad actors.  We hear stories about school boards and superintendents approving multi-million-dollar purchases of district-wide facial recognition cameras, fancy metal detectors, vape detectors, emergency alerting apps, gunshot detection, door barricades, transparent backpacks, bulletproof whiteboards and more – usually done without a risk assessment. 

So Where do we go From Here?

School leaders are overwhelmed with challenges.  Many school systems are having extreme difficulties in hiring and retaining high-caliber teachers, school bus drivers, custodians, food service personnel, mental health professionals and other employees who are critical to mentoring and guiding students.  Add the endless requests to implement myriad school safety measures ranging from the logical, to the absurd and even those that are just dangerous. 

There is a dire need to educate and work alongside our school leaders to help them make more logical and informed decisions, especially when it comes to helping them improve school safety, security and emergency preparedness using their limited fiscal resources. 

As I did with LearnSafe over a decade ago, I’ve taken a more interactive role in assisting in the creation of national school safety and security guidelines, teaming with other industry experts, that would be distributed to schools for free.

Partner Alliance for Safer Schools

In 2018, I joined the board of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (   This organization offers the most comprehensive information available on best practices specifically for securing school facilities, vetted extensively by experts across the education, public safety and industry sectors, and is the “North Star”  for K-12 Security and Safety practitioners across the country.

Spending countless hours working with a wide array of subject matter experts, respected colleagues and others, we continue to continue to hone and expand the guidance provided by the PASS Guidelines.  The time and energy spent by dedicated advocates for school safety have resulted in a valuable, easy-to-use and logical resource for school leaders looking to make the right decisions when improving the safety of their schools.

About the author: Michael Garcia currently manages the National K-12 End User Business for HID Global and serves as a contributing Board Member on the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (  PASS develops the National K-12 Safety & Security Guidelines endorsed by the Security Industry Association (SIA), National Security Contractors Association (NSCA) and the US Department of Homeland Security.  Since 2005, Michael has assisted hundreds of K-12 districts across the country in implementing Unified Physical Security Command Centers, school district hardening programs and mobile credentials for Law Enforcement and EMS to access a school campus during a lockdown in the fastest way possible, with their cell phone.  He has also developed Cyber Security vulnerability testing and district-wide risk mitigation strategies specifically for school districts. 



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