Sub-article: "Security Technology for Your Educational Facilities"
Recent high-profile school shootings and attacks have put the public eye on educational facilities. While having safe schools has always been important, more and more facilities professionals are taking a much-needed, critical look at the current security standards in their schools and on their campuses. According to the 2002 Safe School Initiative study by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, almost all individuals who commit violent incidents at schools have preplanned for these events. The question for those in charge of security in educational facilities is: Have you?
Is Safety Your Responsibility?
The roles concerning security in educational facilities can be hard to delineate. Are you the decision-maker? The situation could vary with each and every school. In many school systems, the school administrator is the facility manager and has to make the call regarding building security practices. Patrick Fiel, public safety advisor, education, at Boca Raton, FL-based ADT, identifies three roles involved in school security: 1) the security director, 2) the IT director, and 3) the facilities manager. "These three individuals should spearhead school security as a team," says Fiel, adding that continuous communication amongst the three roles is vital. Whatever your perceived status on the security ladder, any kind of calamitous event on school grounds will inevitably have people asking, "Was the building safe enough?"
Chuck Hibbert, president at Indianapolis-based Hibbert Safe School Consulting, finds the safety responsibilities of facilities managers to be two-pronged. "There are two aspects a facility manager needs to keep in mind," he says. "One is the physical safety of the building itself: the physical plant." According to the 2007 CDW-G School Safety Index, a research project benchmarking the current status of public school district safety, districts scored low on the physical safety index. The national average was 44 out of a possible 160 points. Taking a hard look at your design, specifying the appropriate kind of technology, and maintaining your security systems are part of securing the physical plant. The other half of the equation, says Hibbert, is "the safety of the people who use or visit the physical plant."
The safety of an educational facility has to be approached in a comprehensive manner, according to Hibbert. Since safety is ultimately your responsibility, educate yourself on what's out there in terms of technology and training, and don't lose sight of your goal: protecting the people in and around the buildings. When catastrophic events like school shootings make headlines, parents and school systems can clamor for cameras, metal detectors, and even armed guards. Make sure the decisions you make are appropriate for your school and situation, and don't fall into the trap of trying to please the community with expensive, difficult-to-run security systems that aren't necessarily right for your facility. The best decisions are smart, not scared.
Dropping Bottom Lines
Perplexingly, though violence in schools is not decreasing, the funding for school security is. The School Safety Index found that the lack of "budget, staff resources, and proper security tools" greatly hinders a school's ability to protect its occupants and visitors. "While many school administrators may have an interest in the technology, the funding for school safety from the federal government and many states has been cut dramatically in the past 5 or 6 years," says Kenneth S. Trump, president at Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.
The budget issues affect more than just technology. "Funding for school drug and violence prevention programs, school emergency planning, school resource officers, and other safety measures continues to be cut," says Trump. Simultaneously, the focus of school administrators has been increasingly directed toward improving test scores, an effect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. With other issues on their plates, there is little time left for teachers and school staffs to be trained on safety and crisis preparedness. Says Trump, "It's not hard to figure out why the problems continue to increase."
With funding for even basic security measures (which Trump identifies as prevention programming, staff training, and police officers in schools) cut so severely, security technology in some schools is a distant dream. "Right now," says Trump, "they're just scraping to deal with the most basic safety measures." Without much money, a comprehensive security system is probably out of the picture, but there are still low- and no-cost things you can do to protect your facilities, such as posting signs regarding penalties for trespassing, increasing supervision by school staff during lunch and afterhours events, having greeters in strategic locations, requiring ID badges, removing lockers, having caller ID on phone systems, leaving classroom doors open during class, and keeping all non-primary entrances locked during school hours.
While it's unfortunate that not all facility managers who have done their homework can build their dream security system, the set budget doesn't have to make the final decision. Keep these tips in mind when considering funding for your school's security:
- Investigate outside resources. Funding might be tight in your district, but federal and state grants are there to be sought out - you just need to know where to look. Start with the websites of the U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov) and your state's Department of Education. If you've had a risk assessment performed, your school may be eligible for federal funding.
- Set short- and long-term goals. If the school board or other budget decision-makers won't approve your request for 30 security cameras, be flexible. Safety should never be compromised, but, if you can start with 10 cameras and an extra resource officer, and then show the school board the positive results, your next request for security measures will be more palatable.
- Evaluate your security needs. Maybe you want 40 cameras, maybe you want 400. But, have you thought practically about what your school really needs? A research report by the U.S. Department of Justice cites the example of a large high school that was planning to buy $100,000 worth of exterior cameras to fight nighttime vandalism to the facility's exterior. When asked who, exactly, would be available to watch the 40-plus monitors and respond accordingly, the school quickly realized that its eyes were bigger than its stomach. A cheaper, more appropriate plan (involving the use of anti-graffiti sealer on surfaces and strategically placed fencing) soon emerged.
Approaching the school board or decision-making committee with an intelligent, appropriate security plan is imperative. "I put all my information together in an ROI format," says Fiel, who uses short-term accomplishments to showcase the effectiveness of the security measure and then uses that as an argument for long-term security goals. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "If a school board member is clearly aware of a school's most important concerns and what is required to [address] them, then he or she is less likely to be swayed by an irate parent into making a decision that will handicap reasonable security efforts."
Being able to work as a team to achieve safety in your facilities requires people skills in addition to pertinent statistics and product information, so be sensitive to the emotional environment of the community: Do parents and students understand/feel the necessity of the measures you are proposing? "Oftentimes, the resources or the community may not be receptive to the change that is recommended," says Hibbert, "so it really is a matter of recognizing what your community standards are and what [it] will accept."
School Safety Assessments
As mentioned earlier, having a building safety or risk assessment performed at your school can qualify you for federal funding. It can also lend credibility to your budget requests and open your eyes to weaknesses in your building's design and security system. According to Hibbert, "You can't have a plan without an assessment of your needs." While the need for a school safety assessment is clear, there is much contention over who should be doing the assessing.
Trump warns those in charge of educational facilities to be on the watch for opportunists. "Some security and emergency preparedness vendors are increasingly developing targeted marketing campaigns to penetrate K-12 markets due to the heightened media attention on school violence," he says. "Some have even gone as far as providing ‘free' security assessments, which, not surprisingly, typically recommend hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of their products in their final reports." School districts receiving such biased recommendations remain potentially ignorant of the true weaknesses and needs of their facilities.
Although Hibbert also cautions against product-affiliated consultants, he acknowledges the expertise available from trusted vendors. "There are generally vendors within each local community that can help," says Hibbert. He encourages using dependable, upfront vendors to educate you on the best choices for your facilities, also noting that there generally isn't one source that meets all your needs. "It's good to have different opinions," says Hibbert, "and to really look at what each vendor's experience is."
Checking the credentials of consultants or vendors is vital. Their perspectives will only be meaningful and helpful to you if they have extensive knowledge about schools and school security. Once you've found the right person(s) to assess your school, how do you prepare for the assessment? The process should come naturally to professionals in the education world, according to Hibbert, who feels that safety assessments fall into line next to curriculum assessments and other educational evaluations. "We're very familiar with evaluations and assessments," he says. "The criteria are pretty much the same if you move over to the safety side ... you're still looking at the same standards of professionalism and the same general goals of effectiveness, and you're still looking for areas that need improvement."
According to the Westlake Village, CA-based National School Safety Center, a typical school safety assessment includes the following:
- A facilities audit to determine the condition and safety of the physical building.
- A review of your school's comprehensive safe school plan.
- A review of existing emergency management plans.
- A review of student codes of conduct.
- An analysis of school policies related to student safety and management issues.
- An analysis of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) efforts.
- Student input on the perceived safety of the building and the social climate.
- Discussions with key administrative personnel and local law enforcement.
- An analysis of recent school crime and disorder incidents.
- Commendations for effective practices and programs.
- Specific recommendations based on assessment findings.
If you think that pursuing third-party assessment is unnecessary or too expensive, you could consider performing your own assessment. While the benefit of having an outside assessor is the unbiased perspective, using government-supplied guidelines and checklists can help you to be thorough and accurate. A comprehensive online checklist created by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities and funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools is a great place to start. The checklist is free and available for download at (www.edfacilities.org).
Also, establishing close relationships with local law enforcement can be doubly beneficial - you'll be able to plan/train together for emergency preparedness, and they may even help you with aspects of your facility assessment. Ultimately, having a school safety assessment is a way to clearly see if you need to be implementing new practices, installing new technology, and rethinking the design of your spaces. (Check out "Security Technology for Your Educational Facilities" for information on the latest trends in security technology for schools.)
The Best Defense
No matter how much money you've spent on surveillance, ID badges, and mass-notification systems, if you and your staff are untrained and underprepared, your school is essentially unprotected. "While there are all kinds of new security products on the market," says Trump, "the first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert school staff and student body. Any type of technology is a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a more comprehensive school safety program built on a foundation of well-trained people."
Evaluating your building and testing equipment is important, but Trump suggests also evaluating the abilities and knowledge of staff members concerning your school's emergency management plan. "Security equipment is only as effective as the weakest link in the human chain behind the equipment," he says. Hibbert fully agrees, saying, "The No. 1 thing in regard to keeping a facility secure [and] to minimizing threat is a well-trained staff." Take advantage of district-wide training on emergency preparedness and school safety, or seek out programs that can be presented to students and staff at your school.
Planning for Before and After
One of the best ways to prepare your building and the people inside is to create an emergency management plan. According to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), an estimated 95 percent of all school districts have written emergency management plans. The U.S. Department of Education breaks emergency management plans into four categories:
- Mitigation and prevention: What schools and districts can do to reduce or eliminate risk to life and property.
- Preparedness: The process of planning for the worst-case scenario.
- Response: The steps to take during a crisis.
- Recovery: How to restore the learning and teaching environment after a crisis.
Chances are good that your school district already has a plan in place, but the GAO study also found that more than one-quarter of school districts have never trained with any first responders or law enforcement, and more than two-thirds of school districts do not regularly train with community partners on how to implement their emergency management plans. Working with your community to form an appropriate emergency management plan, and then practicing that plan, ensures that each piece of the puzzle will do its part in the event of a crisis. Updating your emergency management plan regularly is also advised. About half of all school districts update their plans once a year, but a lingering 10 percent (mostly rural schools) have never updated their emergency management plans.
While all your preplanning is based on the idea of avoiding tragic events in your educational facilities, make sure your emergency management plan also includes steps for what needs to happen after a crisis occurs. After the situation is under control, "one of the first steps should be a comprehensive debriefing," says Hibbert. Talking with all involved parties (from students to first responders) to see what happened from several perspectives can help you to understand where your plan worked and where it didn't. After the debriefing, make sure a thorough after-action report is written.
"These are new times in facilities management," says Hibbert, who notes that tragic events on school grounds are prompting a slew of lawsuits. Common litigation against facilities and schools following tragic events involves unsafe school grounds and lack of supervision of students either afterhours or after a school event when no responsible adults are present. Having plans in place to first mitigate threats and then, if they do occur, deconstruct them to see what really happened is vastly important.
Examine how other schools have responded to tragedy and learn from their successes and mistakes. Regarding how you have prepared your school security, according to Hibbert, it all comes down to this: "How well do you sleep at night?"
Sub-article: "Security Technology for Your Educational Facilities"
Jenna M. Aker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is new products editor at Buildings magazine.