Security 101 for the school administrator

08/21/2013  |  By STEVEN R. MILLER, PE, CPP, PSP
School Security

The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a small town in Connecticut has brought with it a lot of introspection about what could have been done to better protect these children and the adults charged with their care. School boards and schools administrators everywhere are now facing parents who want to know what is being done at their school, regardless of location, to protect their children.

There is considerable discussion on all sides of the political spectrum about what to do: station police at schools, train and arm teachers, have armed volunteers at the school, and many other proposals. The reality is that schools have finite resources, and it is a huge challenge for school administrators to implement an effective and cost efficient security program with those limited resources. The purpose of this article is to educate school boards and school administrators with a basic understanding of security concepts to help them make better decisions.

The threat of crime and senseless acts of violence today makes incorporating appropriate security measures a prudent decision for all school facilities. However, “appropriate” security measures are difficult to define. Implementing any security measures can be a very expensive undertaking, complicated by the emotions of everyone involved. And no one wants to regret making a wrong decision.

All decisions about designing and implementing security measures are, at their most basic, about managing risk. Risk analysis is simply an examination of likelihood versus consequences. And the consequences are huge. All children in this country are an invaluable treasure.

Let’s take security to its most simple and understandable fundamentals. While the details will vary, the steps to create a security program are always the same. Similarly, there are only three interdependent components that will be used to create a security solution.

The first step of any security program is to conduct a security survey: what do we have now, what are the threats, where are the vulnerabilities, what are the consequences? Security is a thinking person’s game. Building codes do not tell you what to do. Federal and state laws do not tell you what to do. And there is no single right answer. This is where the analysis and consultation of a security professional will be essential. A security professional can thoroughly investigate the current situation and work with the school board to determine what steps, in what order of implementation, are appropriate.

There are only three interdependent components of any physical security system: People, Procedures and Hardware/Technology. The relationship of these three components will determine the effectiveness of the security system as well as its cost. A security consultant is able to wade through a virtually unlimited number of security products and services to pick the right mix that creates an appropriate security solution and gives best value for limited dollars. The security consultant will also educate the school board and administrators about security measures. The more educated the end user is about security measures, the more likely that a security solution can and will be developed that truly meets their needs.


People make the security system operate. People are, at the same time, your biggest asset and your biggest liability. People are fallible. While even the best of employees cannot be 100 percent focused for their entire shift, people can detect unusual events or circumstances that are beyond detection by most technologies. Also, there must be a human interface with any technology to understand what that technology is doing and showing. People are also the most expensive component of any security system. People are a continuing expense, and the management and training of a guard force, whether contract or in-house, goes on forever. A security consultant should investigate how procedures and hardware/technology can minimize the size of the guard force and, at the same time, improve its effectiveness. Remember that more sophisticated technology requires a higher skill level of the operators, and consequently more expense.


Security procedures are unique to any given school, however there are well-developed procedures that are considered standard for the level of protection required. Procedures are developed by security professionals who understand the risks involved and how to address those risks. These procedures include such things as locking all doors and gates once all students have arrived; determining who is visiting the school and why they are there; and what to do if there is an intruder. Local law enforcement agencies are able and willing to work with a school on life-safety issues. In developing any security program, procedures must be developed first. From these procedures, decisions can be made about personnel and hardware/technology.

Hardware/Technology: Hardware and Technology are Totally Interrelated

Hardware includes such tangible things as perimeter fence and gates, lighting, entry control points, and door locks. Purchases of hardware items are generally one-time purchases. One of the most simple and effective security measures is perimeter fence and gates. Fence and gates define the property boundaries, provide deterrence and delay, and may be a platform for other security measures. Fence and gates, in conjunction with procedures, allow the school to positively control who has access to the school grounds.

Technology includes such things as student, staff, and visitor badging; intrusion detection systems, cameras, and mass notification systems. Technology items will probably require periodic upgrades.

A comprehensive security system should not have a single mode of failure. For example, cameras alone are not a security system. Cameras are certainly a part of a security system, along with such items as fence and gates, intrusion detection systems, lighting, and entry control points. Before any hardware or technology items are purchased, procedures must be developed first which show where these items will be placed and how they will be used.

Just like home computers, the cost of security technologies keeps going down while capabilities keep going up. For example, DVR’s totally transformed video surveillance by making it easier to manage, easier to store data, and reliably time-stamp events. Video analytics take surveillance to the next level by detecting events that differ from the norm. For example, a person walking into a controlled area will trigger an alert that can then be investigated. Technology is getting cheaper and more effective all the time, however it is definitely not simple. The right combination of hardware and technology can make security personnel more effective and efficient.

People expenses generally are paid from a school’s annual operating budget while hardware/technology expenses are normally considered capital expenses and therefore are one-time expenses. The source of funding and the budget process for both are very different, and they require considerable planning well in advance of need. Is grant money available from federal or state government or other sources?

A growing concept for security management is called Crime Prevention Through Environment Design (CPTED). CPTED includes many low-cost and no-cost items such as improving visibility, eliminating hiding areas, improved lighting, and eliminating access to roofs, basements, and other areas where students don’t belong. CPTED helps create a feeling of safety and security for the students and staff.

Beware of the salesman who offers the cheapest solution in order to get the order, all the while promising that it will fully meet the client’s needs. School administrators don’t knowingly request the cheapest solution. Money is certainly important, but cost is only one factor in a purchasing decision. Have a clear understanding of the life-time costs of each security component and system that are considered and be prepared to pay this price.

Unfortunately, no security system can guarantee 100 percent effectiveness. There are an infinite number of possible threats and possible outcomes. School boards and school administrators must make courageous decisions, based on a thorough understanding of threat likelihood and consequences. They must then implement appropriate security measures at their schools that hopefully will prevent another tragedy like occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Steven R. Miller, PE, CPP, PSP, is Director of Perimeter Security Systems. Miller is a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy. Miller is a licensed Professional Engineer and is credentialed as a Certified Protection Professional (CPP) and Physical Security Professional (PSP) through the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS).
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