Given the numerous mass shootings at schools that we have seen across the country, it only stands to reason that administrators are looking to integrate security features into any new school buildings or renovations.

Beyond the practical benefits, these safety upgrades can also provide important peace of mind for those who attend or work at the school as well as parents and community members.

But these physical changes to buildings are only as successful as the security measures integrated into them and the training to support them.

School administrators must realize that preparedness occurs in three layers. The first layer is physical and technical security measures. The second is the development of policies and procedures to ensure those features are utilized as designed and intended. And the final and most important security layer is training. These layers are like the legs of a stool — you need all three to make a safety plan successful.

A key part of new construction or remodeling of schools to implement safety features is understanding the security needs behind different features and how those measures are best utilized in an emergency.

People Operate Security Measures

In the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, educators have moved to provide more secure entrances to their schools. This trend has evolved into almost a copycat approach as officials scramble to try to secure their buildings.

The shooter in that case, Adam Lanza, shot out a side window of the locked front entrance to gain entry where he killed 26 people – including 20 children – before turning the gun on himself.

In the aftermath of that shooting, I worked with a school district where administrators built vestibules at entrances to provide an extra layer of security, but more importantly to allow people in the front office to make assessments of visitors.

The secure area is what I call the “dirty area” before you get to the “clean area,” where the students are. While there is a buzzer and the ability to take pictures of visitors, the judgments staff members make are key, and those assessments are based on training.

Staff members need to be aware of warnings signs, such as body language or rapid breathing that could be signals of bad intent. And most importantly, they should not be afraid to question people about their reasons for wanting entry.

The physical security measures can cost a lot of money. What is equally important is ensuring that those who are operating the equipment and making decisions about entry know how to make that choice. That kind of integrated approach to emergency planning can even save money in the long run.

Know Your Threat

Another aspect for administrators to keep in mind when it comes to school security is to understand the nuances of what makes sense for their different buildings. All threats are not identical, and safety plans should reflect the needs of a particular population.

One way to evaluate school building threats is by assessing the age groups there. With elementary students, as evidenced by Sandy Hook, the threat is more likely to be an external one. Authorities aren’t as worried about a small child coming to school with a weapon and inflicting harm; the concern is someone like Lanza gaining entry and wreaking havoc.

In that instance, the security goal is to use the best construction, materials and training to neutralize this external threat to young children. Officials are trying to prevent that threat from entering the building. Buildings that house older children represent a different kind of threat, and that is more likely an internal one.

Consider the school shooting that is embedded in our collective psyches, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School that is the nation’s deadliest high school shooting. The two perpetrators were students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. These threats were allowed in the school by virtue of their status as students. The two seniors opened fire at their school, killing 12 students and a teacher and wounding more than 20 others before they committed suicide. Investigators learned that the two had placed in the school cafeteria two bombs in duffel bags; when the explosives failed to detonate, the two started shooting.

More recently in Butler County, Ohio, a 14-year-old is accused of opening fire in the school lunchroom, injuring four students, two of whom were hit by bullets. All of the students are expected to recover. When assessing security needs at these schools, experts need to take into account the features and training to best respond to these threats from within.

Security Considerations

The key when designing an emergency plan is to make sure it is built to ensure performance.

Questions to ask:

  • Are there adequate exits?
  • How would a lockdown work at your school? Sometimes, doors don’t have locks because of fire codes. Or, requiring the use of a key to lock a door can be difficult because under a high-stress situation, the fine motor skills needed to operate a key in a lock are compromised. Is there a way to lock doors from the inside? Or, can they be locked from a central location during an emergency?
  • Think about windows and window trims. Instead of one window, you can break it up into three and then use shatter-resistant glass and film. Or, you can put trim on windows in a specific area of a door to guard against breakage to gain access to a door handle.
  • When school administrators update their physical floor plan, they often forget to update their crisis plan. That leaves authorities working off an old document if there is an emergency. It’s important to make sure all plans are simultaneously updated so everything matches.

By laser-focusing on security features when planning upgrades and construction, school districts often can realize cost efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary materials or measures. When these resource-appropriate features are backed up by solid staff training, the result is creating the safest school possible for children.

Jason Russell is the founder, president and CEO for Secure Education Consultants, a Michigan-based firm that specializes in security plans for schools, child care facilities and businesses. Russell is a former special agent for the United States Secret Service, and worked on protective and investigative assignments, as well as protecting the current president and vice president and former presidents. He leads a team of former Secret Service agents who help clients with security assessments and emergency plans. His criminal justice career also included work with the Lansing Police Department in Michigan, and the Office of the Inspector General.

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