In light of recent tragic events, I thought it would be timely to discuss safety and security at schools. It is always a difficult discussion. In many of our local schools, there is a feeling that the community is safe and something bad couldn’t happen here. The shooting in Essex, Vermont in 2006 certainly shifted that perception, and now, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, every school is re-evaluating its security arrangements. For our international clients, this has always been a paramount concern and we often consult with the Regional Security Officer to understand the security concerns for that region.
The first step in improving safety and security is to identify the nature and range of the potential threats. Is it a concern car loaded with explosives, an armed perpetrator or kidnapping, for example? Or perhaps flooding or power outage? Different threats often require different responses in both facility design and operations. A successful approach will be a combination of common sense facility improvements in concert with effective operational protocols.
To be clear, there is no way to completely remove the risk of an event. Each school has to achieve a balance between the effectiveness and the cost, both financially and culturally, when considering security improvements. On one hand, we can’t ignore the potential threats; on the other hand, do we want our schools to resemble prisons?
Let’s start first on the exterior. Following the Sandy Hook shootings, much of the discussion has centered on how to keep a perpetrator out of the building. Unfortunately, it is very difficult, if not impossible if the perpetrator has made it to the building perimeter. And what about the safety of the students using the playgrounds and recreational fields? They are in a completely unsecured area. This is why virtually all of the international schools we work with create the security zone at the perimeter of their property, usually with a 3m high fence and guard house at the entry points. It is recommended that buildings be placed a minimum of 100ft from a public way. While this is standard for international schools, this is considered overboard for schools in a region like Vermont.
There are differing opinions on the effectiveness of armed security guards. It certainly sets a tone – for some reassuring, for others unwelcoming. Perhaps it sends a signal to the public that the school is serious about safety. To be effective, the guard must be at the right place at the right time. Will a gunman choose to enter at the most secure point? In any case, many question whether a minimally trained guard with a service revolver can stop a gunman in a bulletproof vest with a semiautomatic weapon. We do know that innocent bystanders are often caught in the crossfire. As you can see, the benefits of armed guards remain an open question.
If car bombs are a possible threat, bollards, boulders, or swales can be used to keep vehicles away from the building. Some international school use mirrors to scan underneath a vehicle. Upon entering the building, there should be a security checkpoint with some kind of badge system. However, because of the increased flow at drop-off and pick-up times, this is often not practical at these times. Using a single entry point into the school building is one way to monitor entrants. In many schools, several administrators stand out front and welcome the students in the morning. In addition to monitoring activity, it is a great way for the school leadership to meet all of the students and parents.
The entry should be arranged so that people cannot easily enter the building without passing a receptionist or security personnel to obtain a badge. Some school entries are designed so that you must pass through a controlled area before you can enter the school. Others utilize a transaction window or counter located just inside the exterior doors. In any case, it is critical to train the staff to question anybody in the school who does not have proper identification.
Inside the school, it is imperative that there is a way to alert every staff member about an intruder. This may be through a public address, phone or walkie-talkie system. Often there is a code phrase that signals the lock down. The general protocol is to clear all public areas and sequester staff and students in classrooms. To do this, it is important that classrooms lock from the inside, which is not how older classroom latch sets function. However, they can be easily retrofitted. As it is also important that the perpetrator not see any potential victims, there must be a quick way to obscure views through both hallway doors and exterior windows.
As many of our schools function as community centers, school leaders are concerned about maintaining an open, welcoming feel while at the same time improving the safety of both students and staff. It is a difficult balancing act in light of the recent tragedy.
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