Walking into most office buildings today is an entirely different experience than it was just three years ago. Employee identification cards, numerous security guards, the use of metal detectors, and mandatory guest passes are standard procedure in the post-9/11 office.

Yet, the security infrastructure at our nation's educational institutions — arguably our greatest national asset — lags behind that of private-sector organizations. Just as companies now are expected to use best-practice security measures to protect their employees, school administrators face enormous expectations regarding the safety of primary, secondary and university students. Society demands that schools exist as safe learning havens for all students, and that under no circumstances should students feel that their physical safety is threatened. It's a daunting responsibility, but one that school superintendents, security directors, facility managers and university housing officers must accept.

Room for improvement

The good news is that national trends indicate that serious crimes in schools are down nationally. In New York City, for example, reports of serious crimes are down 23 percent over the past two years. Still, education institutions could be doing a lot better. For example, students in the United States ages 12 to 18 were victims of about 2 million nonfatal crimes of violence or theft at school in 2001, according to the New York Sun.

Moreover, according to the Third Annual National Association of School Resource Officers Survey (2003), 90 percent of respondents described their schools as “soft targets” for potential terrorist attacks; 55 percent said their schools' crises plans were inadequate; 62 percent said their crises plan had never been tested; and 71 percent reported that teachers, administrators, in-house security personnel and support staff have not received terrorism-specific training.

Prioritizing resources

Safety and security should be a top priority for every school administrator and risk-management department, whether at a private or parochial primary school, a public high school or a university. Prioritizing resources, however, is no easy task. Education institutions are facing financial and regulatory pressures while trying to protect themselves and their students from risks related to alcohol abuse, assault, sexual misconduct, terrorism, natural disasters, blackouts and more.

School administrators, then, have to pick their battles. For example, establishing safety measures to combat commonplace threats must take precedence over terrorism precautions. After all, it's far more likely that a student will try to smuggle a gun into school than terrorists will target that particular facility. Yet, failing to understand, prepare for, and properly manage a full range of security risk issues can result in the worst-case scenario: more violent incidents and an institution's reputation in tatters.

A risk-management culture

For school and university safety to improve, school security must evolve from a compliance issue to a risk-management issue. It's easy to spot schools where safety is a compliance issue. Security efforts go only as far as the minimum state and local requirements, school administrators enlist few allies in the cause, and physical facilities typically sink further and further into disrepair.

In a risk-management culture, on the other hand, everyone participates in identifying, managing and reducing risks to students, staff, faculty, campus visitors and the physical plant. At these schools, employees identify opportunities to improve operational efficiency and thus free up more resources for security efforts, spot potential trouble hotspots before they ignite, tout improvements in school newsletters and local newspapers, and generally spread the word about managing the change to a risk-management culture. The rewards from such efforts are self-evident: enhanced security and reputation, continued access to funding sources (public and private), and improved morale.

To create this risk-management culture, education institutions must perform a significant amount of security “due diligence.” The first step is diagnostic. An evaluation should be conducted of the range of internal and external security risks facing the institution. This could include everything from natural disasters to school bullying to radiators that are too close to the gymnasium floor, thus causing a fire hazard. Next, the risks should be prioritized. Compiling and prioritizing risks will go a long way toward convincing potential donors, regulators, and prospective students and parents that an institution has considered various safety risks, and is not just hoping for the best.

Once an institution has pinpointed and prioritized its risks, it is time to implement techniques for managing various risks. The techniques under discussion should be compared against what is considered best practices at other institutions and in the wider world. While the following is not a complete checklist, many schools use some of the following techniques:

  • Reviewing current policies, procedures and protocols relating to security and emergency response planning, including in-house security staffing.

  • Evaluating security and safety of all institution facilities.

  • Developing a critical-incident prevention program for each facility.

  • Integrating local, state and federal emergency-response agencies into the school's emergency-response plans.

  • Developing and implementing security and safety training for all departments.

  • Identifying the institution's current state of preparedness compared with similar institutions.

  • Initiating specialized prevention and first-responder training for school resource officers (SROs) and school security personnel.

  • Designing school-specific anti-terrorism awareness training programs for school officials, parents and the broader school community.

  • Establishing liaison procedures to coordinate crisis planning among schools, police, fire, emergency medical services and emergency-management agencies.

  • Strengthening mental-health support services for crisis situations.

  • Testing and exercising plans periodically.

Emergency scenarios

One reason that every educational institution needs to discuss possible emergency scenarios, such as blackouts and other forms of extreme crises, is because their responses may be much different than that of a private-sector organization. For example, in the private sector, business continuity planning is a major concern after a business interruption. If a business doesn't quickly bounce back, it may never regain its footing.

For not-for-profit educational institutions, however, quickly restarting operations is far less important than making sure that every student is given maximum support and care, and that the facilities are being quickly rebuilt and repaired.

The Office of Homeland Security and the Department of Education continue to be valuable resources for schools that want to evaluate and refine their security plans. Schools have received millions of dollars in grants for emergency-response-planning programs. As a first step, however, schools should give serious consideration to:

  • Encouraging school personnel to maintain a “heightened awareness” for suspicious activity. This may include vehicles and persons on and around campus, unattended packages around the building perimeter or in the school, and unexpected requests for information by unknown visitors.

  • Establishing clearly defined perimeters for schools through the use of fences, gates, environmental design, signage and other professional security measures.

  • Stressing the importance of adult supervision before, during and after school, both inside school buildings and on campus, and in common areas such as hallways, stairwells, restrooms, cafeterias and other high-traffic areas.

  • Monitoring a proactive effort at visitor access points. One successful idea that some schools have embraced is reducing the number of doors accessible from the outside to just one or two designated locations.

  • Verifying the identity of service personnel and vendors visiting the school, particularly those seeking access to utilities, alarm systems, communications systems, maintenance areas and related locations.

  • Evaluating security measures at school transportation facilities.

  • Securing access to utilities, boiler rooms and other maintenance/facilities operations locations.

  • Evaluating food and beverage service stock, and protection procedures.

MacGregor is the leader of Marsh's Emergency Management Services consulting practice, New York City.