The power supply in America — which already has been strained by the shortages experienced in California and elsewhere this year — is a constant concern for schools. As the cost of electricity has soared in many regions, institutions have taken steps to implement a number of conservation measures.

One tactic considered by administrators at many schools and universities has been to reduce lighting on their campuses. At first glance, this seems logical — and, indeed, in many cases it may be prudent. However, this strategy raises the possibility of security problems and an increase in liability exposure.

Lighting is one of the most efficient ways to prevent crimes from occurring on school campuses. A well-lighted environment creates a deterrent for prospective vandals — or thieves, drug dealers and rapists — because it raises the risk that they will be caught in the act.

Plan of action

Before creating an action plan to reduce lighting, school officials should consider several factors:

  • Purchase high-intensity discharge lights that are 400 percent more efficient than a standard incandescent bulb and provide 10,000 to 24,000 hours of operation, as opposed to 750 hours.

  • Choose lights that illuminate the ground, but not the air above. These lights must penetrate rain.

  • Design the lighting system to provide overlapping light distribution. Equipment selection should be designed to resist the effects of environmental conditions. All components of the lighting system should be positioned to provide maximum protection from vandalism.

  • Situate light sources so that the illumination is directed toward likely avenues of approach and provides lighting directed at the gates or entry points.

  • Install infrared motion detectors (IMDs) that turn on lights when any motion is detected in the monitoring area. These systems are programmed to react to the body heat of humans from as far away as 70 feet, so they will not be triggered by animals passing in the night. They should be installed above the ground in a tree, or perhaps near the roof, to cover a broader area.

  • Avoid drawing unwanted attention to specific areas with posted signs (e.g., “Computer Lab”).

  • Restrict normal entrances to only one or two locations in order to significantly reduce the number of security personnel or necessary security devices. Also, install new fencing or other physical barriers to restrict access to campus.

  • Consider using security video cameras, and take into account the future requirements of closed-circuit television systems. Where recognition of colors will be a factor, full-spectrum lighting (high-pressure sodium vapor) should be used rather than single-color lighting.

  • Trim all shrubs and bushes to no higher than two feet, and use security plants around the window areas. Keep tree limbs and branches away from the roof and windows, and do not allow them to block existing lighting.

  • Notify the local police department of the new lighting policy and encourage local residents to report any suspicious activity to the police.

Deterrence is one of the most basic elements of a security program, and the key to deterrence is high visibility. Effective lighting can eliminate dark areas and shadows that serve as hiding places, reducing the threat of intruders. Moreover, it also reduces the exposure of a school to liability from “slip and fall” injuries suffered by staff members and local residents using school or campus facilities.

The reality is that an energy crunch can pose a real budget problem for institutions. This problem is not going away soon, so school officials are going to be forced to find ways to reduce energy usage without causing more problems. By effectively controlling the use of lights and other electrical systems, schools can reduce their use of electricity and still not jeopardize their security programs.

Sowell is senior loss control consultant for Torrance, Calif.-based Keenan & Associates, an insurance brokerage and consulting firm that provides a wide range of insurance services to more than 750 school districts in California. Architect for Lincoln High School is Bray Associates Architects, Inc.