Safety and security in our nation's schools continue to concern administrators, parents, teachers and students. The range of issues encompasses a wide spectrum of possible scenarios; the challenge to school administrators can appear overwhelming. A key tool in being adequately prepared is to complete a safety and security assessment.

First steps

In a school setting, a safety and security assessment examines every possible emergency in which the safety or security of students or school personnel could be endangered. The assessment is a necessary first step in developing a comprehensive emergency response plan — encompassing both the scope of the emergency and the demographic/geographic extent of an institution.

The assessment should evaluate every safety and security situation in terms of:

  • Prevention and mitigation: What steps should be taken before an emergency arises that could prevent or mitigate that emergency?

  • Preparedness: Are resources and personnel in place and trained for each possible situation?

  • Response: Has a detailed response been formulated for each scenario?

  • Recovery: What recovery steps will the institution take once the emergency is abated?

The assessment also should uncover the need for agreements and communication channels between an institution and local government and law-enforcement agencies. Sustainable training for personnel must be analyzed and developed as part of the comprehensive plan; simply handing out a binder with procedures is inadequate without regular training and drills. Technology, equipment and student records, both existing and planned, should be catalogued and assessed.

Assessing safety

Although crime in schools has decreased significantly over the past decade (according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics), other potential emergencies may arise. For example, the advent of the H1N1 flu virus (swine flu), now defined as a pandemic, means the control of infectious disease assumes perhaps as much importance as controlling gang activity did 10 years ago.

Education institutions that have never conducted a safety and security assessment should do so. Without a comprehensive assessment, there simply is no rational way to develop an emergency plan, budget for safety and security implementation (e.g., equipment, training, personnel), or ensure parents and staff that the school has a plan in place. Some districts or campuses may feel they have addressed safety and security adequately or even may have conducted an assessment. In these cases, they should periodically review their emergency plans; schools are not static environments, and emergency planning should be reviewed on an annual basis or whenever new concerns arise.

Assessments should be performed by individuals with professional qualifications in school security, and in cooperation with administrators, staff and other key constituents in the school community. Such individuals might include in-house security staff, a trained school resource officer from a local police agency, or an independent professional security consultant with school-specific security experience.

Could a school administrator conduct an assessment of his or her own school? A common-sense approach and an appropriate understanding of basic security principles could enable an administrator to perform an assessment. However, the outcome from a self-assessment likely will be more limited than if the assessment were done by a trained school security specialist. Checklists used in self-assessments may be prepared by individuals with inadequate school security experience or by individuals who are unfamiliar with the K-12 environment. Efforts to assess safety and security may be more credible (and perceived as such) if an experienced security professional is brought in.

Specific plans

Each school, district or campus will have its own distinct set of safety and security issues. Real differences exist among urban, suburban and rural districts, and the safety and security assessment of each should be tailored to the specific situation. But every institution should employ pre-established safety and security standards against which the assessment is conducted. The most critical standards are those that address visibility within a building and on campus, control of entry points, the ability to lock down a school facility, communication systems, and wayfinding. The purpose of established standards is to anticipate safety and security issues, as opposed to merely reacting to the most recent emergency.

An assessment leads to policies that are followed during emergencies. It also can direct administrators to lower-level problem areas that are facility-related and, hence, correctable during construction or renovation. Several key areas typically arise as potential problems:

  • School parking lot. Nearly everyone who enters a school site will do so via the parking lot. At high schools and colleges, many students arrive and leave by automobile as well; parking lots are a source of many lower-level safety issues. Traffic control, dropoff points and visibility all are critical parking concerns that may be overlooked in a safety and security assessment.

  • Peripheral site protection. Many nonintrusive fencing options are available. Video cameras may be an appropriate tool to monitor exterior areas as well.

  • The daily route of students, staff and parents. Where does each person normally travel during the school day, and how can that route be as safe as possible? Some schools use forced entry points — requiring visitors to enter only at defined points. What kind of visibility exists at the forced entry points? Is there a system in place that admits and monitors visitors who enter there?

  • Restrooms. Because students or visitors feel that the privacy of a restroom enables them to act undetected, restrooms are a frequent source of problems. Although video cameras are an unacceptable intrusion in a restroom, placement at restroom entrances in highly visible locations is recommended.

  • After-hour events. Activities in which students and public guests interact should be assessed. Schools hold various sporting events, programs and public meetings; how attendees enter and move through the school is paramount. Access to a facility should be limited to those areas necessary for attendees of after-hour events.

  • Security of electronic records and controls. Student data, grades and building management are but a few of the potentially vulnerable data that can be compromised. Is electronic information safe and accessible to only authorized individuals?

Haley is director of education at Stafford King Wiese Architects, Sacramento, Calif. He can be reached at tim_haley@skwaia.com.

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