With School Security Upgrades, Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions

The following practices will help your district take a careful and intentional approach to implementing school security upgrades.
Published: April 15, 2024

Violence in schools and in particular gun violence has altered both the perception and reality of school safety. The human cost has been tragically high — there have been far too many victims. But, there is another victim that’s been forgotten in all of this. The entire U.S. K-12 school system has been victimized by active shooter events at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, and all the rest. This is not hyperbole. There has been a fundamental shift in the operational reality of the school day and the general perception of safety on K-12 campuses.

School shootings are devastating but thankfully are still quite rare. In the vernacular of emergency planning, they are “low frequency, high impact” events. The social focus is on the worst school incidents, and this has created a siege mentality. School communities everywhere are all challenged in coming to grips with this altered reality and changed perception.

However, challenges offer opportunities, and there will be implications for future school security processes and operations. What school operations should look like and how we best get there needs to be the subject of careful consideration and intentional development. Unfortunately, careful consideration and intentional development have not been the hallmarks of school security.

After a High-Profile Event, Due Diligence Is a Must

Following every high-profile incident of school violence there is intense pressure to do “something.” In response, measures are implemented that can’t be sustained in the long run but make people feel good in the immediate aftermath of these horrific incidents. These knee-jerk reactions can lead schools to over-correction and the implementation of intrusive and unsustainable measures. But, as time passes, the emotional pressure fades and the primary role of schools—the education of children—reasserts itself.

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Several factors drive this return to business as usual. The first is the failure of everyone involved to acknowledge that security and convenience are polar opposites. The more of one you have the less you have of the other. Measures hastily imposed following high-profile K-12 campus security events are generally inconvenient, often labor-intensive and, as such, are intrusive on the educational process. Because this is not considered at the outset, it works against the long-term sustainability of any security measure. And just like on the freeway, over correction often causes an accident.

Don’t Over-Correct or Under-Correct

Equally concerning is the failure to reasonably address the lessons that could have been learned from some other campus’ misfortune. Schools need to guard against this.

There usually is immense institutional inertia in schools, and change does not come easily. Everyone needs to understand the tyranny of the immediate that overwhelms educators’ every day.

“This is the stuff that keeps me awake at night, it’s not what consumes my time and energy everyday,” a building administrator told me. In cases like his, the risk is not over correction; it’s under-correction.  Again, like on the freeway, when you under-correct, you are also likely to have an accident.

Worst of all is oscillation back and forth between over-correction and under-correction. The key is finding an effective balance between the two.

Always Remember a School’s Core Mission: Education

Security by definition is the protection of assets. The first asset is always people. In schools, the second asset to consider must be the educational environment. We need to remember that context matters, and the core mission of a school is education. Security measures that are highly intrusive on the educational process run the risk of fundamentally altering the nature of school and will be impossible to implement and sustain.

School security is an ongoing posture that a K-12 community must adopt. It’s not simply a set of processes, and it is infinitely more than just a product a campus or district can purchase. School operations are required to live in the balance of creating a warm, open, welcoming educational environment where students and parents feel not only free but encouraged to actively engage with learning and the very real need to provide secure bastion where learning can safely occur.

Effective school security implementation requires both a security-friendly school culture and an education-friendly security posture. Effective school security accepts the competing operational realities that exist in a healthy school environment. Pushing to an extreme in any one area can be counterproductive, as it has the potential to negatively impact another critical variable. As such, creating an effective and sustainable school security plan will require intentional collaboration, thoughtful consideration, behavioral change, enculturation, and time.

Incorporate These 4 School Security and Safety Basics

As with everything, it’s wise to start with the basics. There are four “firsts” in school security.

  1. Develop controllable space.
  2. Provide effective building and campus-wide communications.
  3. Deploy a platform of commonly understood classroom-level response protocols that are trainable and sustainable for a fluid population.
  4. Develop a well-trained, multi-disciplinary threat assessment team using a vetted process and instrument.

Consider controllable space. As applied to school security, this refers to how campuses use space to protect students and staff, communicate ownership, occupancy, and exercise control. The easy answer, from a security perspective, is to fence the property and have school staff members control access. However, controlling access at the campus boundary can and often is highly problematic. Traditionally, school campuses and the associated athletic fields and playgrounds have been considered a community resource, used by nearly everyone in the neighborhood.

School board trustees and administrators are understandably reticent to completely limit public access. After all, these are publicly-owned facilities, and every visitor is a potential supporter, or opponent of the next bond or election. There will always be issues of available financial resources and competing priorities. For a school, it can be a decision between textbooks and teachers and fencing and security personnel. From an educator’s perspective, a dollar spent on security is one that is not spent in the classroom.

Last and most difficult to address is the school community’s perception. Restricted access, fenced campus perimeter, and secure building envelopes can create the perception of a penal institution. School officials must balance both the needs and the perceptions. Building understanding is the key. Prisons and castles can appear similar, but it is their purpose that sets them apart. Prisons keep threats locked in and allow the community around them to safely function. Castles allow the community inside to safely function and protect the members from outside threats. Embracing and fostering the castle mindset can and has changed perception.

Focusing on Communications Is Key

Let’s next take a brief look at communications. If the issues here are foundational for effective school security, then effective communication is the ground the foundation rests on. Communication is an absolute requirement for all school operations. Assuring this starts with a review of the school’s public address system and asking the simple question: “Are P.A. announcements audible in all potentially occupied areas in the school?” The review process will continue with the evaluation of all the modes and uses employed to communicate with the school community. Development of a unified communications plan is both a prevention and response tool.

Effective response to a school incident once notification is made is another critical component. A platform limited to essential responses will be much more likely to be effective in an emergency. Far too many schools’ response is defined by the flip chart on the wall with unique processes for everything from asteroids to zombies. Overly complex response platforms are difficult to deploy and sustain with substitutes, staff turnover, student mobility, and limited training opportunities.

The last first is to help schools assure they have a functioning Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management (BTAM) process in place. The U.S. Secret Service notes that effective BTAM processes in schools are the best tools for violence prevention. Given that a significant portion of school shooters are either students or known members of the school community, campus staff are uniquely positioned to detect and report (via a unified communication plan) pre-attack behaviors. A well-trained, multi-disciplinary BTAM team using a vetted process and instrument is a critical necessity at all K12 schools.

Your School Security and Safety Programs Should Constantly Evolve

The foundation is just the start. School security is not a one and done process. The next school incident has the potential to alter our understanding and require a change. K-12 campuses and districts must have a continuous improvement model of the ongoing assessment of current conditions and processes to identify exposure and drive needed change.

As schools work to develop safer and more secure campuses, educators must be intimately involved. Review of security lapses indicate that, in most cases, the cause is human failure. Given that, schools must develop a culture that actively embraces effective security processes and uses the security tools available. It will require common understanding, collaboration, and the good faith efforts of all stake holders to create the castle for learning that all schools should be.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series