A Colorado District’s New All-Outdoor K-12 Campus Demands a Fresh Approach to Security

Colorado’s Montrose County School District hired a consultant to address the outdoor school’s unusual layout and security challenges.

A Colorado District’s New All-Outdoor K-12 Campus Demands a Fresh Approach to Security

Photo courtesy Sentinel Consulting & MCSD

For students at Colorado’s Montrose County School District (MCSD), nature is their classroom. The 10-acre wooded property bordering the Uncompahgre River provides a full-time experiential learning environment for a cohort of elementary school students and frequent expeditionary opportunities for grades K-12. MCSD is Colorado’s second-largest rural school district, responsible for educating about 6,000 students.

The idea for the Outer Range emerged during the pandemic when parents desired outdoor learning options for their children. The result is a new campus where classes take place in meadows and beneath shade trees, in yurts and teepees, and along pathways and riverbanks. In this novel environment, students receive an education that meets the district’s rigorous academic standards for reading, writing, math, science, and social studies.

The setting may be reminiscent of simpler times, but the Outer Range property faces the same 21st-century security threats as all educational campuses. In addition to the typical nuisance crimes like trespassing and vandalism, administrators must prepare for the possibility of active shooters and other deadly threats.

“We had to figure out how to devise and implement a security plan that would make everyone feel safe in such an atypical learning space,” James Pavlich, the district’s executive director of operations, explains. “We have wildlife passing through campus, trees that limit lines of sight, variable weather, and other conditions that make the standard methods of perimeter protection and sitewide surveillance much more difficult.”

For help, the district turned to a consulting firm.

Why Use a Consultant?

Most school districts turn directly to a systems integrator to address their security needs. Initially, the MCSD did too. Several years ago, before the Outer Range campus existed, the district worked with a local security integrator to upgrade its hundreds of surveillance cameras.

“It was a huge improvement over what we had and relatively affordable,” Pavlich recalls.

However, Pavlich’s goal was to eventually install a more robust platform that could integrate seamlessly with a district-wide access control system. To pay for it, he successfully applied for a multi-million-dollar grant.

“Each integrator I spoke with wanted to sell me a proprietary system. I realized that before spending all that money, I needed to understand my options better,” he says.

One helpful integrator recommended that Pavlich investigate consulting firms, which he did.

“Hiring a consultant gave me access to engineers and physical security specialists familiar with the whole gambit, who weren’t incentivized to push specific brands or solutions. They were 100% looking out for our district’s best interest,” says Pavlich.

He chose Sentinel Consulting over other firms because of its range of services, professionalism, and successful track record working with other K-12 districts.

“I felt that Paul Benne, the firm’s principal, had a deep understanding of the constraints a client like us would face,” he says.

Process Included an Assessment, Standards, and a Master Plan

As part of Sentinel’s work with the district, its team conducted a comprehensive assessment of the district’s facilities, followed by creating security standards and a district-wide master plan. These provided the foundation to develop a cost-effective engineered system design.

security, consultant

Outer Range classes take place in meadows and beneath shade trees, in yurts and teepees, and along pathways and riverbanks. Photo courtesy Sentinel Consulting & MCSD

The idea for Outer Range came to fruition in 2020, well after the district-wide security upgrade was underway. A plan to secure the new outdoor campus represented an increase in project scope.

Sentinel had already prequalified five vendors for the initial phase and performed bid leveling. The district selected Colorado-based technology integrator LINX. MCSD continued to work with LINX on the Outer Range project, with Sentinel providing project management services to ensure the technology systems were installed, programmed, and operate as designed.

Multiple Security Technologies Deployed

Demerle Lewis, project manager at Sentinel, describes the Outer Range solution as “using a layered approach that includes fencing, radar, surveillance cameras, access control, and 800 MHz network radios to connect those onsite with public safety and law enforcement.”

Pavlich explains, “We began with the fencing, which varies by the terrain. We have some chain link, wire lines, and fencing cut from rusted metal to look like mountains. These span the entire perimeter, and we cleared a 12-foot buffer on each side, all the way around.”

In a more traditional campus environment, surveillance cameras with motion detection would be mounted along the perimeter fencing to provide visual monitoring capabilities. At Outer Range, a different approach was needed.

“In addition to a local homeless population that might drift onto our property from along the river, we have deer and all manner of critters,” says Pavlich. “The many trees would quickly provide cover for anyone or anything passing through.”

Instead of cameras, the Sentinel team recommended using radar technology from Axis Communications. The devices can accurately detect, classify, and track humans and slow-moving vehicles at distances up to 200 feet.

Further within the property, high-megapixel Axis cameras are strategically mounted to provide an unobstructed view of fixed assets, including the lodge, yurts, teepees, fire pit, and open-air theater space. Several are multi-sensor models providing 360° coverage.

“When the radar detects incoming motion, it tells us which cameras to look at based on the object’s trajectory,” Pavlich explains. “We use a layered notification approach. First, we get the early warning from the radar. Then, because of the nature of the terrain, the person or animal will inevitably walk into the vicinity of one of our cameras, and we can immediately determine, ‘Is it a deer or a person?'”

All cameras and radar devices are managed through the same Genetec software platform used throughout the district. Soon, local law enforcement will be able to view the cameras via a mobile client in emergencies, helping them to mount a response with greater situational awareness.

Allegion access control is used to secure the few indoor spaces at Outer Range, such as the lodge and yurts. An electronically controlled vehicle gate at the entrance, managed by the Allegion system, is planned for a future phase. Like the radar and cameras, the access control solution is fully integrated with other systems. When a door is opened or tampered with, corresponding security video is linked to the event.

The Outer Range devices are powered and connected through hard-wiring and wireless technologies. Sentinel sought to use wired solutions as much as possible. Per the district’s request, no trees were cut down to accommodate infrastructure. The consultant identified locations for mounting poles where paths were already cleared, like along handicap access pathways and the 12-foot perimeter buffer, and trenching for cabling was kept within those areas. The poles support radar, cameras, and Wi-Fi.

The systems can be monitored onsite using a mobile interface and from dedicated security workstations within the district’s main office. In a partnership with the sheriff’s office and police department, MCSD has several security resource officers (SROs) assigned to its many campuses. Soon, there will be one assigned to cover Outer Range.

Like all MCSD campuses, the site has Motorola SchoolSAFE two-way radios that allow communication with Colorado’s 800MHz statewide public safety network. The radios provide an immediate, reliable connection with emergency services during a crisis. For example, if an active shooter were approaching the Outer Range, staff could coordinate with law enforcement and first responders, directing students which way to flee or hide. The terrain purposely offers evacuation routes in every direction.

Hiring a Consultant More than Paid for Itself

Pavlich says the incremental expense of employing consulting services has more than paid for itself.

“When school districts go straight to an integrator, they’re just rolling the dice with the district’s money,” he says. “Because of Sentinel, I’ve been able to stretch the district’s money and leverage grants more effectively. Sentinel devised such a good plan, broke it into phases, and tied it all to best practices. I knew precisely how much everything would cost, so it was far easier to apply for additional funding. We’ve ended up with almost triple our original budget between grants and general funds. Part of it has paid for security at the Outer Range, a project we hadn’t even imagined when we first started working with Sentinel.”

“Also, working with a consultant delivers incredible value in terms of project management and oversight of the integrator. Unless you’re a huge urban district, an in-house security team can’t do what Sentinel does. For example, if the integrator isn’t getting the support they need from a manufacturer, Sentinel gets on the phone with the manufacturer’s top tier of people and we see an immediate impact. They have an unrivaled ability to hold the integrator accountable to spec. In the end, we get the best possible results, plus the journey getting there is smoother and substantially less stressful.”

Margie Gurwin is a marketing communications consultant with Content Creation Partners LLC.

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