Hear it From the Experts: Developing a Holistic Approach to School Safety

A climate and culture that supports safety, training, SROs, access control and building hardening are strategies that enable schools to keep students, teachers and staff safe.

Hear it From the Experts: Developing a Holistic Approach to School Safety

Photo via Adobe, by Vasyl

With the tragic increase in school shootings over the past several decades, school districts across the country are working to strengthen their building perimeters by hardening their glass windows and doors – enabling them to delay intrusion, limit visibility and increase response times. However, training, school resource officers (SROs), access control and creating a culture that supports safety and security are also vital to campus protection.

NGS interviewed four leading school safety experts from three different districts about what they’re doing to promote school safety and how they are ensuring their staff and students are protected, but given the opportunity to thrive.

Here’s what they had to say.

Safety First 

“Number one on our list every day [is] the safety and security of the students and the staff in the districts” says Todd Shirley, chief operations officer for Forsyth County (Georgia) Schools, which has 40 schools and 52,000 students. “No kid can come to school and function properly without safety features and precautions in place.”

“Safety is always the number one priority,” echoes Dr. Paul Cash, executive director of facilities and operations for the Mansfield Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, which encompasses 92 square miles, 43 campuses and 35,000 students.

But, according to Shirley, while safety is supreme, the general public doesn’t always understand everything that safety entails.

“When you mention school safety to people, the first thing that they think about are police officers,” he says. “But our primary focus is thinking beyond that, thinking outside the box.”

So what does school safety entail, and how are experts thinking innovatively about the responsibility of keeping staff and students safe?

Russell Gould, who oversees the safety, security and emergency management of the 55 campuses and 70,000 students in the School District of Osceola County, Florida, outlines a basic framework: “You have the emotional and mental stability of the students and staff, and the physical security of a building.”

However, school safety can’t be addressed with just one solution. Campus security is complex.

“All of the different parts need to work collectively if we want to have a robust and effective safety and security framework,” says Mansfield ISD Director of Safety and Security Bruno Dias,

Culture is Key to Mental and Emotional Health and Wellbeing 

The best school safety framework starts with student mental health and wellness.

“For school safety professionals, it’s more important than ever to think about emotional and mental wellbeing,” Dias says. “It’s not that school violence is new. It’s the frequency and the number of casualties that seems to be evolving ever since Columbine. Kids are struggling in many ways socially and emotionally.”

And promoting the mental and emotional health of students and staff begins with building a healthy culture. Creating a culture that’s open, where people are not afraid to ask for help or speak up when they notice others struggling, is critical.

“We train our staff to identify concerning behavior so that we can offer kids the help and support that they need,” says Dias.

And that applies not only to kids who are at school, but those at home as well. The hope is that “someone can receive a service or help before they come onto a campus,” adds Gould.

“The primary focus is making sure we support the staff in our buildings to create the best possible environment for our kids,” adds Shirley.

Climate is Crucial  

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that the most fundamental elements needed for human existence are food, water and shelter. In that vein, Cash tells us that a good climate focuses on the basics: food, lights and locks.

“Are we providing the best environment so kids can be successful?” he asks. “Are we making sure we keep the lights on? Are we making sure that the temperature is right? Are we making [the climate] safe?”

Lockdown buttons, alarms and fire drills are important. Even something as basic as temperature in a room must be considered.

“We spend a lot of time making sure that our buildings are in the shape they need to be for students and teachers to do what they need to do,” states Cash.

But to develop a robust, multi-dimension framework, school safety professionals must also consider building security. The physical security of a building, like mental and emotional health, culture and climate, is multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and complex. Important considerations, decisions and strategies should be employed about access control, SROs and building hardening.

Access Control 

Keeping schools safe requires only allowing access to staff, students and authorized visitors. Limiting the number of entry points, technologies such as key cards, centralized lock systems and visitor sign procedures help school administrators control the daily flow of people coming and going in a school building.

Vestibules are also important. These are “holding rooms” that limit access to the entire campus before proper security clearance measures have been completed. This strategy has been implemented by Mansfield ISD and many other districts across the country.

SROs

For many districts, physical security includes the use of SROs. Forsyth County, for instance, puts an officer on every campus, as does Mansfield ISD.

“Previously, we just had high school and middle school campuses with officers. Now all 43 campuses have at least one officer on campus” Cash says.

As first-responders, the hope is that SROs aren’t needed very often. But if they are, building  security measures that deny or delay entry are essential to ensuring safety and provide SROs and other law enforcement officers the time they need to respond.

Building Hardening: Window Film   

When it comes to building security, glass is the weakest link. Easily broken, glass is the first target for unwanted intruders.

But in order to balance security with a good climate, school safety leaders can’t turn to metal bars or rolldown gates as solutions, as that would be counterproductive.

“We’re trying to balance a secure place with a welcoming learning environment,” says Dias. “In other words, we don’t want to make our schools look like a prison.”

Thankfully, innovative products such as window film can help harden glass windows and doors, delay entry time and reduce visibility, without tampering with the positive aspects of a building necessary for students to succeed.

Delayed Entry 

Security window film has been shown to delay entry by between two to six minutes. This prevents perpetrators from gaining immediate access to the campus and gives school administrators and SROs additional time to initiate emergency response plans and first responders to arrive at the scene.

“Now, if we do have a situation where a threat does come onto a campus,” states Gould, “the window film serves as a great barrier and buys a large amount of time.”

“As a former SWAT commander who had to breach buildings, I know how difficult it is to bypass a security film” says Dias. “I endorse it.”

Visibility 

The privacy benefit that comes with shading and tinting in window film also has a security benefit: windows that are shaded or darkened on the exterior make it more difficult for shooters to see inside a building to target individuals within a school. This benefit can serve as a major deterrent to an individual who means to do harm with a firearm.

“You want to create a situation where if somebody’s walking around the perimeter of the building, they can’t look in and see large groups of kids,” says Shirley.

Dual-function: Solar and Security 

In addition to delaying entry and reducing visibility, some security window film products can also improve building energy efficiency.

“Another reason we went with the tinted film was to help with energy savings,” comments Gould. “It helps lighten the load on our HVAC systems.”

Windows are responsible for as much as 34% of HVAC energy loss and 28% of cooling energy demand in commercial buildings. But Low-Emissivity (Low-E) window films, when applied to a single-pane of glass, can reduce heat loss in the colder months by up to 40%, reduce solar heat gain in the warmer months by up to 35%, and improve performance to almost dual-pane level.

Additionally, Infrared (IR) rejecting films do not change the look of the windows, yet they can reject as much as 97% of the IR energy and 99% of the UV rays.

How to Evaluate and Select Products 

The level of complexity inherent in school safety is matched or exceeded by the quantity and complexity of products, services and vendors in the marketplace. For school leaders, the job is to cut through the clutter of available solutions.

“There are a lot of things out there that people try to sell you on,” states Shirley. “As soon as we do have a school shooting, which is a tragedy, a lot of those things come out of the woodwork. Some of them are great ideas, and some of them are not so great ideas.”

So how can you tell the difference?

When it comes to selecting and implementing school safety products and solutions, the importance of establishing committees and involving the community cannot be understated.

“As soon as Parkland happened,” states Cash, “we put together a committee to talk about what we are doing about school safety.”

Forming committees and involving the local community brings multiple perspectives to the table and allows districts to gain critical insights and perspectives.

“The biggest thing that we rely on is our people, our team,” says Gould. “We look at it from every angle.”

Try Before You Buy 

Being able to test products and services before districtwide rollouts is also crucial when evaluating options.

“Don’t buy a bill of goods that you don’t have an opportunity to look at,” advises Shirley.

Ask companies for samples, product demonstrations and periods of time to test their products before committing to them districtwide. This will give you the chance to learn if the product will do what it’s being advertised to do, if the vendor is trustworthy and where it fits into your overall school safety strategy framework.

Ask Around

Calling other district administrators to ask about what they are doing in the realm of school safety can help filter bad from good products, services or vendors. Other districts may have already done research that will prove invaluable in the decision-making process.

“Be very selective,” says Shirley. “Call the people that have been through it. Do your research and don’t be quick to jump on something that isn’t proven and that you haven’t tested. I’m just a phone call away, and I’m happy to talk about what we’re doing in Forsyth County for the safety of our schools.”

Safety Begets Success 

Every student in the country deserves a chance to succeed. But no one can succeed without safety. Promoting school safety is multi-faceted and complex and deserves robust and thorough frameworks. Safety and security window film is only a small piece of the puzzle.

Today’s students are the future of our nation, and we must do everything we can to help them succeed. Or, in Gould’s words, we must “make sure that every student that comes to us in a given day goes home to their parents and their family in the exact same way that they came to us.”


James Beale is a leading expert in glazing security solutions and specializes in helping companies evaluate and implement building envelope security technologies. His expertise comes from more than 15 years of industry experience and co-founding NGS.

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