Schools Don’t Need to Feel Like Prisons

Adopting perimeter security measures that are sturdy yet aesthetically pleasing keeps kids safe while providing a more welcoming atmosphere.
Published: April 30, 2007

Throughout the past 35 years, a dramatic shift has occurred in formal education. Previously, a school was a neighborhood facility that was a gathering place for educational, community and family events, demonstrating an open environment where the strongest security measure used was a hall pass. Lately, however, a campus can at times be more like a lockdown facility where the local children are hand delivered and retrieved. The fear is that a student could be kidnapped, injured, harassed or killed. 

Unfortunately, these vulnerabilities are real, and if left unattended, could be a significant contributor to the demise of our education system. But, as with all other elements of life, we can address these issues, given the availability and knowledge of the proper countermeasures. 

Generally speaking, a post-event reaction at a facility requires the expenditure of unplanned resources on measures that only address the most recent situation and most often provide unsustainable performance. On the other hand, planned physical security measures, such as fences, can offer mitigation against a variety of elements. Different techniques and technology will be required at different facilities, making a canned approach ineffective. 

But wait — how will the completed security system look to those attending the facility and to the neighbors? Has the school secured the grounds but killed the aesthetic appeal of the facility and its surroundings? All of these things need to be considered — and oh, yeah, how about the budget? 

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Fencing Can Help Campuses Detect, Deter and Delay Criminals
Terrorism is not limited to our global enemies attempting to disrupt our way of life through the destruction of petrochemical plants that provide our oil, financial data centers that house our most critical personal information, and random detonations in common gathering places to instill fear into our citizens. Terrorism includes students bringing weapons onto the campus for showmanship or intent to harm others. 

Access control is one of the most common ways to start addressing all of these issues for any type of facility. Let’s take a moment to see how these situations can be reasonably addressed without having a fundraiser or passing a bond issue to pay for them. 

First, let’s make reference to the most common platform in security systems design as developed by the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS Int’l): detect, deter, delay, respond. Appropriate fencing addresses these first three aspects. 

Let’s also dismiss the myth that improved security means a bigger lock on the front door. Security actually begins at the perimeter. Depending on the threat against your facility, detection at the perimeter as an integrated technology with the fence line is a good starting point.

Detection can be accomplished by several means from sophisticated video surveillance to buried cable or fence applied sensors (see sidebar). Depending on the fence material, the sensors applied to it can be completely covert and tamper-resistant. These sensors can actuate lighting, trigger alarms, or send a message to an assigned observation point, notifying security officers of a possible event. 

Downgraded Perimeter Security Can Be Costly in the Long Run
Next is the fence itself, which acts as a deterrent, as well as a way to delay intruders. The type and quality of fence materials used will determine the degree of deterrence and length of delay that can be achieved. 

Several of the ASIS vulnerability assessment models indicate that a heavy gauge chain-link fence with barbed wire atop will delay an intruder for 4 seconds. Ornamental products allow 1 minute or more in the same application. This may seem to be an insignificant amount of time, but in security, seconds count. 

Unfortunately, fences can be the aspect of most projects that has the greatest potential for waste. As fencing comes into the construction schedule at the very end, many times the type of fence implemented, not to mention the quality of the product used, is downgraded significantly to make up for budget overruns in earlier construction phases. The unfortunate result is that a poor quality fence is installed, which becomes the eyesore of the community and a maintenance nightmare. 

The stronger the platform used, the greater the potential will be for the threat to move to another location. It should be noted, however, that making the fence higher with more threatening obstacles such as barbed wire or razor tape gains little, if any, in performance, not to mention the poor message it sends to the surrounding community. 

When It Comes to Quality, Not All Fences Are Created Equal
It is important then, for a campus fence to not only provide adequate protection, but also be aesthetically pleasing. A significant shift in materials used by schools has taken place recently. Now, campuses can use an ornamental steel fence, moving away from traditional chain link. 

A challenge involved with ornamental fence materials is selecting a product that has the same durability against rust and color fade, aligning with the life cycle of other materials used on the project. This can be achieved by doing some investigation that is normally not done by campus officials. 

There are many ornamental products available, most of which are fabricated in a local fence installer’s shop. Unfortunately, many products are said to be powder coated, carry a 10-year+ warranty, or a variety of other claims that are simply not true. 

A factory-applied coating with independent testing for durability should be available in writing from the manufacturer. The base material should be “prime” as opposed to a secondary material that is often used. Evidence of demonstrated performance against rusting, cracking, excessive fading or peeling of the coating should be available by the manufacturer to back up durability claims. 

Regardless of the verbal claims made by many, shop-fabricated fence panels, galvanized or not, with a finish coat of paint will begin rusting within months. This tragically begins a maintenance cycle of sanding and painting every couple of years, which averages about 20 percent of the cost of the original fence. 

In light of these issues, it is important to be cautious when selecting a fence product. 

Fencing Done Right Can Be Both Secure and Beautiful
In all, the combination of the three elements of detect, deter and delay, along with an appropriate response, will result in a multiphase security program, significantly lowering the risk exposure to facility occupants. Having a functional and aesthetically pleasing perimeter security platform supports what is known as a ductile security system, forcing an assailant to breach at several levels before gaining access to the target. 

Depending on the challenges being faced, a campus could have physical security measures at the perimeter, at the face of the facility and inside the structure. Taking a holistic approach to this serious concern is the only way to balance performance with an aesthetically pleasing result. 

This methodology, given the appropriate selection of technology and materials, can support our ever-growing concerns of providing an environment that is not only secure for our children, but also for the teachers who are educating the next generation of our country’s leadership.

Barry Willingham is vice president of security and specified products for Ameristar Fence Products based in Tulsa, Okla. For additional information on Ameristar, please visit

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series