2 Inexpensive Ways to Improve School Access Control

Published: May 24, 2024Episode #94
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Southern hospitality may be alive and well in much of North Carolina, but safety precedes manners at Buncombe County Public Schools.

For Joseph Hough, district assistant superintendent of auxiliary services and school safety and a 2024 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist, access control has always been a priority. Over the years, he has implemented several inexpensive — and even some free — access control programs or systems that revolve around student and staff training. Five years ago, Hough introduced “ignore the door” training (14:39).

“We have signs throughout the school with the slogan, ‘Ignore the door.’ We’re here in the south and it’s our southern hospitality that if somebody comes to the door and they need to be let in, we do it,” Hough told Campus Safety. “But this day in age, we can’t do that, so these signs face the students and staff on the inside and we teach them to ‘ignore the door.’ Somebody comes to something other than the front, they need to be screened in and buzzed in appropriately.”

One anecdote Hough likes to share happened the second year into the program (16:08). During an assessment of an elementary school, Hough tried to open a door near the library but couldn’t get in. He spotted a third-grader and decided to knock to see if she’d let him in. Instead, she turned and mouthed, “Go around.”

“And let me tell you, it warmed my heart. I knew two things. Number one, that principal did exactly what I asked them to do, and number two, the students received that information and they took it to heart and why it was so important,” said Hough. “It’s one of my favorite stories. When we start talking about safety and security, we’re always really focused on the capital stuff. Sometimes it’s just the teaching stuff.”

The program has proven extremely effective. Hough said before its implementation, he was able to gain access to 55% of the district’s 45 schools through an unsecured door during site assessments. Last year, that dropped to 10%, although he says he’s still striving for that “big old zero.”

Door Security Under $500

While not completely free, another proven and cost-effective access control solution implemented under Hough’s leadership is the yellow safety dot system (12:46). He placed a yellow dot sticker on each door strike and when the dot is fully visible, the door is latched properly.

“If you’re walking a good 10, 15, 20 feet away, you can see a yellow circle in full versus one that you don’t see in full,” he said. “What we teach the staff and the kids — and I tell you, elementaries eat this up, they want to be on safety patrol — we tell them if they ever see it [not in full], pull it to and then go find an administrator, custodian, or somebody and say, ‘We have an unsecured door.'”

With around 2,000 exterior doors in the district, Hough estimates he paid under $500 for the stickers.

“That’s always a success story whenever you can find things that prove security that did not break the bank and that was just one,” he said.

Redundancy Key to Successful Access Control

Since implementing these cost-effective access control solutions, the district has also adopted door access technology that notifies district leaders when a door has been opened for a set amount of time.

However, yellow safety dots and “ignore the door” teachings remain at Buncombe County Schools to ensure redundancy as technology cannot and should not replace the human element of school security.

During this interview, Hough also shared:

  • Insights into the district’s massive front office reconfiguration project (1:14)
    • The challenges that came with installing double vestibules in 30 schools (5:15)
    • How the project was funded and how the district decided which schools to start with (6:44)
    • Impacts seen since the start of the project (11:07)
  • How his military background helps him do his job (20:27)

The full interview transcript is below.

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.



Amy Rock (00:56): Thank you for joining me for this episode of the Campus Safety Voices podcast. I’m here today with Joseph Hough, who is the assistant superintendent of auxiliary services and school safety at Buncombe County Public Schools in North Carolina, and he is also a 2024 Campus Safety Director of the Year finalist. And we’re going to talk about some of his recent accomplishments.

Let’s start with your district’s front office reconfiguration. Sounds like a massive undertaking, both monetarily and logistically, particularly at older schools where front offices are often stepped back from the entrance. What motivated you to start this project?

Joseph Hough (01:29): Well, thank you, Amy. I appreciate the interview and always a joy to talk to folks about safety and security. Any school system’s going to tell you safety is number one priority. And I’ll tell you Buncombe County is, it certainly is here. We try every so often to ask for an outside auditor to come in every, I’ll say at least every five years because we’re not necessarily security experts. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. We could do quite a bit just from our experiences in working with law enforcement in the area, but we really want the best cutting-edge look. So in 2018, we had an outside vendor come in and just do a really good safety and security audit. And that’s what started it, and they came back with recommendations.

After that, we went into an implementation phase. One of them was front office reconfiguration and you kind of already said what that is. We have got schools in our system – the oldest one is 1920, and a lot of schools back then probably didn’t have to deal with safety and security like we do today. And a lot of the schools had the front office that may be recessed. When you get buzzed in the front door, you might have two or three hallways to the left and right before you ever get to the main office. And with things like we’ve seen with Sandy Hook and that person. after they shot out the glass. went in and that office was recessed, they had two hallways, they can go left or right. Well, this actually puts us in a situation where what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to make that office right there part of that front door, and we actually use a term called the two-vestibule system. You can see where you walk in the front door, you’re screened, get all your visitation, all that. There’s a bulletized wall and bulletized glass for the receptionist and then they pass through a second area, in which case there’s a pass through window. So hopefully most of the time folks come in, they just need to pass a permission slip or set the keys for the kid and that’s all the business that they have. This actually gives us a chance to screen a little bit more who’s coming into the school.

Once you screen, they go into a second area so that they wait on let’s say a parent teacher conference or a bigger window that they can pass a book bag through. So it just adds that element of security and that’s the kind of stuff we learned from the Sandy Hook situation. And it is not all about a shooter scenario. Sometimes it’s just a parent that’s very passionate, let’s put it that way, and has an issue with a teacher that we have a chance to maybe calm them down a little bit so we don’t get into a situation where once they bus through the door, they take off down a hallway because they know the room that their student is in and where the teacher is. So it just gives us that extra element to really handle a situation before we get too far.

And it just comes back from having all those schools so old in our system. We got to get them updated for safety and security. So that’s just a quick summary on what a little deeper summary on what front office reconfiguration is all about. And yes, we learned this and it is a huge undertaking because as you can imagine, it’s got some dollar figures to it. We’re fortunate enough, it’s not too far off the front, we could do it for under a million, but some of the ones where we’ve got to literally take an adjacent classroom right beside the front door and switch it from wherever that office is, obviously we’re going to be up in a million or even over. So we’ve done that now for about seven schools and we’ve got three that are undergoing right now and we try to get at least two in a year.

Amy Rock (05:16): And now I know clearly, I’m sure there are a lot of challenges that came along with this big project, but what were some of the challenges you had to overcome, whether they were anticipated or not, and also as you continue to work to install these double vestibules at around 30 schools?

Joseph Hough (05:32): Well, we knew with the range of buildings that we had, that that would be our biggest [challenge] because we got 45 schools and no two schools are really the same. We have some that kind of resemble and that does help when you start doing your estimations as far as your design work and all that, maybe there’s a school or two when you go to have it designed, you can say, well, it’s very similar to this other. But those are few and far between. Like I said, we got 45 ranging all the way back to 1920. So the chart that I put up just a few minutes ago, that was really our template design. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. So we’re using that and just knowing that as long as we achieve that two vestibule type system and knowing that we’re going to have to adjust it for certain schools, especially from the sense of what are we going to take away or swap out because we might not always have a classroom right beside that front door. We might have to get more creative than that. So having the basic design was there, but it was a matter of no two schools really the same. You had to kind of adjust it to get what you wanted, which is that two vestibule format.

Amy Rock (06:44): Now, how did you go about funding for this project? I know you had mentioned a dollar total, but how did you go about funding it

Joseph Hough (06:50): Good question. Well, I was say in the state of North Carolina we are blessed. We do get local capital funds, but our state also gives us safety and security funds as well. We have a partnership for that with mental health needs, a partnership with our sheriff’s department that we can get kind of a split with the money between some of that state money comes in so we can have SROs, and then that gets shared with our local sheriff’s office. But one of the big one is there are some of those monies that are designated from the state and that grant process for some capital improvements, so that was a big help.

And then the other one, something that Buncombe County is specifically, we had a legislator several years ago, and I love to tell this story. We call it Article 39 — that’s very specific to us just by title — where it gets a portion of a cent sales tax here locally that goes toward big, big capital projects over a hundred thousand dollars.

The background story that I’d like to share, there was a late senator who has passed recently, but we have an alternative STEM high school that’s named after him is Martin Nesbitt and it’s Nesbitt Academy. And several years ago, Buncombe County, through some trade magazine for education, decided to put Buncombe County Schools in Asheville, North Carolina, on a title of a document called the Dilapidated Dozen. Our schools were really just in poor shape apparently. And the thing we learned from that, sometimes bad publicity can end up being a good thing for you because Martin Nesbitt took a whole of that article and said, ‘We will do something about that, whether true or not about Buncombe County Schools, we’re going to do something to make sure our schools are updated.’ So we have a portion of a cent sales tax in Buncombe County that allows us big projects. And my understanding we have 115 LEAs — local educational agencies or school systems — in the state of North Carolina. My understanding, we’re only one of two that has that extra local tax resource that we can use. So here again, we will always need more. I can’t think of a single school that would say they have all the money they need, but I will tell you we’re blessed at what North Carolina does for us. We’re blessed in what Buncombe County does for us.

Amy Rock (09:17): That’s wonderful. When you said a trade magazine, I was like, it’s not Campus Safety, is it?

Joseph Hough (09:21): Don’t think anything. I think you’re okay.

Amy Rock (09:25): I also read in your director the year submissions that the standard has become to do construction at one large and one small school each summer until all of them are retrofitted. What were the reasonings for this?

Joseph Hough (09:36): Well, anything we deal with when it comes to trying to update a school with 45 schools, equity is going to come up quickly and the principals will be real quick to do that too. If one school’s getting something, they want to know why their school’s not getting it. One of the things that our outside agency did for us is not only with those recommendations as far as capital, they did an overall security score for each school and they put in several things. Well, what is crime rate in the area? How did your school score on these different things, your doors and those type things? And they put them on a score one through 45. So we use that so that we can be fair. We want those that didn’t have a good score to get updates quicker and hopefully improve their safety and security based on that assessment.

Another thing that we did is we always have that battle, and I know the state as far as who gets what monetary resources, big counties versus small counties. And one of the things our state does is they do try to put a formula in with counties that don’t have a lot of tax-based revenue. So something we learned from the state, we make sure that in that mix that we do one for a very large school, obviously is going to have a lot more doors, they have a lot more land and all that. So to be fair, we just try to make sure we do one large and one small along with that scale where they scored, just trying to be as equitable and fair as possible.

Amy Rock (11:07): And now you’ve had some completed, what impacts have you seen so far since then?

Joseph Hough (11:12): Well, the very first school we did, I love that question because, like I said, it’s not only for shooter situations, but sometimes you just have a parent that’s being passionate or overly passionate and just trying to advocate for their kid or their student, I should say. At the very first school that we completed over the summer, and we normally can complete these over the summer, some of the big ones, we start actually demolition and start up in spring break to be done by the next school year. The very first one we did, a very upset parent came in and just really needed a minute to calm down before they did something they would regret — this parent would’ve done it. There’s no question they were that upset and we’d been running after them. So the fact that they came in, they went to that second set of doors that goes to that other side where it’s the bigger room, even if they’d have gotten through that there’s that last set of doors because it’s a double vestibule system. And just being able to get an SRO there a little bit quicker and a principal there quicker just to get them calmed down. ‘Listen, we we’re going to resolve whatever it is,’ but if we hadn’t have had that, we’d have had a very difficult situation and it proved itself immediately.

Amy Rock (12:27): That’s great. And now moving on to your door security training. In your role, you’ve also focused on training regarding door security. Can you tell listeners about the project that is currently underway and also about the system that you’ve even implemented in the meantime to ensure redundancy, and how you came up with that idea?

Joseph Hough (12:46): Well, I’m going to actually start with the latter part first and then you’re right, we had something that we were doing — still do — because we want to have redundant means of door security. And I’m going to show a little chart here in just a minute. So up until we got to some of the latest technology, it was all about teaching your teachers, your staff and students. And one of the simplest things we did, if you know a little bit about your doors on the crash bar, typically you’ve got a little wheel mechanism that the latch will come by and click. So I’m going to show this to you real quick. And this is, I call it the safety dot. And on that little piece that comes in front of the wheel, it was latched. So you basically just take a dot and put it on that latch, and you can look at — very simple — at the comparison between the two. That one that’s in red has not come past that roller yet, and if you’re walking a good 10, 15, 20 feet, you can see a yellow circle in full versus one that you don’t see in full. And what we teach the staff and the teachers and the kids even, and I tell you elementaries eat this up, they want to be on safety patrol. So if they see it, they’re quick, we tell them, if you ever see it, pull a to, and then go find an administrator, custodian or somebody and say, we have an unsecured door.

And the nice thing about this, you’re talking about 2,000 exterior doors for our county. And when we’re talking millions of dollars, like we’re just talking front office reconfiguration, I think I paid under a thousand dollars or $500 for 2,000 some odd little yellow circles. And that’s always a success story whenever you can find things and prove security that did not break the bank and that was just one.

The other thing we teach, this was actually an idea of one of our schools, they shared it and we adopted it. We use a catch slogan and we call it ‘Ignore the door.’ We’re here in the south and it’s our southern hospitality that if somebody comes to the door and they need to let be let in, we do it. But this day in age, we can’t do that. So these face the students and staff on the inside and we teach them, ‘Remember that slogan, ignore the door.’ Somebody comes to something other than the front, they need to be screened in and buzz in appropriately. And that’s just something that I started probably about four or five years ago.

The old saying is, you inspect what you expect. And once we started that I would put on jeans and a T-shirt and a ball cap and just act like I’m any old Joe on the street and I would try to come in and see how many doors I can get in. And when I first started that out of 45 schools, I think we were 50% or a little bit more, 55% that I found an unsecured door. And that’s what sparked all these types of things. And it’s just a matter of, especially the one where somebody’s just wanting to open the door for you, teaching them to not open it. There’s a procedure. And that’s the training piece I think I shared earlier with a story. I’d love to just share that story real quick and I’ll hit the door access control in a minute.

When I was going around probably in the second to third year, and we were improving, we went from 55% to 35%. I was like, we’re on the right track. The principals are teaching the kids, teaching the staff not to open doors and making sure those things are latched or using the safety docs. It’s working. And then finally, and just last year or year before, I got it down to where I can only get in about 10% and I still want that big old zero, that’s what I want. But in the second year I did it, principals, they get so busy, are they teaching this? And I actually pulled up with my jeans on one day and the first door I came to was an elementary school and it was near a library and I went up and I couldn’t get in. I was so happy, okay, the door’s locked, it’s secure, but if I ever see a student, I’m going to knock and I’m going to test it. I think it was a third-grade little girl. And I knocked on that on the glass and she turned and looked at me and she didn’t even walk toward the door and I could see her mouth, “Go around.” And let me tell you, I did the same thing you just did, which is I laugh, but at the same time it warmed my heart. I knew two things. Number one, that principal did exactly what I asked them to do. And number two, the students received that information and took it to heart and why it was so important. One of my favorite stories, and when we start talking about safety and security, we’re always really focused on the capital stuff. Sometimes it’s just the teaching stuff. And it just, like I said, it warms the heart when something’s so simple, you see evidence that it was taught and it was accepted and it was done. Like I said, that story always warms my heart. I chuckled the very first time when I saw it, but at the same time I was so glad that they were doing it.

The last part of your question — so we’ve been doing those things, but now there’s something out there called door access security, there are mechanisms that you can put on the doors, the magnets when they meet. Those doors are wired in such a way, and then the technology information that as long as they’re touching, if they ever do not touch, almost like a timing mechanism for a light that comes on outside, you can dial in that sensitivity that if they’re not touching for any length of time, it will send to the smartphone of the principal and say, you have 30 some odd doors and it’ll identify the door and they’ll say, gym doorway number one. And they’re all marked. They have numbers.

Some of the things we are having to learn with that system, I think we’ve got six districts and we’re down to our last district that we’re doing right now, and it is just a matter of tweaking it. We know it works, but sometimes we got to dial that sensitivity. We learned very quickly that a student going outside that’s holding a door for its class to go through, if that’s held for 45 seconds to a minute, that might be what’s going on. So it’s just dialing down so that the principal’s not getting updates constantly. And that’s what we’re having to work through. But the technology does work. So it’s just one more thing that, and I certainly say to anybody out there, door access control, look that up. You got several vendors out there, but in the meantime, if that’s a big thing, go back through the ignore the door and yellow safety dots in the meantime. I’ve always said three things most important. There’s a lot of things out there. Can you secure your doors? Do you have SROs? And can you meet the mental health needs of your students?

Amy Rock (20:04): Absolutely. I love hearing from practitioners like you and the wonderful work that you do. And your nomination material was submitted by your wife who was a teacher at a school in the district, but it was also accompanied with recommendations from your superintendent, a school board member, a local sheriff, and a former principal who currently has children in the school district — so you really have support from all stakeholders. And I’m just curious, what did it mean to you when you heard you were nominated for Campus Safety’s Director of the Year? I’m not sure if you saw all the letters that everyone wrote for you, but it must be nice to hear.

Joseph Hough (20:39): Well, I certainly appreciate my wife first and foremost. One of the things I’ll share with you, I’ve been very fortunate in my career, I should say two careers that I’m a 32-year army national Guardsman. And after 9/11, I got into it in 1986 with money for college, put in my six years and loved it and decided to stay with it. I was an engineer officer and then eventually deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan looking for IEDs. So just training and security methods for our vehicles on the roads, camera systems on those vehicles. I actually had the opportunity to be a director of transportation, and it surprised me we had so many of our buses that have cameras on them now for different odd reasons. I’ve just saw so much, one career complimented the other. Things I would learn in the school system, I got to apply in the military, things in the military I could apply in the school system. So I am super fortunate to had two careers to do what I love to do, safety and security for others, whether it be those in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rural populations or right here in Buncombe County, North Carolina — protecting kids.

What did it mean to me? It means the same thing that I think so many people, when you pour your heart into something that you enjoy doing, it’s the acknowledgement that somebody appreciates you. And that’s what meant the most to me, and my wife did that, and that so many of my colleagues up here at each level — board members, the superintendent got involved with it and wrote me letters. I do in fact love this job. I love what I do and anytime I get a chance to share with others that do the same thing. I coached when I was in school, when I was a teacher and all that, so the old slogan is, the best coaches are thieves. They steal from each other. And I’ll certainly say in safety and security, I think that goes the same way. I think the more we can share what we do, and we’re by all means, I’m not the expert. I will tell you there’s stuff I learn all the time and I could certainly take a lot more time and I won’t do that, but things that I’ve done here that I learned from other school systems, but that’s what we’re about – sharing. It’s so important when we get a chance to go to these conferences in Atlanta, I think coming up, even here in our own state, to have that networking and share what we’ve learned. But yeah, it meant a tremendous amount to me that somebody said, we think enough to of Joe Hough to make a recommendation. And I’m certainly very appreciative.



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