In Search of a Repeatable, Affordable School Security Model

One North Carolina elementary school demonstrates how risk assessments, technology and policies can be implemented in a cost-effective way to improve safety. Could this model apply to your K-12 campus?

In the years since the Columbine massacre, most school districts have made progress in securing campuses and students. But an “It can’t happen here” attitude is still prevalent in many communities. Annually there are still dozens of shootings on American K-12 campuses, along with millions of incidents of violence, theft and other crimes. Most security experts, law enforcement officers and educators would agree there is still work to be done.

But is it possible to create a school security plan that can easily be repeated across campuses of different ages, design, size and use? Can that plan also be affordable for urban, suburban and rural school districts?

The answer to both questions is yes, according to one small North Carolina district that’s in the process of reviewing a pilot project officials say could serve as a model for its 16 pre-K-12 campuses. Duplin County Schools, located about 90 miles south of the state capital of Raleigh, is looking at a mix of electronic security solutions, policies and procedures to create a higher level of protection for its 9,300 students and staff.

Over the years, the district has reported few security problems – an occasional theft, random vandalism and fights between students. Yet the December 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy struck a nerve with district and community leaders. They vowed to make school security a top priority.

District leaders asked the local sheriff’s office for advice. The recommendation: hire an experienced, school security consultant to conduct risk assessments of each campus.

“The district had been doing its own security assessments for years,” says Capt. Tim Jones of the Duplin County Sheriff’s Office. “While they had been doing a good job, they lacked the fresh eye that an experienced outside school security consultant could bring to the project.”

Fortunately for the district, a nationally recognized school security consultant lives in Duplin County. Patrick V. Fiel, founder of PVF Security Consulting, is retired from the U.S. Army Military Police Corps and the former executive director of security for the Washington, D.C., Public School System. He agreed to conduct risk assessments for each district campus.

Risk Assessments Dig Deep Inside and Outside

According to Fiel, a risk assessment serves as the basis for all future security planning, highlighting a campus’ strengths as well as pinpointing areas needing improvement. A K-12 risk assessment typically takes two to three days to complete. But before Fiel even visits a campus, he drives and walks through the surrounding neighborhood.

In Duplin County he checked for safe passages for kids walking to and from school and noted area businesses that could attract criminals who might impact a campus. He also wanted to know how far the school was located from first responders.

Once on campus, he walked the perimeter, looking at landscaping, lighting, fencing, gates and signage. At one school, dense trees made it difficult to see the campus from the street. Many campuses had lights that were burned out or failed to provide adequate illumination. Some school parking lots lacked gates, while others had gates that weren’t being locked. The district quickly remedied many of these problems.

Moving around the buildings, Fiel checked to see that doors were locked after hours (not all were). He identified how many building entries were open during the day (most schools had multiple unlocked doors).

Inside, he looked to see how visitors were greeted and if they, faculty and staff were required to wear ID badges (they were). He also checked to determine if classroom doors are locked from the inside during classes (most weren’t).

He inspected auditoriums, cafeterias, athletic fields, playgrounds, outbuildings (including temporary classrooms), communications systems and signage. Fiel’s team checked rooftops and ventilation ducts to make sure they offered no access into a school. The assessment also included the district bus fleet, sporting event security and agreements with scouting, religious and other organizations using the campuses after classes.

He noted that each Duplin County school had a video surveillance system and a full-time student resource officer (SRO) employed by the local sheriff’s office.

“Having a SRO on campus during school hours is one of the most important steps a district can take to help protect its students, staff and property,” Fiel says. “Duplin County’s schools don’t have to wait for a trained and armed law enforcement officer to arrive and take charge during an emergency.”

Interviews with key district personnel provided important insights. He also reviewed emergency crisis plans and training of all staff for active shooter response, lockdown procedures, workplace violence, bullying, gangs and drugs.

When the assessments were completed, Fiel presented the district with 17 reports – one for each campus and the district’s administrative facilities.

“Overall, Duplin County Schools were in as good or better shape as most districts across the country when it came to securing their facilities,” he says. “But there was room for improvements.”

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