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Amid ongoing violence, schools need security guidance

Safeguarding the kids and campus depends on comprehensive risk assessment, down to the local school and district level

In less than a generation, schools have entered a complex new world of security concerns.  They have gone from a focus on fire drills to “hardening” against intruders to deter the rising threat of shootings and copycat violence across the nation.

With 74 school shootings since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, money is being thrown at the problem.  An estimated $4.9 billion will be spent on security systems by 2017.  Yet our schools cannot become prisons despite the threat of violence, and the money can be easily wasted if used ineffectively.

“In the aftermath of all the shootings, schools are being flooded with money for security, but often left without guidance on how to best use it,” says John Shriner, Vice President of Consulting at Installations Inc.  The Redford Charter Township, Mich.-based company provides in-depth security consultation as well as products such as bullet-resistant security enclosures to schools, colleges, banks, hotels, retailers, and government institutions.

“School boards, principals, and facility managers often find themselves doing double duty: their own jobs, plus that of security experts,” adds Shriner.  “Yet few have any real training or expertise on how to best approach an increasingly complex security environment.”

So how can school boards and administrators best protect students and staff, when their expertise is curriculum, not security?  Some rely on informal advice from facilities managers, security personnel, or local police departments.

While this may be a starting point, few have the time or expertise to thoroughly assess the security risk, or the systems, equipment, or training needed to address it.  Too often, such recommendations may be based on perception, and not on the specific risk factors that apply to their local situation.

Amid the ongoing threat of violence, schools need security guidance from experts who have long dealt with such threats.  Experts such as those in banking and retail, who have deterred assault and armed robbery for decades, are now sharing their expertise and risk analysis to protect schools from violence.

Turning School Security into a Science

“We cannot roll the dice on what’s effective in protecting our children from violence in schools,” cautions Shriner, a thirty-year security industry veteran, Certified Risk Professional, and Certified Homeland Security Professional, who was previously International Director of Physical Security for Wells Fargo Corp.  “Without guidance, guidelines, or data to inform their decisions, many schools have no overall risk strategy.”

According to Shriner, for instance, one school may opt for additional video cameras, another bullet-resistant doors or windows, and another a saferoom.  While these are all viable options, they should not be implemented without examining the larger picture and prioritizing risk.

“Safeguarding the kids and campus depends on comprehensive risk assessment, down to the local school and district level because every school and district’s situation is unique,” says Shriner.

School safety experts such as Shriner advocate a risk-based approach.  This would assess and prioritize risk from top to bottom for all schools in the district, and provide an appropriate response.

“A full assessment would look at crime statistics, incidents of violence, weapon availability, and other issues and concerns at the state, district, and local school level,” explains Shriner.  “It would also look at unique school characteristics such as layout, condition, and demographics.”

According to Shriner, only then can the most appropriate response be implemented from a host of violence-deterrence options.

“A vigilant school community, cameras, alarms, metal detectors, and other security systems are among the first line of defense against violence in schools,” says Shriner,

who recently consulted on weapons detection in Detroit area schools with a history of violent incidents.  “They detect trouble early so serious harm can be prevented.”

Once a violent intruder is detected, measures must be in place to slow his access to the school grounds or campus, says Shriner.

“Fences, locks, safe rooms, communication systems, as well as bullet-resistant doors and windows can slow a dangerous intruder’s access into the school and movement within it,” says Shriner.  “This can allow enough time for the police to arrive.”

Shriner counsels that proper security policies and procedures must also be implemented at each individual school within the district.  Students and staff must be properly trained and drilled in the security policies, procedures, and use of any necessary equipment as well.

While schools boards and administrators have been thrust into a violent modern security environment they are largely unprepared for, they have an advantage: they are in the business of learning, says Shriner.

“If educators can learn from the best security practices of industries long exposed to violence, such as banking and retail, they can make schools as safe as possible,” concludes Shriner.  “So students, teachers, and administrators can get back to their core competency: education, not security.”

—Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, California.