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Enhancing School Access Control

Solutions abound for safe access to buildings.
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School principals are in the middle of a balancing act when it comes to security. They need to create a welcoming, supportive open environment for students, parents, and credible community visitors who have legitimate purposes in their buildings, while they also have to keep out individuals who potentially have “ill intentions,” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a national consulting firm specializing in school security and emergency preparedness training, school security assessments and school and crisis counseling services. “That’s a fine line to walk. And there’s a degree of practicality involved.”

That’s because most districts are facing shrinking budgets, a loss of manpower and increasing demands on resources, which doesn’t eliminate the threat or need to take precautionary measures, says Mark Kissel, police chief for Cherokee County (Ga.) School District. Just two examples of school shootings include one in early September, when a teacher in Normal, Ill. tackled an armed high school student after gunshots were fired into a packed classroom, and a then-fired Spanish teacher walked back into Episcopal School of Jacksonville in Florida and pulled an AK-47 assault rifle from a guitar case and killed a fellow English teacher.

Anne Arundel CIO The security balancing act has led to a long conversation over the past decade of what safety precautions are necessary and what are considered to be extreme. “In this country, we can’t walk into a corporate office and just freely enter the CEO’s office without going through multiple levels of access control and that should be the same for schools,” Trump says.

Many schools, particularly high schools, are community centers and the heart of the community with before- and after-school and weekend activities. While many school officials want their community involved so parents and other members of the community feel ownership in the school, they also have a professional, ethical, and, a legal responsibility to take some reasonable risk reduction measures.

Even though a lot of attention is given to college campuses in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, many experts say it’s at the secondary and elementary schools that more people should be concerned. “Most parents and teachers across the country say they feel safe, but you look at the number of incidents that have occurred on K12 campuses across the county compared to the number of incidents on post-secondary campuses, they might show you something differently,” Kissel says.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any mandatory crime reporting tracking at the K-12 level. But according to the National School Safety and Security Service, there have been 130 shooting deaths, 49 suicides, 34 murder-suicides and 41 stabbings in K-12 secondary schools between 1999 and July 2010, compared to 19 college campus shootings between 1966 and July 2008, according to the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “I take the approach that schools are a microcosm of society,” Kissel says. “What is outside 24/7 is in my hallways nine months of the year.”

Retrofitting Old Buildings

For many school districts, like Sarasota County (Fla.) Public Schools, it took a year or two to rethink how they were going to deal with access control and school safety in the post-Columbine era. To make it easier, Darrell Reyka, the interim director of safety and security for Sarasota County, says the district has funded access control for the past eight years. The district has 41,000 students in its 24 elementary, nine middle, nine high and 10 alternative education schools. And many of the schools were built like college campuses with open architecture.

CIO Cherokee camerasRetrofitting such buildings without any major rebuilds meant improving fencing, gates and access controls. They also revamped how they defined parking spaces, making visitors’ parking near the school entrance so visitors can be monitored more thoroughly.

Many older schools were built without a single entry point, making it harder to ensure safety with multiple doors that can be accessed throughout the day and sometimes into the evening. “Many schools in this country were not designed for security,” Trump says. “In many schools, you have to walk into the main entrance, and the main office is halfway down the hallway or on a different floor.”

After the 1999 Columbine High School attack, many schools simply reduced the number of open doors, where students and staff can get out in case of a fire, but can’t get in, Trump says. Many have also retrofitted older buildings with a buzzer, intercom and camera system, where the main office can decide if they want to open the door. Many newer schools have been built with two entry points, where visitors can enter the first door, but can’t enter a second locked door until they have cleared their visiting privileges with a front office.

One example of how schools are redefining those access points is Sarasota’s Booker High School, which is undergoing a $58 million rebuild that will be completed in 2013. Twenty-six buildings from the original campus are being demolished and consolidated into five new buildings and five completely renovated buildings containing 80 classrooms.

Originally, Orange Avenue bisected the high school from the middle school. But as the high school expanded, it took over both properties and the street made it difficult to regulate access control. A $43 million federal bond helped cover nearly 75 percent of the cost, as public entities worked together to re-route the street. Now, the street no longer goes through the campus as part of the re-design to improve access control by not allowing the general public access to drive through the middle of the high school campus. “We look at every option we have,” Reyka says.

Because Anne Arundel County (Md.) Public Schools now use portable classrooms, an 8-foot chain-link perimeter fence was installed around the classrooms. “We purposely didn’t plant a lot of bushes in case people try to hide,” says Robert “Bob” Yatsuk, supervisor of school security for Anne Arundel County schools. While Yatsuk says “some people objected to the way it looks,” the district has creatively tried to incorporate such environmental design changes as least obtrusively as they could be.


Some of those options include a strong partnership with law enforcement agencies. Sarasota County schools have an active partnership with the city of Venice‘s Police Department, which regularly performs training drills and exercises on site.

CIO Cherokee X accessAdditionally, Sarasota County schools now have about 3,000 security cameras, many in their older schools that are networked back to the Sarasota County School District‘s Communications Center, which the police can access. The 2,160-square-foot center is manned 24/7 and built of concrete blocks to handle hurricane winds of up to 180 mph.

The staff oversees and maintains all video security cameras and access control systems from this building, which also serves as the after-hours dispatch center for the school transportation department. In the future, the plan is to “bridge the gap” even more between law enforcement and school administrators, by having video feed go directly to the police dispatch center and into their cars, Reyka says. To make sure first responders—including firefighters and law enforcement officers—have access to the schools, “Knox Boxes,” small wall-mounted safes that hold building keys, were also installed in schools.

Minimize Custodial Access

Another big issue has been giving access to custodians who are constantly coming and going, but still maintaining secure space. Reyka says, in Sarasota, they have started adding electronic gates around perimeters of schools, where the gate can be viewed by a video camera and someone manning their communications center can determine if the person should be allowed in or not.

While most schools have flat roofs, where you can climb up via a roof hatch, Kissel says at Cherokee County schools more than 40 percent of their schools — 11 of 25 elementary schools, three of seven middle schools and two of six high schools — now have pitched roofs, which creates a mezzanine for the heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, overhead piping and cabling that is easily accessible to maintenance staff.

Typically, the roof hatch access requires using a single ladder generally found in a hall closet or storage area with a hallway door being secured by a standard key lock. If that closet isn’t locked each time by maintenance or school-based staff, there is the potential for unauthorized persons to climb the ladder to the roof, Kissel says. By having a mezzanine, it provides greater security, since access is controlled by electronic lock devices. This allows maintenance staff then to walk down the stairwell to the lower level, which “provides significant advantages during a crisis situation,” he says.

Access into the mezzanine from the roof allows law enforcement personnel, during a crisis, to enter as a group through the exterior door, which is identified by a large “X” marked in reflective yellow tape. With a roof hatch, only one law enforcement officer can descend the ladder at a time and generally, the space below is too small to permit several members to gather at the bottom of the ladder, Kissel says.

Once law enforcement personnel enter the marked door, they can then follow yellow tape marks placed on the floor, affectionately called “the yellow brick road,” to the most effective main pathways into the school. This helps security personnel and law enforcement officers quickly navigate an unfamiliar floor plan, which saves cruical time in the event of an emergency. And, “it doesn’t cost anything,” Kissel says, “it just takes a little time to implement.”


While tools and technological advances can make a difference, all experts say the most important factor is having a well-trained student and staff population. Having a student or a teacher prop open a door with a backpack or a pebble can quickly undo the best laid plans and expensive equipment.

“Security is only as good as the security chain,” Trump says. “The weakest link in any security chain is the people.” That’s because sometimes people decide to let in a fellow student or teacher who has gone outside and that person doesn’t want to be inconvenienced with walking through a secure door again. “Everyone wants security, but they don’t want to be inconvenienced,” Trump says.

That can come from a teacher in a classroom that is warm in temperature and wants to prop doors open during a free period or a parent with the ‘security applies to everyone but me’ attitude when they are dropping off a lunch for their student.’ One of the biggest defenses is training staff to greet and challenge strangers with a “Good morning, may I help you?” question, Trump says.

In Sarasota, all new employees get trained on safety and security to help curb such potential problems and have them take a more proactive approach. “We try to teach them that no matter what their job is they have a role in safety,” Reyka says, “and they have an obligation to pay attention.”

The challenge, Reyka says, is getting teachers, even ones who are outside of their comfort zone, to stop and ask visitors with questions like: “How can I help you? Can I help you get directions? Is there a purpose here I can assist you with?” If a staff member is uncomfortable with challenging a person, they need to know how to dispatch someone there and report a potential stranger.

Know Your Equipment

Another big mistake many schools make when it comes to access control is installing equipment they don’t fully use. “Your hardware is only as good as the people using it,” says Chuck Hibbert, a national school security consultant and the retired director of security for Wayne Township Schools in Indianapolis. “Its effectiveness drops without training on how to use it.”

Hibbert says many schools aren’t getting the most out of their camera systems, which are much smarter than their predecessors. Today’s cameras have the capability of retaining images on the cameras themselves, Hibbert says, via microprocessors which are like mini computers. When the image is needed, it can be downloaded to the server, as long as the end user is familiar with how to do it. Many of the cameras also have a motion detection system, so if someone walks in front of camera B it automatically begins recording, but won’t record overnight to save space. That also means schools must have a lot of bandwidth to transmit data, particularly if a district has an integrated system where all data are transmitted over the same channels.

Every school that has a camera system should have an image retention policy, which Hibbert says is ideally 30 days. “Every school should ask itself, how long are we going to keep recordings,” Hibbert says, “and it should be standardized.”

If a system can only maintain 15 days of images, then your policy shouldn’t exceed that period. That protects the school district, Hibbert says, especially if a parent wants to see an image or the school is subpoenaed in court for a civil or criminal case, the school can say “we only maintain 10 school days or 12 school days of images.”

And any time Sarasota County Schools considers buying and implementing new technology, they weigh a few factors first. “It’s important that service be reliable and effective, so we don’t have to budget for how to support it,” Reyka says. Prior to purchasing, they research and try to maintain a standardization of technology to help minimize costs. They have vendors train their staff to ensure their technicians are up to speed and can service any new equipment.

Small Things, Big Differences

School district leaders have many options to upgrade their security systems. With approximately 10,000 school districts in the nation, many schools have switched to proximity key cards, which can be updated and deactivated more easily and efficiently than using master keys that have to be changed at a large expense if one is lost or stolen. Kissel started in 1999, with 47 schools in the district, 18 of which use proximity keys. Additionally, all staff, including administrators, must wear ID badges and are given access privileges only according to their security clearance.

In Sarasota, proximity card readers have been installed on 10 sites at key entrances, including the main entrance and gym doors, because right now, it’s not cost effective to do it on every door in the school, Reyka says. In Maryland, Yatsuk says all new construction in the Anne Arundel County schools receives proximity locks. “It’s crime prevention through environment,” Yatsuk says. “Our goal is to get one in every school because it’s much better than handing out keys.”

And there are other precautions schools are taking. Many have installed anonymous tip hotlines. Anne Arundel County schools hired The Network, a website that manages an anonymous hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If an urgent tip—like a death threat—is received that is considered a “priority 1” issue, The Network will call, fax and email school safety officials who can then notify the police. “Since we have a great relationship with the police, we can call any time, day or night,” Yatsuk says.

For example, Yatsuk may receive a call from an anonymous person that a student is bringing a gun to school tomorrow, he says. A staff member is sent to the school to address the threat and check the student’s mental state. Some tips are false or overblown. Yatsuk says they address them anyway as a preventive measure.

Cherokee County schools took a preventive measure by creating a Parental Awareness for Safe Schools (PASS) program, where four times a year, parents and other community members are invited to hear about safety updates and tips to make them more comfortable with any potential safety changes and to help the community be more informed as a preventive measure.

“If you are going to look at safety and security, it needs to be responsible, reasonable, and realistic,” Kissel says. “The best laid plans are of mice and men. If you haven’t thought outside the box, you will be given a cookie-cutter process. You need to think about your school and specific situation, like how many doors and windows you have, how many keys lost, etc. Protection isn’t that hard, it just takes time.”