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Winning Ways to Secure Schools

Written by Jeff Floreno

Securing K-12 schools is a challenging task that increasingly requires significant involvement of local law enforcement. Amidst increasing incidences of school violence, school shootings, bullying, drug use, and gang activity, law enforcement receives great pressure from administrators, parents, and the community to play a bigger role in securing schools.

To help bridge the security gap between schools and police officers, many schools and police departments have formed strategic partnerships by placing a school resource officer (SRO) on the premises during school hours and for special events. SROs are sworn officers that operate like a modern day “beat officer.”

They become an integral part of a school system and position themselves as a reliable security resource by becoming familiar with the school’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and they build relationships with the students and staff. The SRO’s role is clear, but it is also fraught with challenges.

Often, law enforcement and SROs find their options for securing the school impeded by the fact that school buildings are architecturally designed to encourage public use, with little regard to crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) principles. The challenge becomes harder still when limited funding is available for safety and security features and programs.

Best practices used to protect office buildings, government sites, airports and other facilities do not transfer well into the education arena, leaving law enforcement with the difficult task of securing campuses without many conventional security tools or processes in place. All of these factors make schools an extremely challenging environment to secure. Some proven best practices demonstrate the power to decrease threats and increase preparedness in case of an emergency.

The task of protecting schools can feel overwhelming simply because it is impossible to entirely eliminate risk. Success is based on the philosophy of being proactive and having plans and strategies to react to security threats.

Three Strategies for Success

There are three key strategies law enforcement should follow when building plans to secure a school. The first is to develop a strong partnership with the school staff, volunteer organizations and students. Informing these groups of law enforcement’s role on the campus and enlisting their support and involvement is critical to success.

These groups intuitively know the risks, the buildings, the nature of potential threats, and the make-up of the student population. Law enforcement brings the expertise to apply this insight and knowledge to build a security framework for the school.

The second strategy is to always take a practical approach. It is impossible to completely eliminate risk. Law enforcement should strive to minimize risk. This could entail making campus policy changes or investments in access control technologies to prevent unauthorized intruders from entering buildings or students from bringing weapons to schools. Small, inexpensive measures can go a long way toward preventing criminal activity.

Finally, it is critical to build preparedness through regular, ongoing training and communication. Law enforcement should coordinate with administrators to practice response exercises so that all members of the campus know what to do and how to protect themselves and others in an emergency.

In addition to training and practicing drills, administrators should keep open communications with law enforcement. This includes taking them on annual tours through the school to familiarize them with the building. Keeping current on building renovations, updating blueprints, and meeting with members of the school’s crisis management team are also important.

With these strategies in mind, law enforcement and SROs can ensure the greatest chances for success when it comes to securing a school and responding to an emergency. On the tactical side, law enforcement should consider the following best practices and preparedness programs.

Know Your Surroundings

Conduct an area assessment to understand the community and environment surrounding the school. This process will reveal risk levels, which would help guide law enforcement and administrators on security needs and resource decisions. For example, a rural school may have a much lower risk of falling victim to a large-scale terrorist attack.

However, that same school may be far from emergency response resources such as law enforcement, paramedics, a trauma hospital or fire department. There may also be increased instances of weapons being brought onto the school grounds during hunting season in a rural area.

All of this information should be factored into the schools’ security and emergency response plans. Law enforcement should always prepare to react to the most prominent threats and should encourage training with school staff to work with the available response resources that they have. For example, if rural school officials know they do not have a nearby hospital that can respond within a tight timeframe, they should provide annual lifesaving, first-aid training for on-site personnel and be prepared to turn to them in case of an emergency.

By conducting an area assessment, law enforcement can be prepared. Assessments should focus on 1) knowledge of the surrounding area and community at large to identify potential sources of accidents or crime, 2) history of crime in the area and on campus, 3) response resources in close proximity to the campus, 4) information on area traffic and infrastructure that would aid or impede upon response teams, and 5) crime prevention through environmental design. By taking a good look around, law enforcement can determine the gravest threats and build plans accordingly.

Understand and Evaluate the Campus

Because the greatest security threats often come from inside the building, schools need to conduct area assessments to evaluate risks on campus, as well as preventive measures that can easily be taken.
Each school’s configuration and problems will be different, making each security and emergency response plan different. For example, a high school with extensive special-use sporting facilities such as swimming pools, football stadiums or racquetball courts, will be subject to a completely new set of liabilities and risks than a primary school with only playgrounds. A school that is composed of multiple buildings or temporary classrooms will also have different challenges than a single-building complex.

On-campus evaluations may be conducted by the SRO and should include 1) vehicle and pedestrian safety on the school grounds, 2) perimeter fencing and whether or not it is effective or hazardous, 3) evaluation of playgrounds as vulnerable areas, 4) evaluation of sports fields as vulnerable or risk-causing areas, 5) crime prevention through environmental design, i.e., evaluation of the physical environment of the school grounds to identify issues that would enable crime to fester and 6) history of crime on school grounds.

Other than SROs, other police officers probably do not visit schools on a regular basis, and therefore may not be familiar with the building’s interior. This would be a major detractor during an emergency response situation. For this reason, law enforcement should work with administrators to make opportunities for them to acclimate themselves with the building in case of an emergency. Simple steps such as labeling rooms on the outside or even on the roof of the building could help law enforcement quickly and effectively respond to an emergency.

Leverage Technology

Today, technology abounds and, properly used, it greatly enhances law enforcement’s ability to adequately respond to an emergency. One of the most effective technologies that benefits both schools and law enforcement is the use of surveillance video that can be shared over computer networks (network video). Because network video can be accessed remotely via the Internet, it is a powerful resource to share with law enforcement, as it allows them to respond to incidents more quickly and effectively.

Consider a school shooting or hostage situation where the police have live access to views of rooms, hallways, and grounds where people are being victimized. From an intelligence perspective, understanding the size, location and path of the shooter(s) will enable responders to develop strategies to contain and capture a threat quickly. Recorded video images are also useful as a forensic investigative tool, evidence, and training purposes. Regardless of the scenario, video can provide vital information that allows to law enforcement officers to save lives.

New access-control technologies can also prove invaluable to law enforcement in an emergency. Software systems provide at-a-glance information about which secure doors have been breached, offering instant information about the likely location of intruders.

Today, software systems play a big role in forensic investigation by creating and maintaining records of activities, conducting audits, generating reports, assigning accountability, and tracking progress from year to year. Metrics are critical. Formerly a pencil-and-paper system, increasingly there are online tools available that make tracking, measuring and sharing easier than ever.

Collaborate with Key Parties

Often in an emergency, the biggest surprise is not managing the emergency itself, but dealing with the resulting crowds. Consider any kind of school emergency from a tornado to a school shooter to an escaped convict. Law enforcement may manage the situation beautifully, but as soon as the media, parents and the community learn of the situation and start to converge upon the school, it is easy for law enforcement to lose control.

The potential problems are many. Media may inadvertently block access to key entrances, fire hydrants, etc. with their own vehicles and equipment. Anxious parents showing up haphazardly to pick up their children may breach crime scenes and distract personnel from their primary mission, create gridlock or generally cause panic in an otherwise well-managed situation.

Law enforcement should work with administrators to emphasize this point and encourage administrators and SROs to work together to include planning for managing all parties should a situation occur. The best plans include diverting media and parent traffic to an off-campus press location and re-unification center in case of an emergency. This keeps unwanted traffic down and allows law enforcement to maintain a crime scene site and stay focused, while managing the inevitable involvement of other parties.

Share Results

Thanks to technology, information sharing is easier than ever. The Internet is a great tool for law enforcement to stay up to date on the latest threats, what other schools are experiencing and what types of responses are working. For example, drug abuse trends change at an alarming pace. By connecting with other area schools, law enforcement can get ahead of those trends.

Pharmacies may be advised to reshelf non-prescription drugs behind the counter, or parents may be instructed to watch for prescriptions missing in their own medicine cabinets. Sharing results also inspires creativity, giving SROs and law enforcement new ideas and sparking conversations that benefit everyone.

Despite the many potential dangers at schools, administrators and law enforcement can forge a relationship to increase school safety. From building a relationship, to improving communications and implementing technology that enables information access, together these two groups have the power to create safe communities and learning environments.

With more than 27 years of corporate security experience in organizations including Georgia Pacific and 3M, Jeff Floreno serves as director of operations and Security Strategy for Wren. He can be reached at (877) 206-1292 or jeff.floreno@wrensolutions.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2009

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