Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Keeping Schools Secure With Technology

Don't forget to include the human factors into your planning.

high-tech security systems in schools 


Researching, selecting, planning, installing and using today’s high-tech security systems in schools can be a daunting process. Technology aside, there’s also the human dimension. That is, how best to work with consultants, faculty and staff as that process unfolds?

The short answer: early and often. Yet, there’s more to it than that, and some active in the field recently shared their perspectives on this topic. Several of those experts served on an industry panel that put together a set of guidelines published last June by the Electronic Security Association (ESA). The guidelines suggest ways to assess threats; select contractors; seek funding; and how to integrate, install, operate and maintain systems.

Before delving into the people side of things, a few words about the technology. According to the ESA guidelines, “Since each school property is unique, electronic security must be customized to each facility. Therefore, no single solution can be recommended for all schools.” That solution may include, among other devices, access controls, various communication devices, alarms, surveillance cameras, active and passive monitoring systems, as well as mechanical and lighting and detection equipment that can complement such systems. 

According to Safety-Technologies’ Douglas Gambrell, who served on the ESA guidelines panel, it’s helpful to take the process in sequence. First, think of the process as “creating a data network,” he says, “with the best backbone” possible. Having a solid electronic security infrastructure increases the options for upgrades and needed changes in the future. Then, consider each component and device as performing a different task for that network.

Assembling the technology is one thing, working with people another, and is a crucial step in the process. As with so many things, communication is key. “Engage the staff. Tell them that you are upgrading security and ask, ‘What do you feel about it?’ Whether it’s a camera on the facility parking lot, or new procedures with locked doors, talk through the issues,” Gambrell says.

It’s very important, says Paul Timm, president of RETA Security, who believes, “Staff members are all too often the forgotten parties.” He stresses the need for consistency in instruction, follow up and training.

Various dynamics were at play when the Miller Place Union Free School District in New York — it has about 3,000 students in four schools, K-12 — proactively forged ahead several years ago with plans for new electronic security. For one thing, the district took steps in sequence, including identifying their district’s own concerns and needs before deciding on what system might work. At Miller Place, key concerns included the security of, and lockdown options for, exterior, interior and entrance doors.

Architect Mike Guido, who worked with the Miller Place district on the process, explains that districts need to decide what their biggest concern is, an intruder or common occurrences such as theft, for example, and explore how best to defend accordingly. “We discuss them all,” he says of potential threats and defenses, “so the school can make an educated decision about where to spend its dollars.”

To reach that decision, security analyses go through schools, talk with staff and consider sporting events, playgrounds, arriving students, cafeterias and classrooms, among other factors. Guido tells his school clients up front, “I’m going to come up with many suggestions. Some will be physical improvements, but most are not, and are simply policy and procedural changes that will make your building safer for literally no cost,” such as setting policies about the day-to-day management of the safety of students.

Speaking generally, there can be resistance to change. On another tack, concerns about being watched by electronic eyes may come up in some point in the process, and Gambrell doesn’t pull any punches about how to respond. “Of course, you’re being watched. Get over it,” he says, “We are way past that point. If you want to know what’s going on, you have to gather the data.”

The ESA report says that overcoming various concerns takes “good communications throughout the planning stages to manage expectations and training on how to operate the system once it is installed.” Gambrell says varied input from teachers, IT staff, custodians and others can identify concerns, and draw attention to aspects of a facility’s security that may otherwise be overlooked. Such insights can help take the process far.

More specifically, an internal school security team tasked with a self-audit — the ESA report points out that self-audit should happen annually — should be joined by members from the local school board, life safety and law enforcement as well as security consultants at some point early in the process.

As that process continues, training may not be a major hurdle, that is, if new features and procedures are compatible with the system already in place. David Koenig, a partner of Capital Lock/Capital Fire & Security, chaired the panel that prepared the ESA report, and explains that operating electronic security systems “can be simple, even if the systems are technically advanced.” Therefore, the guiding ideal is actually “to create a culture of awareness of security.” Such awareness leads to a more thorough and multi-faceted application of a security system, including engaging every visitor to a facility.

Back at Miller Place, the district went with a Schlage AD-400 electronic lock for interior doors and a verification system for exterior doors that notifies the main office if an exterior door is opened without a credential. Dennis Warsaw, the district’s plant facilities administrator, is pleased with the electronic system, nonetheless pointing out that it’s been a learning process in terms of end-user capabilities and modifying the system to best fit the district’s needs.

Warsaw says there was a training session for faculty, system operation was demonstrated and cards were issued. “Everybody likes the system because it’s easier than an regular key lock system,” he adds. And the electronic lock system was just part of the district’s security program. In fact, it is part of a spectrum of measures to enhance security, including, among others, tightening protocols and policies, constructing vestibules, installing cameras and practicing safety drills, measures that district Superintendent Dr. Marianne F. Higuera pointed out in a letter to the school community last December.

Guido praises the proactive approach of the district, which he says, “did a thorough job and got ahead of the curve in terms of student safety.”

Toward that end, advanced technologies are valuable. Yet, in Koenig’s view, decision makers should deploy systems that help schools strike a balance between robust security and free movement. He adds, from the perspective of an electronic security system professional, that “we do the tools, but it’s the culture that employs the tools that’s the key.”

Timm puts it another way, “Security technology and product systems are only as good as the practices and people operating them.”

Some tips:

Build awareness into your operations and culture. Take a collaborative approach with stakeholders in order to keep such awareness current and fresh, because facilities, technology and threats change.

Select an internal team with experience with local facilities and culture, says expert David Koenig.

Talk with peers in other districts, or possibly security industry trade associations. Start dialogues to gather ideas, recommendations on approaches and consultants, Koenig adds.

Improve your electronic security system based, at least in part, on what your staff is trained in, and what kind of system you have already invested in, adds expert Doug Gambrell.

You can find the Electronic Security Association (ESA) guidelines at:

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management October 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.