A Final Thought

Providing School Security

Throwing money at the problem isn't the solution.

What is the best way to make your schools safe and secure? It’s a question that virtually every school district has been pondering. And, as a result, school districts have become a target market for a number of sophisticated marketers, some big companies, some fly-by-night purveyors and some outright charlatans who operate in the “security” business.

These businesses see schools as a target because they have money, because they have security needs and because nobody objects to spending money to protect children. Each violent incident on a school site brings out a slew of people ready to provide a solution (as long as the product they offer is used.)

Buyer beware

School districts must be concerned about security and need to take steps to increase it. Certainly, open doors should be shut, and all visitors, messengers, police officers, deliverymen and others directed to a single guarded entrance where they can be seen and buzzed in.

Teachers and other staff members may need to be trained or retrained in how to respond to emergency situations. Just as with fire drills, they need to know where to take their students, how to organize them, how to communicate and what to do when all is clear. Students, too, must know where and how to go when a lockdown or other emergency procedure is imposed.

Depending on your location, cameras and
other surveillance of the outside and, perhaps, isolated indoor areas should be considered. There are other common sense steps that can and should be taken to insure the safety of your schools and people. The question is, how much should be spent, and even if you spent more and more and more, would it eliminate every threat? (The answer to that question is easy – no, it will not. A determined person with a gun, a bomb or anything similar will be able to get to your school even if it is guarded by a company of armed police.)

In my opinion, before buying anything, school districts should ask themselves two very important questions.

1. How much money do we really have?

The last I heard, school districts were struggling to find enough money to fund their core programs and important extracurricular activities. Teaching staffs were being cut, students were being charged to participate on teams and programs were being stalled because there wasn’t enough money to start or sustain them.

To companies in the “security business,” schools are seen as cash cows — they use a lot of money. But they use it to serve a purpose — to pay teachers and other personnel, to supply learning materials and technology, to maintain their buildings, to get students to and from school. They do not have extra dollars sitting around, and few are in a position to raise more. If they spend on security, they have to take the money from somewhere else — usually the very programs that make the schools special or just plain adequate.

2. Where is the real security threat — outside or inside?

Most of what security firms are offering is designed to protect schools from outside predators — systems to keep people out of the buildings, hardened windows and doors that cannot be blasted through, surveillance of the site to keep predators away, armed guards and/or teachers to shoot down whatever might attack. But the fact of the matter is, despite some high-profile cases such as Sandy Hook Elementary School, most violence in schools is caused by insiders — a student who has been bullied or is failing or feels that the school has been unfair to him or her. Columbine is a good example. Recent incidents in Florida and Georgia that elicited headlines involved students. All the external security measures in the world will not stop “insiders.”

A more productive way to spend security money may be by doing a better job of what schools do — counseling and teaching students and protecting them from themselves and their peers. The Brookfield, Conn. school district is an example. In addition to spending money to “harden” entrances, it has hired an additional social worker as a security measure, a social worker who will try to head off that disgruntled student before he or she sees violence as the only way to make a statement or resolve a problem.

Yes, schools do need to be secure. But they need to think twice before spending scarce funds to buy fancy equipment to keep intruders out. They could be served better by spending money on more counselors and teachers who can head off the internal threat represented by those isolated, bullied or just unhappy students who might otherwise decide to pick up a gun or some other weapon and “solve” their problems by taking out the people they blame.

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

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."