Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

School Access Control

Important Questions and Opportunities

school access control


Three of our nation’s four deadliest school shootings involved individuals who were not students or employees gaining access to a school to carry out an attack. In our nation’s deadliest K-12 school shooting to date at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an adult forced entry to the building by breaking glass to bypass a locked front door. In the second most deadly attack at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a former student reportedly entered the school via an unlocked door and activated the fire alarm system after he opened fire causing additional confusion.

In the Red Lake Reservation High School Shooting in Minnesota, a former student drove a stolen police car onto the front walkway, parked a few feet from the front doors, and killed an unarmed school security officer who tried to attack the shooter at a metal detector checkpoint just inside the front entrance. In each of these instances, the attackers used an attack method that was different at least to some extent than other active shooter events in U.S. K-12 schools.

According to Lt. Col. Daniel Stebbins, former head of the Connecticut State Police, the attacker had planned the attack for seven years and had accumulated a database of more than 500 attacks worldwide. According to Stebbins, the attacker was highly focused on setting a new record of fatalities by killing at least 70 victims—one more death than occurred in the Utoya Island attack in Norway where 69 victims were killed by a gunman dressed as a police officer. Each of these examples illustrates how difficult it can be to stop a determined attacker through access control measures.

These cases and others indicate that school officials must consider ruthless, highly motivated, and well-prepared attackers who in many instances research attack methods and in some cases surveil the schools where they plan to carry out an attack. However, school officials need to have a broader view of the benefits and limitations of effective school access control approaches.

In his Relative Risk of Death in K-12 Schools Report, Stephen Satterly documents that 92 percent of victims of homicide on K-12 school campuses are killed in acts of violence that are unrelated to active shooter events. Some of these attackers are intruders, but many are students who are allowed access to the school. School officials must also consider how access control can also help prevent a wide array of less highly publicized but serious security incidents such as sexual assaults, non-custodial abductions, and unarmed attacks on staff and students that occur far more often than the catastrophic acts of violence that receive the most media and social media coverage.

As with any other aspect of school safety, security, and emergency preparedness, I advise clients to carefully consider the limits of their time, energy, and money when evaluating options to enhance school safety. These three resource areas are typically extremely limited for K-12 schools and need to be considered to create balanced and logical approaches rather than emotive strategies that will prove to be ineffective and in some instances can increase rather than reduce risk.

With these factors in mind, some key considerations for school access control are:

School access control options have improved dramatically over the past decade.

The dramatically increased levels of anxiety relating to school violence in the United States has driven demand for access control products and has created intensive competition among vendors. For this reason, vendors have invested considerable resources to develop improved products.

Any school access control approach will remain human dependent regardless of how robust the technology or hardware.

While improved access control technologies can make achieving effective access control much easier and more manageable, our analysts have been able to defeat a wide array of these systems with relative ease in schools where staff have not been trained properly to support the technologies. Addressing this concern takes more than just staff development, it takes a leadership team that is focused on creating a culture that creates an environment where school security is the cultural norm, which is demanded and not simply requested.

Five individuals came to Bibb County Public elementary schools to commit an act of violence with a loaded firearm during my ten-year tenure as the school district’s police chief. Adherence to effective access control measures played a part in the majority of these near tragedies.

Access control approaches should not only be focused on keeping bad actors out of a school but must allow authorized personnel to rapidly re-enter the school in an emergency to prevent mass casualty loss of life.

While we often think in terms of good access control, lockdown, and evacuation as important protective measures for school violence, the ability to rapidly perform a reverse evacuation is extremely important. As the shooting at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in November 2017 clearly demonstrated, the ability of students, staff, and even parents to rapidly enter the school when a reverse evacuation and lockdown was called, helped avert what could have been one of the nation’s most deadly school shootings. Careful consideration should be given to how staff and students can rapidly re-enter the school using one of the most important functional protocols—the reverse evacuation. Without the ability to perform this function rapidly, students, and staff who are outdoors may not be able to perform lockdown, severe weather sheltering, or external hazardous materials sheltering rapidly enough to protect them from outdoor threats. Careful consideration should be given before deciding to program an access control and lockdown system to de-activate student and staff proximity cards during a lockdown. As the shooting in California and other active shooter events have demonstrated, this type of feature could easily leave large numbers of staff and students trapped outdoors during an active assailant attack.

Access control approaches must be realistic for the needs of unique schools.

Having worked with several hundred charter, faith-based, boarding, military, international, and independent schools, I have learned that many of these schools as well as many public schools have unique facilities and operational realities. We have assessed schools with 1,200- to 2,000-acre campuses with as many as 440 buildings that make traditional access control approaches unrealistic.

It is extremely important to vet products and companies who will install them with multiple references from similar types of K-12 schools.

As alluded to above, specialized approaches require a comparable specialized base of experience. I recommend requesting and checking at least six references for comparable K-12 school organizations. Being an access control Guinea pig can lead to serious and lasting harm.

Creating and maintaining a culture of school security is just as if not more important than the strategy itself.

Finally, even the most thoughtfully designed and perfectly installed access control strategies can often easily be compromised by staff who do not do their part to support them. While staff development is called for, making access control a reality in deed as well as word is must be a leadership priority.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management May 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.