School Safety and Security: The Value of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The fear of doing nothing is often at the forefront of a school administrator’s mindset when seeking to tackle safety and security measures. A common question they face is: where do we start? Parents, staff, teachers, and visitors have expectations that the school should be a welcoming learning environment with safe and secure surroundings for children to thrive, grow and learn without fear. In today’s world, thorough security plans and procedures should satisfy those expectations while addressing potential threats or vulnerabilities within a school’s existing security posture.

School administrators often develop physical security procedures with a base assumption as to existing conditions and policies. Institutions rarely conduct thorough security assessments or regular reviews of procedures or physical equipment functionality. Learning all the components of a school’s physical security posture and planning to make upgrades can be a daunting task for administrators. Implementation of visitor management systems, video surveillance, intrusion detection and other components of a physical security program may serve no purpose if a holistic perspective of reviewing the architectural layout of a school, operational intent and correct selection of technology is not adopted.

School districts should conduct comprehensive threat vulnerability assessments that not only focus on existing measures already in place, but also encapsulate a thorough review of operational safety and security focused policies and procedures. It is not unusual to find policies and procedures that were developed with good intentions but have failed to be successfully communicated to those they were intended to help. Engaging with key stakeholders including custodians who are often holders of vast unique snippets of information pertinent to their specific facility, can help foster trust and open communication that results in many unknowns being shared and provide opportunities for corrective measures to be taken. 

Lay the Groundwork

Physical observation, review and testing of physical security components and processes provides schools and districts with a baseline to move forward. These include:

  • Visitor Management
  • Emergency Communications
  • Access Control
  • Intrusion Detection
  • Video Surveillance
  • Door Hardware
  • Lighting
  • Signage
  • Window Treatments

Establishing a baseline of existing conditions is a fundamental necessity for future road mapping and a phased approach to update and implement solutions when issues are identified during the threat vulnerability assessment.

Governance of K-12 physical security programs is frequently poor as funding streams are often unavailable for dedicated security directors. Good security assessments assist administrators in identifying what they do not know. This in turn empowers school districts to proactively manage their security program upgrades while considering investing in capital expenditures and plans for future operational costs of new systems, etc. Physical security assessments provide the opportunity for risk and threat levels to be assigned to observations made, which in turn support school districts with the ability to eliminate simple fixes and plan mitigation measures to correct higher risk threats and vulnerabilities.

Our findings during assessments indicate that often school district management teams do not perform regular reviews of their physical security systems or components. In addition, communications are not fully understood or adopted by those who receive them. This lack of operational procedures to confirm messages communicated have been received and understood; along with the failure to perform systems commissioning and regular testing can have a devastating impact if an emergency event were to occur.

Fresh Perspective

Engaging independent service providers to conduct physical security assessments provides an opportunity for a fresh set of eyes to look under the hood of the complexities and intricacies of implementing a school district’s physical security program. Their unbiased approach can uncover security and safety gaps that the schools may not have known or assumed as not being a critical risk area. Conducting regular reviews of policies and procedures ensures schools are continually assessing and identifying areas for improvement.

It is important that districts not only review their physical security measures but also ensure they are able to maintain business continuity in times of pandemics, natural disasters, terrorist threats etc. when remote learning becomes a necessity. Network security is a critical component that should always be at the forefront of IT departments but is often susceptible to attack if appropriate cyber controls have not been implemented. The cyber assessment should be an integral component of the overall district security posture assessments.

School administrators should be acknowledged for taking positive measures to improve their campus safety and security. Involving independent service providers to assess threats and vulnerabilities should be viewed as a means to eliminate complacency and implement a consistent approach to strengthen security.  A third-party physical and cyber assessment is a fundamental starting point for maintaining a security posture that captures architectural, operational and technology needs holistically.

About the Author

Nick Heywood, PMP is an Associate Vice President at Guidepost Solutions, a global leader in compliance, investigations and security consulting. He serves as the education sector lead for Guidepost’s west coast offices and excels at performing security and safety assessments within the K-12 and community college markets and developing existing conditions observations into workable solutions that enhance an education facility’s security posture.