Security in Secondary Education Today

Even before Sept. 11, 2001, school districts were reviewing their approach to security of students and staff. Initiatives such as New York State’s“Schools Against Violence in Education” laws (SAVE) and the Federal Governments supply of grant funding for placement of specially trained police officers in schools took up these issues.

Other areas of security were reviewed as well. School districts across the nation began asking for help from security professionals on how best to protect their population and their buildings. Emphasis has been placed on violence in the schools, as well as making the buildings more difficult to enter by would be criminals. The use of closed circuit television systems, card access installations and badging of employees all increased. Sept. 11 only served to heighten awareness and speed up the process.

School districts rely on security professionals to provide the best systems possible given the environment they are meant to protect. For their part, security professionals are bound by their profession to provide the best possible solution. Not all solutions are the same. School districts tend to run the gamut of requests from the minimum type of system to the most protection possible while still allowing authorized access to the facilities.

School district administrators charged with the responsibility of researching security applications for their district should have a basic understanding of the impact of each type of system. They should also understand the differences between integrated systems and stand-alone systems to determine the best approach for their schools.

It may be appropriate for a school district to have several types of systems depending on their geographic location; the types of problems they are encountering (gang violence, drug sales, in-school violence among students, theft, etc); and the needs as determined by principals of their individual schools. Each school within the district will have generally the same needs, but some will have individual needs that may not necessarily be required district-wide. School district administrators must rely on school level administrators for input as to what is needed in their respective schools. Some district-wide initiatives should act as minimum requirements.

Intrusion alarm systems should be used to protect against illegal entry. The generally accepted means to provide this protection is the use of motion sensors to detect movement in the hallways. Some districts shy away from placing these sensors in ground level rooms due to the cost of such installations when compared to the relatively small cost of hallway protection. The down side to this approach is that rooms may be forcibly entered and crimes committed without the district ever knowing they occurred until the next regular school day. The prudent approach is to provide sensor protection in every ground-level room that can be accessed by window or door. Further, administrators may want to include door contacts as a means to detect entry via any portal at the school.

An indirect problem is also the lack of routine maintenance and inspection of these systems. Once the system is installed routine inspection and maintenance are requisite to uninterrupted operation of the system. Old systems use single technology sensors for their protection. When you consider this point, and the fact that they are not maintained, you compound the problem of protection. Following this course generally results in the degradation of the system.

New dual technology provides better coverage and a more reliable means to prevent false alarms not available in the single technology sensor. Sensors that provide for self-testing should be considered as an approach to replace old single technology sensors. Moreover, districts must provide for routine visual inspection as an absolute minimum. Systems should be configured to be self-testing on a daily basis. The best time for those tests is when the building is completely empty. The tests are internal to the system and are done automatically by the system.

Motion sensors are not the only component of an intrusion alarm system. Door contacts and glass break sensors are also used. School administrators should consider these approaches to protect the perimeter of the building when discussing renovation or installation of this type of system. Their purpose is to enhance the intrusion system and provide for a more complete form of protection for the building.

Card access systems are a more recent approach used by school district administrators to protect the school population and buildings. There are many manufacturers of card access systems. Each of them will tell you their system is the best system for your application. The trick is to find one that actually does perform to your needs with or without all the bells and whistles that can be added to this type of system.

School district administrators need to assess what they want their card access system to accomplish in addition to controlling entry to their buildings. Will the system be strictly used to control access to their buildings, or will it include an integrated intrusion alarm system as well. Card access software can also include the use of closed circuit television surveillance systems and be used to produce identification cards that include a photograph. School district personnel should give careful consideration to these capabilities when deciding what components they include in their access solution. All of these decisions will have to be made before deciding on what system will be used. Every district staff member involved in making the determinations about security systems should have the same understanding of what systems will be used and their purpose in the overall scheme of the system.

An important part of an access control system is its ability to associate photographs with access cards to form a positive form of identification. School districts would do well to include this component in their card access system. It not only provides for a positive identification, but also forms the basis for easy identification under emergency circumstances. This allows emergency service personnel to readily identify persons in the perimeter when responding to calls for assistance. The card should be worn openly, on a chain or in a clip on plastic carrier. District personnel may also consider changing school policy to include that this badge be worn while on school grounds.

Administrators have the choice of using a proximity card versus a magnetic stripe card. Magnetic stripe cards are normally used when the card will have other functions including card access control. Magnetic stripe cards and the readers they use are more susceptible to damage than proximity cards. School district personnel should bear this in mind when making the decision on which type of card to use.

Once the administrator has determined which approach will be used, then independent security professionals should be called in to research systems and provide answers to the districts’ questions. The end result should be a system that will answer all of the needs for that school district. It should also provide the most cost-effective approach to the security solution.

Closed circuit television surveillance is a relatively new approach to personal safety and property protection in school districts. It is rapidly becoming commonplace across the United States. In some cases, it has been used to replace a human presence and has proven to be more effective. In school districts where gang activity and/or drug activity is a problem, this type of system can prove to be a deterrent to crime. Individuals bent on criminal activity will shy away from an area that is under video surveillance for the simple fact that they do not want their picture taken and retained. It provides irrefutable proof of their conduct and serves as a means to convict them in the courts.

Video surveillance systems have advanced at a rapid pace. Much care should be taken in deciding on what technology to use for your system.

The latest technology is a completely digital system relying on computer hard drives to store data rather than time-lapse video recorders. This type of system does away with the need to change VCR tapes at regular intervals. It also does away with the need for a video recorder. The hard drive of the system provides this capability.

As with card access systems, there are many digital closed circuit television surveillance systems on the market today. Innovations in this technology take place regularly.

The school district administrator must be careful in reviewing these systems. Attention should be paid to the number of frames per second recorded, per camera; the resolution of the cameras and multiplexers; and the ability of the multiplexer to record and playback simultaneously. The ability to transfer a video stream to either a CD or a diskette to be used as evidence or for administrative review is also an important factor to be considered.

The Design Development phase begins when all of the preliminary questions are answered. If more than one building is being considered within the district, each building must be viewed separately. While some of the systems may be district-wide, security needs for each facility may vary. As an example, card access and badging may be district-wide solutions to controlling access, but closed circuit television surveillance may be appropriate for only some of the facilities.

Design development is the all-important phase where the school district commits to a course that will in the end, provide the amount of security they want at each of their schools. They should make their needs clear to the district board of education as well as the taxpayers of the district. The district may decide that a phased approach is better than an all-inclusive approach to be achieved at a single instance. This is entirely dependent on budgetary considerations as well as the security needs of the district.

Many sales personnel will go into great detail as to how their product is best suited for your needs. It is not that they are wrong in their approach, it is that they intentionally rule out all other products that provide the same type of service or end result to persuade you to buy their product. The school district administrator is at a loss because of a lack of understanding of what is exactly needed versus what the sales person wants to sell. Likewise, jobbers will push products that will do the job, but will also cost them less to install thereby increasing their profit margin. As end-users, district administrators must weigh each presentation carefully. School district personnel must use caution in deciding what products they will use. Very serious consideration should be given to the use of products that have a large base of re-sellers of the same product. This gives the school district the ability to choose the best possible vendor of the product to service their systems. If, in the end, they are unhappy with that vendor’s performance, they are free to go to another vendor for their service needs. Using proprietary systems that to not have this vendor base restricts the school district to only one source for service. While implementation costs may be less with this type of system, future costs may exceed the cost of large vendor-based systems because the school district has nowhere else to go for service.

For these reasons, it is strongly suggested that school district personnel hire an independent security professional with knowledge and expertise in the field of security systems design and experience in security systems in secondary and higher education. In doing so, the district will avail itself of professional expertise that is not hindered by the selling of any one product. Their motivation is simply to listen, perform a security needs analysis on each facility and provide a report that includes the best possible solution for each site. Taken in total, these reports form the basis for the district-wide solution for all their security needs.

After systems design features are finalized, research for the bid specification begins. The school district should be specific on what it will provide or furnish as opposed to what it requires from vendors. Care should be taken to make the system the most cost-effective approach for the district. After research is completed, the consultant then writes the bid document. It may take several revisions to reach an end result for the school district’s needs, but the effort will be well worth the exercise.

The district should also view this document as the basis for their security standards for the district. After implementation, the district will write policy and procedure to cover each component of the system.

Training is an important issue when contemplating the bid process for new security systems. Administrators must include a separate bid item covering this specific area. Training must include every new system purchased. It must cover every facet of each system as it relates to an integrated approach to security. Vendors must supply complete operating manuals for their systems. Only when appropriate district personnel are fully trained is the installation considered complete.

The school district may want to retain the independent security professional during actual installation. This will assure that the systems are installed per the design and will function as intended.

James F. Lang, CPP is a member of ASIS and President of LCS Co., an independent security systems consulting company located in West Islip, N.Y. He has been published in several journals and security industry reference guides. With more than 25 years of experience in the security industry, he has specialized in the area of secondary and higher educational institutions.