Florida School District Sharpens Focus on School Safety

To create a safe school environment that allows teachers and students to focus on learning, Florida’s Palm Beach County School District created the Safe Schools Institute. This unique facility encompasses the entire spectrum of what it takes to create a safe, productive learning environment, from physical and psychological safety to establishing an academic climate. Adjacent to the Institute, the Don Estridge High Tech Middle School provides a venue where the concepts developed at the Institute can be tested and put into practice.

The Safe Schools Institute (SSI) grew out of a need to address school safety, and its mission has expanded far beyond the obvious physical concerns. Today, it focuses on the entire learning environment and serves the many varied needs of teachers, staff members, students, and parents.

Planning for School Safety

Within this framework, the district has partnered with companies that provide various security and educational tools. This approach helps the district to explore and evaluate the latest technology and also provides the companies with a real-world laboratory to test their latest innovations.

Don Estridge Middle School Puts Principles into Practice

Don Estridge High Tech Middle School has 76 classrooms with approximately 1,200 students in grades six through eight. In this laboratory school, the concepts developed at the Safe Schools Institute are put into practice.

Principal Debra Johnson says that creating a safe environment for learning is one key to the school’s success. She explains,“We want the students to feel that, when they come into the school, they can put away the fears that might come from an insecure environment or negative past events. If you provide a safe environment, they will feel at ease. Just as important is the need to remove distractions to allow teachers and students alike to focus on instruction or fulfilling the school’s primary mission, that of educating all its students.”

Another factor is the need to create a teaching and learning climate that produces more effective results. Johnson says,“We started looking at student engagement, building learning stamina, learning styles and seamless integration of products. A major goal was to reduce redundant work for teachers, giving them more time to use effectively with students. We want to build life-long learners and help them apply the skills they learn to real-world experiences.”

Products Improve Security and Add Convenience

Attendance-taking can be a major distraction to teachers and students alike. Johnson says, “It’s very time-consuming for a teacher to have to call 25 names before starting a lesson. A bigger problem is when someone arrives five minutes late and the teacher has to stop to mark the attendance record, or if they forget, the student is recorded as absent.” To eliminate the distraction and automate the attendance records, the school is installing a biometric hand reader that uses field-proven hand geometry technology to map and verify the size and shape of a person's hand in less than one second. Because the readers are equipped for network connection, they are easy to integrate into a school-wide attendance system.

A hand reader will be installed in every classroom, and students will scan their hands when they enter the room. Principal Johnson notes that students arrive at a classroom progressively and will scan progressively to minimize the potential for a bottleneck. “Having one in every classroom gives us an attendance in each class, which in summation provides the attendance for the day.” Thus there is no need to have them scan at the front door.

The access control system will include cylindrical locks that incorporate a proximity card reader on each classroom door so teachers can access their classrooms without needing a key. The locks’ open architecture platform seamlessly connects the specially designed door locks to a panel interface board (PIB) that captures all monitoring at a remote station. This also will make it possible to lock all classroom doors from a single location in a crisis. Principal Johnson says, “If there is a threat to the school, an administrator or school police officer will be able to lock down the school from a desktop computer or possibly from a remote we can carry with us.” The access control system is managed by Schlage Security Management System software, which operates in all recent Windows environments and is compatible with current software industry standards.

Key locks, which in many cases will function as backups to the card access system, are being converted from an older restricted numbered keyway system to a restricted patented keyway system. This provides the protection of patent law and eliminates the possibility that an unauthorized user could have duplicate keys made at a retail key shop. Under the restricted system, blanks are only available to authorized individuals from the manufacturer.

Chief Kelly cites additional uses for hand readers beyond their classroom attendance function. He explains, “In Florida, we have the Jessica Lunsford Act, which requires that we fingerprint every contractor who works for the school district. We could use the hand readers to verify their identity more accurately than with an ID card. We also could use it for parents or people they authorize to pick up their children. It takes away all the guesswork and the need for IDs.”

To further improve security, the school is installing digital CCTV cameras that also will be used for teacher training and development. As part of the program, the district has equipped some school buses with mobile video communicators. These units have the ability to provide GPS tracking of the bus, video recording and transmitting of up to a four-camera view with sound capability, and a live video viewing option. Hand readers also can be used with the device, which would allow attendance to be taken on the bus.

Chief Kelly summarizes, “Security and academics are so intertwined that you have to look at them together. You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe, and you can’t teach if you don’t feel safe. That’s why we look at everything we do to ensure that we create that safe and nurturing environment.”

Beverly Vigue, AHC/CDC, is vice president - Education Vertical Market at Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies. She can be reached at Beverly_Vigue@irco.com.


1. Safe Schools Institute develops programs and training that impact the entire learning environment for the School District of Palm Beach, Florida

2. Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, located adjacent to the Safe Schools Institute, is also a laboratory where concepts can be tested and evaluated in a real-life educational setting.

3. Schlage-Recognition Systems HandKey II hand readers in each classroom will allow students to punch in and eliminate the distractions of taking attendance.

4. Proximity card readers built into the Schlage Cylindrical VIP locks on each classroom door eliminate the need for teachers to carry keys, and the locks make it easy to lock down the entire school from one location in a crisis.

5. Power transfer, visible at back of door, transmits power to the electrified lock from wiring in the door frame.

6. Von Duprin 99 Series exit device provides a safe emergency egress path on this interior door, while LCN door closer maintains security by keeping the door closed properly so it latches.