Questions You Should Ask About Your Schoo's Security Profile

A generation ago, safety in the classroom wasn’t a high-priority concern for school administrators. It didn’t have to be back then. While there may have been an occasional theft or fight in school, guns, crime and violence weren’t by any means considered a significant threat in educational environments.

School administrators now know all too well that those days have passed. School safety has become a priority issue — for school administrators, local communities and the nation as a whole. The focus on school safety has been heightened by numerous tragic incidents that have shocked and saddened school communities, including three recent deadly shootings at schools in Bailey, Colorado; Cazenovia, Wisconsin; and Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Student-on-student and student-on-faculty violence has also become a growing concern. As a result, school administrators have been mobilized to join forces with community leaders, law enforcement officials, faculty, staff, parents and students in a collaborative effort to prevent school violence and make educational institutions safer and more secure. That process seems destined to continue for the foreseeable future. Administrators from elementary, middle and high schools across the United States and Canada are assessing the state of safety at their campuses and developing plans, procedures and programs to reduce crime and violence.

Some of the more recent trends in school safety are captured in Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2005 — the eighth in a series of annual reports produced by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences, NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education. Its reports present the most recent data available on school crime and student safety.

According to the 2005 report, in the 1999-2000 school year, 14 percent of primary schools, 20 percent of middle schools, and 39 percent of secondary schools used one or more security cameras to monitor the school. That same year, 1999-2000, during school hours, 75 percent of schools controlled access to school buildings by locking or monitoring doors, and 34 percent of schools controlled access to school grounds with locked or monitored gates. The vast majority of public schools required visitors to sign or check in when entering the school building (97 percent), while few schools required either students or visitors to pass through metal detectors regularly (1 percent each). Many security measures varied by school level, and not surprisingly, primary schools were generally less likely than middle schools and secondary schools to report using most security measures.

That information feeds into the intent behind Questions to Ask About Your School’s Security Profile, a white paper that seeks to help superintendents, principals and other school administrators as they redouble their efforts to address the issue of crime and violence in schools. This paper is intended to serve as a resource for education officials as they rethink and reevaluate how they protect people, property and assets in their schools.

Question: What’s the first step? Where and how do we begin our efforts to improve security in our school?

Answer: The best and most prudent way to begin the process is by having a comprehensive security audit completed for your school. The audit will assess your school’s security risks and needs, and should be considered a prerequisite before you add or upgrade equipment or make substantive changes in your overall security program. A professional assessment of this type will help determine exactly what you want to protect (i.e. people, physical and intellectual property); how, where and under what circumstances you want to control access to the school by students, faculty, staff and visitors; and identify gaps and/or weak points in your existing security program.

The report will also present recommendations about the physical and electronic security equipment most appropriate to the needs of your school. Keep in mind, however, that equipment is but one element of a total security solution. Schools, like all other facilities and organizations, should have a comprehensive plan that encompasses all facets of security, including the following:

    • Controlling access to buildings, parking lots and other areas.

    • Appropriate security surveillance measures.

    • Electronic equipment, such as access control, intrusion detection, CCTV and video identification systems, required to meet the needs of your school.

    • Written policies, procedures and programs for handling security issues and incidents, responding to emergencies and operating security equipment and systems.

    • Training of staff, faculty and students on security and emergency procedures. Those involved in operating equipment also need to be trained on its proper use.

    • Establishment of a security education program for staff, faculty, students, parents and the community at large.

Question: We want to get the most protection for the least amount of money. How much do we have to spend on a security system to adequately protect our school?

Answer: Until you have results from a security audit, it’s impossible to say what you’ll need in the way of security equipment or how much it might cost to implement, operate, service and support a security solution. Plus, keep in mind that much like a fingerprint, every security project is different and unique. The solution depends varies from school to school and depends on factors such as the physical location, construction and layout of the buildings, the local crime rate and public access to the property. It’s also important to understand at the outset that an effective security program requires a strong commitment on the part of the entire school community, from the administration and staff to students and parents.

Question: What areas of the school property are typically protected by electronic security equipment or by a full electronic security system?

Answer: Experts often think of security in terms of concentric rings. In a school, the protection rings, or layers, would be as follows:

    • Outer perimeter protection (this includes the farthest reaches of the school property). Protection of this layer may consist of fencing, natural barriers, CCTV (closed circuit television), lighting systems, signs and alarm systems.

    • Building perimeter (this generally includes parking lots and the areas immediately surrounding the school). The protection of this layer may include lighting systems, alarm systems, locking devices, CCTV, bars or grillwork, signs or additional fencing.

    • Building interior (this includes the entire interior of the building, i.e. corridors, classrooms, offices, faculty areas, cafeteria, gymnasium, library, etc.) The security design for this layer can include window/door bars, locking devices, barriers, access/intrusion/alarm systems, CCTV, lighting systems, and safes and controlled areas.

    • Very high security areas (areas that may need especially tight security, such as computer rooms, science laboratories, front offices, etc.). Security here might entail access/intrusion/alarm systems and/or CCTV cameras or systems.

    Question: We’re hearing and reading a lot these days about the use of CCTV in K-12 schools. Generally speaking, how are CCTV cameras and systems used in educational settings?

    Answer: Closed circuit television (CCTV) has become a primary tool in modern security systems. Technological advances have made video monitoring systems much more effective for security, and much more affordable. As a result, closed circuit television systems represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the electronic security market. And CCTV cameras are most definitely becoming more widely used in schools.

    Today’s most basic CCTV system consists of cameras, an LCD or flat-screen monitor and a digital video recorder. The more sophisticated systems allow viewing and control of cameras at an on-site workstation. In general, surveillance security systems can provide:

      • General facility surveillance.

      • A deterrent to undesirable behavior.

      • Recorded evidence of security events that can be used to identify individuals involved in a security incident. With a CCTV systems, any office in the building can have immediate visibility to activity inside or outside the school. Video images can also be directed to any laptop computer.

    In school settings, surveillance cameras can be positioned to record events in parking lots, corridors, the library, gymnasium, or cafeteria, or in potential trouble spots in the school. CCTV cameras are also frequently placed in school buses. (It’s important to note that in school environments, cameras are not used to directly monitor the activities of students, faculty and staff. Rather, they’re used to monitor the environment, ensuring that it remains safe for students, faculty and staff.)

    Question: What are the different types of surveillance cameras?

    Answer: There are two basic types of surveillance cameras. Fixed cameras show a single field of view. Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) cameras can look around, or zoom in to get a closer look. Schools today typically use fixed cameras in housings. We’re also seeing an increase in the use of high-security type housings. In some cases, schools are installing dome enclosures with built-in camera/optics packages. These provide all the capability and control of a PTZ product in smaller, less conspicuous packages.

    Question: What are some of the latest technologies in CCTV and surveillance security?

    Answer: Advancing technology is bringing larger monitors and higher screen resolution to CCTV applications. The use of color cameras is also on the rise. With its high resolution and low light sensitivity, current color camera technology provides superior identification capability. Today’s advanced digital communications technology provides schools with remote video capability, which allows“live” images from CCTV cameras to be compressed and transmitted to a central station monitoring center.

    Question: What about video over IP? Is that technology well suited for schools?

    Answer: Absolutely. The use of digital video systems that operate via an IP-based Internet connection is on the rise in schools. In large districts, we’re seeing IP-based surveillance systems with 500 or more cameras. With today’s technology, these systems can operate on the school’s existing network architecture and be implemented in a way that minimizes bandwidth requirements. The systems can also provide immediate retrieval — the ability to retrieve a desired set of still images or motion video clips from specific cameras over a specific time frame. A network-centric system can make current or archived surveillance data quickly and conveniently available anywhere on the network to authorized users.

    Question: Is it necessary to monitor the CCTV cameras?

    Answer: In K-12 schools, surveillance systems typically are not monitored. It does take an investment of resources on the part of a school in order to monitor CCTV cameras. If there is no live on-site monitoring, the cameras — rather than serving an intervention function — act as an after-incident review tool. Ultimately, CCTV will only be as good as the monitoring and recovery operations applied to the system by the school. All of these issues related to monitoring should be considered in the security assessment and system design process. Consideration should also be given to the type and method of image recording and to the desirability of remote monitoring, which can be delivered by a security provider with a central monitoring station. Many schools are beginning to have their CCTV systems monitored by an off-site central monitoring facility during critical situations.

    Question: Our school definitely doesn’t have the resources to monitor cameras, or our buildings and grounds, throughout the course of the day. Can we simply contract with an outside vendor who will provide alarm monitoring?

    Answer: Yes. Central station monitoring centers can provide around-the-clock electronic surveillance for schools as well as commercial and industrial facilities. In the event of an intrusion or a detected emergency (or a fire if your fire alarm system is also connected to a central station), a message is transmitted to the central station. The alarm message indicates the nature and location of the incident. Customer service personnel at the Center then notify the appropriate authorities according to your customized emergency response protocol. This arrangement requires a strong partnership between the school and local law enforcement.

    Question: What other types of security equipment are commonly used in schools?

    Answer: Access control systems, intrusion detection and alarm systems, video identification systems, security management systems and metal detectors. Here’s an overview of each.

    Access control systems: Access control is the process of determining who is allowed entry to a school building, or to specific areas within it. The use of access control technology, in accordance with clearly defined and carefully implemented security procedures, provides a school with an effective means of managing risk. In school applications, access control systems are used to identify users (students, faculty and frequent authorized visitors) before allowing them to enter the building or in some cases, the school grounds. The intent of an access control system is to let only authorized people in, and do so with a minimum of inconvenience. Access control points like doors or gates are equipped with a card reader or biometric device to authenticate an access request. System users are typically issued a card with a magnetic stripe or an embedded electronic circuit that enables them to gain access to the building. Cards are swiped through the magnetic stripe reader, or placed next to a proximity reader. Most access cards issued in schools also contain some identifying information that may include a name, ID number, portrait or signature (see Video or Photo Identification Systems below). Many are even worn as identification badges after entry to the building has been granted.

    Intrusion detection and alarm systems: Detection and alarm systems provide perimeter and interior protection for school facilities by detecting unauthorized entries into a building, or into a protected area within a building. These systems are typically used to monitor the after-hours status of buildings. An intrusion might trigger a siren or bell, send an alarm message to the security control panel, prompt a surveillance camera to automatically pan to a door, or transmit an alarm message to a remote central station if the school has a monitoring agreement in place.

    Video or Photo Identification Systems: Many schools have implemented video or photo identification systems that provide a means to identify students, faculty and staff. Each student, teacher and staff member is issued an identification card, or a badge, that contains his or her picture. In the case of a video identification system, the person’s picture is captured on a video camera and stored in conjunction with his or her data record. A video identification system can operate as a stand-alone badging system or as a component of an access control system. In that application, the badge serves a dual purpose as it also becomes an access control card. One of the benefits of a video or photo identification system is that it provides a school with database from which information, such as video images of students and staff or emergency contact names, can be extracted.

    Security Management Systems: The most advanced electronic security systems provide complete coordination of all security activities. With those systems, all aspects of security — access control, intrusion detection, CCTV and video badging — can be linked to a common database and controlled from a single PC workstation. Again, keep in mind that an investment of resources on the part of the school administration is required in order to derive the benefits of a sophisticated security management system.

    Metal detectors: The NCES 2005 school safety report shows that between 3 and 4 percent of primary schools reported performing random metal detector checks on students. Fifteen percent of secondary schools reported random metal detector checks. Metal detectors are probably one of the most visible and intrusive types of physical security. They also demand a large amount of personnel time to staff the detector location so as to prevent walk-arounds and detain for closer inspection any person triggering a detection alarm.

    Question: What about communication systems? What role can they play in making a school safer?

    Answer: Communication systems can play a significant role in school safety. Telephone, intercom, paging, public address and emergency call systems can enhance school security by making classrooms, parking lots and other areas safer for students and teachers. For example, some digital telephone systems provide for emergency calls to be generated — manually or automatically — from any classroom equipped with a phone. The emergency call is sent to a digital display phone in the main office. When the call is received there, the display screen on the office phone labels it as an EMERGENCY, and also identifies its place of origin. The office in turn can contact the adjacent classrooms to warn of the emergency, or to activate a mutual help compact if one has been put in place. A new approach, mandated in some states, is to use the E911 service, whereby the emergency condition and location are automatically transmitted to the phone company, which dispatches the responding personnel.

    Question: Beyond the technology and functional capabilities of a CCTV or security system, what other factors do we need to keep in mind as we evaluate how electronic security equipment might be used to improve security in our school?

    Answer: You need to carefully consider how you will operate, support and maintain the system on a day-to-day basis. Because resources are usually limited, schools sometimes have a tendency to look for ‘quick fix’ solutions. Security definitely cannot be viewed in that narrow kind of context. Rather, you need to employ a comprehensive, systems approach when thinking about security. As we mentioned earlier, security doesn’t begin and end with security equipment. It’s essential that you have the personnel, plans and procedures in place to operate and maintain the system and to fulfill the requirements of your security program. Otherwise, you won’t get the most out of your system or the investment you make in it. Toward that end, an analysis of the skill levels and capabilities of the people who will be asked to operate the system should be part of your evaluative process. You’ll want to make sure they have the skills required to operate today’s advanced technology systems. What all this means is that you need to plan not only for incorporating new electronic equipment into your security program, but also for managing the impact of those technological changes on the people and processes that you currently have in place. Understanding those issues in advance will help ensure that you make a wise investment, and that you avoid after-implementation pitfalls that many security purchasers face.

    Question: How can I leverage other existing building technologies to enhance safety in our school?

    Answer: Schools that have fire alarm systems with voice communications capabilities can use it to help improve emergency notification and evacuation. With the approval of the local AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction…typically a fire marshal or fire chief), interactive paging can be employed to evacuate in an emergency or to direct students and staff away from the danger and toward“safe zones.” Wireless telephone systems can provide a tie-in to emergency first responders, meaning two-way communications can be established to support the response effort.

    Question: Our school doesn’t have the upfront money to buy a security system. Is it possible to finance the equipment?

    Answer: Yes. K-12 school systems and other governmental agencies can take advantage of tax-exempt municipal financing available through some companies to acquire comprehensive life-safety and property protection for their facilities. This enables schools to proceed with critical safety improvements without straining the capital budget. Unlike bank loans, financing agreements can cover more than the equipment. The cost of central station monitoring of fire and security systems and preventive maintenance agreements can be incorporated into the periodic payments.

    Question: Once we have a system in place, is it necessary to service it?

    Answer: Yes, regular service is a critical component of a security program. Your security system represents an important investment in the protection of your students and your staff. To protect that investment, you’ll want to be sure the system is properly serviced so that it functions at an optimal level. Periodic inspections, testing and preventive maintenance, as well as 24-hour emergency service, all contribute to the proper operation of your security system and/or CCTV equipment. Because maintenance funds are difficult to procure, some schools incorporate the cost of a service contract into a monthly lease payment.

    Question: What else can we do to enhance security in our school?

    Answer: There are a number of other things you can do. You can forge a partnership with the local police and other law enforcement agencies. If possible, consider having a police officer routinely walk through the school as part of his or her daily patrol. You might think about having an officer on the grounds at peak times in the morning and afternoon, or even about setting up a police substation at the school.

    Question: What about the selection of a security vendor. What should we look for?

    Answer: You should look for a highly capable provider that has many years of experience in security and life safety. You’ll do well to choose a company that has longevity in the industry, offers a full array of resources and capabilities, understands school security and life safety applications, is committed to the education market, and will work with you on an ongoing basis. That will help protect your investment by seeing that you get the right technology solution and that future needs are addressed with cost-effective maintenance and upgrades.