Pros and Cons of Security Outsourcing

Before the Columbine tragedy, only the largest school districts felt the need for formal security programs. Since Columbine and the lengthening list of school tragedies that have followed, more and more districts have appointed security directors and asked them to build security departments. Some districts do it themselves. Some outsource the work.

Many districts assign the facilities director to security, observes Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security Incorporated, Inc. “Now, the facilities manager, already overworked, must manage the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system along with security. I talk to these folks everyday, and many are overwhelmed by their security responsibilities.

“In these schools, when something happens, the facilities director all too often sends a custodian to deal with it. Custodians become the school’s security officers, but they have no training for the job. They don’t know CPR or first aid. They don’t know anything about conflict resolution. Often, they don’t know who to call for help.”

By contrast, notes Timm, facilities management outsourcing companies provide, among other personnel, school custodians. Outsourcing companies train their school custodians to avoid school security problems at all times.

Standing orders include: If there’s a shooting and a lockdown, hide. Don’t touch a suspicious package. Stay away from trouble.

Outsourced facilities management companies know that if a custodian with no security training mishandles a problem, the custodian’s employer — whether it is an outsourced facilities management firm or the school district — may be liable. Worse than that, mishandling security problems can lead to tragedy.

“This is a huge liability risk,” Timm says.

By way of example, he relates a scenario that he says he has heard several times over the years in conversations with school district officials: An intruder enters the school building and the principal calls 911. It will take three to five minutes for the police to arrive. What happens during the wait? The principal calls one of the custodians who had been a bouncer before coming to work at the school district.

“So a former bouncer working as a custodian is going to punch the intruder, and the school is liable,” Timm says.

In the end, liability risks make the case for hiring a professionally trained security director and guards — a team that is not distracted by a second set of responsibilities such as facilities management or custodial duties.

For and Against Outsourcing a Security Director
Once the decision is made to find a trained security director and trained security guards, the next question is whether or not to hire in-house guards or a guard company that will provide guards.

Timm concedes that only the largest school districts tend to hire a professional security director. “Generally, if a district does hire someone, it will be an ex-law enforcement officer,” Timm says. “While that can be a good idea, quite often an ex-law enforcement officer will not have formal training in security.”

Timm recommends qualifications that include ASIS International programs of study leading to Physical Security Professional (PSP) and Certified Protection Professional (CPP) credentials.

Lacking security training, Timm says, former law enforcement people must consider the difference between police work and security work when creating school security strategies and programs.

A former police officer will likely make the school safer, but may go overboard on security measures. “No one wants the school to feel like a locked down Fort Knox,” Timm says. “And it doesn’t have to be that way. In a well-secured school, people enter through the main entrance, sign in, and receive authorization to enter other areas of the building, and they must wear ID badges wherever they go in the building. This is a notch above many schools and in general, bad guys look for easier targets. So the school is safer, but still people feel reasonably free. Professional security directors understand how to balance these concerns.”

It is also possible to outsource a security director. Security consultants like Timm can help guide that effort.

Outsourcing Guards
The next decision is whether or not to outsource the guards. “There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach,” Timm says. “Outsourced guards are easier to replace if they prove unsatisfactory. You just tell the supervisor to send someone else.”

In-house guards, of course, merit the same rights as any school district employee, and replacing an unsatisfactory guard will take time.

On the other hand, continues Timm, outsourced guards typically are not invested in the community. A school that hires and trains its own staff of professional security guards may be employing people that have worked or at least lived in the district. “You get a hometown flavor when you hire your own staff,” Timm says. “In my experience, though, outsourced guards usually have better training.

“It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. You would think that a school would be able to provide training that goes beyond the minimal training often provided by guard companies. But many in-house school security staffers don’t know CPR, first aid, or how to use a portable defibrillator.”

Cost Considerations
Outsourced and in-house guards have different cost profiles. There are two chief differences. School district pay scales are higher than guard service pay scales. School district benefits are also more comprehensive and so more expensive. An outsourced contract factors pay and benefits into a price that the guard company negotiates with the school.

“We have done some cost analysis studies for districts who have asked us to help determine whether they should outsource or continue with their own staff,” Timm says. “In the schools that we have studied, we have almost always found that outsourcing is less expensive in terms of labor.”


Does your district’s security strategy include technology? Since Columbine, more and more schools have installed surveillance cameras that cover the parking lot, the exterior of the building or buildings, the lobby, office, corridors, gym, auditorium, and cafeteria.

Surveillance systems have two purposes today. First, there is the forensic value. Recorded video can provide investigators with hard evidence of what happened during an event. The second use is emergency management. If the cameras are connected to the Internet and have a URL, police and fire officials can access the video from outside of the building during an emergency.

Some commercial firms use outsourced guards to review video after an event to help determine just what happened. Timm says that can be too expensive for a school district. “If you require security guards to be proficient in operating the camera system and reviewing tape, you can get yourself behind the eight-ball pretty quickly,” he says. “Investigations take time and run up costs.

“In addition, I’ve found that the training provided to security guards in this area isn’t very good. I think that it is better to rely on the security director and the school administrators to review video. The school resource officer can also help. Resource officers will probably make the best choice for reviewing video. As trained police officers, they know what to look for.”

How about monitoring the video during school hours? Who should do that? Timm advises conferring with legal counsel about this question. Studies show that human monitors cannot focus on a video screen for longer than a few minutes until their attention wanders. As a result, many video surveillance users do not monitor video all the time. Some security directors even post signs saying the cameras are not monitored continuously as a hedge against liability.

In any event, during the day when the school is crowded word of an emergency will spread quickly and alert someone to pay attention to the video. After hours, intrusion alarms at doors and windows, along with motion detectors scanning areas where no one should be, will alert security and the cameras can be preset to pan toward an area covered by an alarm.

Outsourcing has an important place in helping to secure K-12 schools. But it is not a complete answer to school security. Some tasks such as managing technology should remain in-house. Outsourcing does make sense for other jobs like patrolling the campus and the hallways. Of course, every school has its own particular security needs that might alter conventional recommendations about outsourcing.