Effectively Managing Visitors

Let’s face it. School visitor management practices at most schools could not be described as “effective.” One of the challenges I issue while presenting at school security seminars across the country dares administrators to raise their hands if they know that all visitors to their schools sign-in upon entering the building. As you might expect, the challenge is usually met with more snickers of admitted guilt than raised hands. What a shame!  It is particularly disappointing in light of the fact that effectively managing visitors is the cornerstone of good access control. If we cannot stay on top of controlling access, we cannot take credit for intentionally providing a safe learning environment for students, staff and visitors.

To those administrators that are bold enough to raise hands, I then ask them to keep their hands raised if they also know that all visitors to their schools sign-out when leaving the building. With very few exceptions, the remaining hands go down. My purpose in issuing this challenge is not necessarily to convict. If, however, a bonafide emergency takes place at the school and emergency responders review the visitor registry, what kind of danger are we placing them in when they have to assume that visitors that did not sign out are still in the building?

Now, the “Mayberry” crowd (those that believe that, because nothing bad has happened, nothing bad ever will happen) may not be willing to consider the need to improve visitor management procedures, but for those that are willing, I suggest the following practices.

Imagine visiting a school and being greeted by a staff member who says, “Welcome to our safe school. Can I please have your driver’s license?” I recommend that this request be made at the main entrance of every school in America, preferably in a locked vestibule before the visitor is permitted access to the school. Visitors should not be allowed to sign themselves in, but should be signed in by a school employee. Why? Well, it allows the school employee to visually verify the visitor’s identity and, many times, the visitor’s handwriting is not legible anyway.

Next, visitors should not receive a sticker (not even the fancy, expiring kind), but should be given a badge that hangs on a colored, break-away lanyard around the neck. Once upon a time, school administrators made a decision, based on economics, to utilize stickers because badges quite often did not get returned by visitors and were too expensive to replace. Stickers, however, often do not get applied consistently (placed somewhere other than the lapel) or cannot get applied properly (damaging to some fabrics; insufficient adhesion to other fabrics).

Finally, the driver’s license (or photo ID) should be safely stored until the visitor completes his/her business and a reverse exchange can take place.

Listen, I have heard just about every conceivable objection to this visitor management practice known as the “credential exchange,” and I think I can overcome most of them.

Instead of forging ahead in that direction, however, let’s consider potential technology solutions. Increasingly, schools are choosing to purchase and implement visitor management software. Even though features vary widely, all of these systems require visitors to produce a photo ID. When the ID is scanned, the visitor’s information is captured and checked for matches in sex offender registries. In many cases, these systems can also look for matches in unwanted visitors including those with restraining orders, custody issues, protection from abuse orders, known threats in the community, expelled students, etc. When a match occurs, the systems offer varying methods of notifying school employees. Unfortunately, another commonality among them surfaces in the printing of a visitor sticker. I strongly suggest that the backing is not removed from the sticker and, instead, it be placed inside a clear badge that hangs on a colored lanyard. At the conclusion of the visit, the sticker can simply be removed from the badge and discarded. Even though technology quite often reduces the amount of manpower required, make certain to resist the temptation to acquire a “self-service” visitor management kiosk. Unmonitored visitor management is, after all, the exact opposite of access control.

How should a school undertake the process of deciding whether or not to purchase a software system and then choosing which one would be most appropriate? I recommend contacting school districts that have utilized various systems for reference purposes. Ask them questions such as:

  • Are you happy with your choice? Why or why not?
  • What is the financial commitment (initial costs, licensing fees, maintenance, etc.)?
  • How reliable is the system in terms of performance?
  • What kind of training is required?
  • How many unwelcome visitors have been identified?
  • How many “false positives” have occurred?
  • How has the system been received by school and community?

Consider visiting schools that are currently utilizing a software system to get a feel for what a visitor actually experiences in terms of ease and efficiency. This kind of research and decision making process should be made collaboratively. School employees, board members and parents tend to dislike change and definitely do not like surprises. If your research efforts result in the desire to pursue a software system in earnest, I suggest pilot testing a system at one school before adopting it district-wide. This approach will afford school and community the time to get acclimated to new procedures and the opportunity to receive feedback and make adjustments. I also recommend sending a letter to parents before the implementation of any new visitor management practices or systems. Let them know that, in your on-going efforts to provide a safe learning environment, you have rejected the acquisition of tanks and armed guards. Instead, your school has simply chosen to improve visitor management procedures and they are as follows… While these specific word choices may have been offered with some humor in mind, the concept of maintaining a proper perspective should be stressed.

Whether through the adoption of better visitor management procedures, such as the credential exchange, or the purchasing of a visitor management software system, effectively protecting students, staff and visitors in our schools depends greatly on improving access control. Let’s begin those efforts at the front door. Those that accept this challenge can only gain ground in providing a safer learning environment. Those that do not accept this challenge risk falling into the long line of schools that waited to experience significant losses before taking appropriate action.

Paul Timm, PSP, is a board-certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), president of RETA Security, Inc. and a nationally acclaimed expert in school security.