Making the Most of What You Have

Access control and visitor management are two pillars of security designed to keep unwanted and dangerous elements out of your buildings. A school without access control and visitor management is quite literally leaving the doors open for trouble.

Many administrators face security issues with a sense of dread and fear. Fearful of not doing enough. Fearful of spending too much. Fearful of selecting the wrong technology. But what many administrators fail to understand is that security is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Security is like an exercise program, where each and every exercise addresses a different weakness while improving overall strength daily. Implementing a good access control solution does not necessarily mean spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a biometric electronic access control system; it can be as simple as making a commitment to keep doors locked during off-peak hours. Visitor management is simply the process of tracking and managing people who visit your building, and can be accomplished with any number of systems.

Administrators should not ask, “Do I have the best technology or system in place?” but rather, “How can I make the most of the systems I do have?” Here we will consider how administrators can examine their current access and visitor control policies and then cost-effectively improve the effectiveness of those systems.

The Challenges Schools Face Today
According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2009, 89.5 percent of schools lock buildings and/or monitor doors. According to an access control survey conducted by Wren in 2008, only 36 percent of respondents indicated that they used electronic access control. Only 28 percent of those schools indicated that they felt “extremely confident” in their ability to ensure secure locking of perimeter doors in an emergency “lock down” situation. These statistics point to the fact that access control is a challenge for the majority of schools. However, once schools understand the reasons for the shortfall, it becomes much simpler to improve conditions.

Failure to be consistent — It can be difficult in a busy, open environment to ensure consistency. With a traditional key lock system, someone must physically visit each door to lock it and unlock it at the assigned times. This can be extremely challenging if that person gets busy, is absent or if different people are assigned to different doors. It is also difficult to systematically verify if all of the appropriate doors are locked. The same holds true of a visitor management policy in which the receptionist is in charge of ensuring that all visitors check in at the office. If she is attending to something else, in the restroom or absent for the day, an unwanted visitor can easily enter without anyone noticing. Consistency is key to ensuring a safe learning environment.

The “all or nothing” mentality — Frustrated with limited budgets and taxing processes, administrators often throw up their hands when they have to work with traditional systems and believe they will address the problem when they can afford to purchase better equipment. However, improving security can be done by taking small, inexpensive steps.

Overwhelmed with technology
— Many administrators are overwhelmed with technology options and feel ill-prepared to select from the wide variety of options out there. Expense is just the tip of the iceberg, with administrators bumping up against practicality issues such as having kids keep up with badges or making use of a new software solution on a daily basis.

Making Strides
With these challenges in mind, here are some ways to make your access control and visitor management programs/systems more effective.

Be practical — Often, there are very simple steps that can be taken to improve access control and visitor management. For example, if a rarely used door is left unlocked throughout the school day, lock it. It will not negatively impact traffic flow, but it will be one less unmonitored entrance/exit through which an undesirable element may enter. If there is no visitor management policy, put one in place. Ask individuals to sign in and out and to provide a photo ID and ask them what their business is at the school. Ask students and staff to approach unbadged visitors and inquire if they can help them. This will encourage would-be thieves to understand that their presence is noticed and unwelcome. Move the receptionist’s desk to an area closer to the main entrance so that she can easily see people coming in and out of the school. These are free and immediate ways to take action and make improvements little by little.

Build policy around it — For schools that don’t have the budget or option to invest in new systems, they must leverage the tools that they do have. Generally, this means developing policies around people instead of systems. For example, the school should put in place a policy of when and which doors will be locked and unlocked throughout the day. Then, they should assign specific individuals to lock and unlock those doors at the given times. Someone should be assigned to monitor the door for visitors and ensure that all visitors report to the office to receive a badge. Training and redundancy efforts are important to make sure the entrances are covered at all times, regardless of absences or meetings. Policies should be brief and understandable and training should take place to ensure staff is actively enrolled in supporting security.

Validate the policy — With any policy, it is important to conduct validation testing to ensure momentum and continuous improvement over time. Validation testing ensures that each actionable item has momentum behind it, with a live plan and assigned accountability. The list below describes the validation process. These questions provide a simple methodology for testing policies to ensure they are effective.

  • Actionable – Has action been taken to put a process in place?
  • Applicable – Is the process relevant to the issue?
  • Adequate – Does the process effectively address the issue?
  • Accountable – Who has been assigned oversight responsibility?
  • Audited – Is there regular review and documentation of the process?
Verify implementation — This step is auditing from above. Policies left unimplemented are not effective. Therefore, administrators should conduct unannounced audits to make sure policies are being followed judiciously. In addition, it is important to understand why certain portions of the policy fail. For example, if the principal notices that a contractor is walking around the school without a badge and checks the log to see that he has not been registered at the front desk, he should investigate the reasons why. It could be that the receptionist is out on vacation and the interim/substitute receptionist was not trained on the proper procedure. If this information is known, it is possible to add a training program to the policy. Reviewing and improving the process is critical.

Consider a technology upgrade
— While budget dollars are not always available to purchase new systems, when funding is available, it’s important to select an adequate system. One of the greatest things about access control systems, whether magnetic or electronic locks, is that they enable one-click lock-down in case of an emergency. These systems also offer flexibility to restrict certain areas to those authorized and then to change who is authorized over time. Schedules may be programmed into user-friendly software that automatically dictates when doors will be locked and unlocked, offering consistency and guaranteed performance on a daily basis. Electronic access control systems remove a lot of volatility from the process.

Visitor management systems do the same. They offer a third party, verifiable system that checks every visitor. The visitor’s identification is checked against a list of sex offenders, domestic dispute convicts, etc. The consistency that these systems bring makes it a lot less likely that someone “gets through the cracks.”

When evaluating and selecting technologies, it’s important to be realistic about solutions that will work for the environment in question. For example, it may be unrealistic to think that middle school kids are going to keep up with badges. Therefore, no matter how great the features may look on an access control system with badges, it is not a good match for that particular school. In other schools, where students are already accustomed to carrying a card to pay for their lunches, it may be possible to integrate access control with meal cards and a badging system may be a better fit. Simply keep in mind how the system will be used on a daily basis and select something that is realistic for the individual environment.

A comparison of where schools are today and where they could be shows there is a lot of work to be done. However, the good news is that even without an enormous budget or resources, it is possible to take steps immediately to improve the safety of learning environments, one step at a time.

Dr. Richard J. Caster serves as the executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). He can be reached at [email protected]

Jeff Floreno is director of Security Operations and Strategy for Wren, providers of physical security solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]