School Security in a Post-9/11 World

In a few short months, we will reflect on an event that changed the way that we define safety as we travel to and from work, at our workplaces and even as we recreate with our families.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 also affected how K-12 schools across the country prepare for disasters or emergencies on campus. With eight schools within blocks of the former World Trade Center towers, split-second decisions were made to evacuate — a decision that would affect the lives of more than nine thousand students and staff, all of whom were evacuated without injury.

Communication with the principals of these schools was difficult, so these decisions were made with little information about what was happening around them. I have related this story to thousands of educators and law enforcement officials across the country to help them recognize the importance of properly preparing for and responding to large-scale emergencies.

Budget constraints and ongoing pressures to improve student achievement have forced educators to “race to the top,” while endeavoring to “leave no child behind.” The results? Policies that increase class sizes and teacher layoffs. In spite of these challenges, school administrators are also expected to maintain a safe campus and prepare their staff to respond to a school or community emergency.

The post-9/11 world is full with the possibility that we will be attacked again on our soil, but planning solely for the possibility that your school will be directly or indirectly affected by a terrorist attack is shortsighted. Unless your school is thought by law enforcement officials to be a terrorist target or is located close to a government building or a national icon or landmark, it is much more likely that it will be subject to what have come to be seen as “normal events” in schools, like medical emergencies involving students and staff, student fights, students possessing weapons or armed and unwelcomed intruders on campus.

With limited resources, it is important that practical decisions are made when investing in security equipment designed to alert staff about untoward events on campus. Fortunately, responding to an emergency in a classroom or on campus has been made easier and more affordable through recent technological innovations that provides school staff with a non-intrusive means of contacting first responders in case of an emergency.

One example is the Safe (Security Alert For Education) System, developed by Panasonic and its partners at Audio Enhancement Inc. At the core of system are the elements of classroom sound enhancement technology, providing the teacher with a lightweight pendant microphone that distributes their voice evenly throughout the classroom.  This system adds one key component: a panic button that when depressed, initiates a comprehensive chain of security responses that provides school administrators and designated first responders with real time access to audio and visual feeds of unfolding events. 

While these types of systems cannot prevent untoward events from happening in school, they do allow educators to be quickly notified of an incident when it occurs, helping them to make decisions when seconds count and providing them with peace of mind.

Gregory Thomas
is a school safety and planning expert and the managing director of Campus Safety Initiatives for the SAFE System Classroom. He is the former Deputy director of Planning and Response at the Columbia University National Center for Disaster Preparedness and has also worked with the New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the U.S., as the executive director of the Office of School Safety and Planning.