Weak Link

From the delivery person to the volunteer parent, people visit school facilities every day. Often, regular visitors become familiar to school staff, faculty, even students. But with increased security, familiarity is no longer an acceptable method of managing visitors to school facilities.

Today, nearly all schools require visitors to sign or check in when entering the school building. Some states, including Florida and California, require criminal background checks for anyone working or regularly visiting a school. When it comes to managing visitors, everyday actions can make a significant difference. Communicating a visitor policy to all parents and guardians helps ensure that everyone supports and complies with the access plan.

Most schools use some form of visitor badge to identify visitors to the building. The badges, when displayed properly, help school staff, faculty and even students easily identify whether someone whom they do not recognize is authorized to be in the school. Visitor badge programs also make identifying people who are not wearing badges more noticeable.

Schools should designate a single entrance/exit door in the facility. The main entrance should be clearly marked by signage with directions to a visitor management center. Older doors and locks can be retrofitted with newer door hardware and locking systems. Electronic release of door locking mechanisms coupled with video and intercom systems enable interior monitors to screen visitors prior to allowing entry to the school.

Digital video camera systems offer state-of-the-art resolution, tracking and Internet access to internal space monitoring and control. School safety surveys show most K-12 school districts use security cameras to monitor parts of their facilities or campuses. The most common use for security cameras is at entrances and exits, gathering areas and parking lots.

School districts should enable their local agencies, such as police, fire or emergency responders, to view security camera footage in real time. In addition, periodic police presence helps to deter potential risks from intruders or violent persons. Some schools park a clearly visible police vehicle in front of the school during different times of the day as a deterrent. Lastly, two-way radios allow school staff to communicate on and off campus and let them communicate with other agencies.

Study Shows Lapses in School Visitor Management

Several years ago, the American Association of School Administrators (AASAS) and Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, in consultation with RETA Security Inc., entered into a partnership to launch a national survey on the status of safety and security in America’s K-12 public school systems. The goal of the survey was to ascertain, compare and validate the safety programming and processes in the nation’s school districts.

Regarding visitor management issues, this is what was discovered.
  • More than half of all districts responding utilize ID badges for staff and personnel, and upwards of 16 percent also provide them for students.
  • Although half of all responding schools lock public entrances to the buildings, 15.5 percent report that public entrances are neither locked nor monitored.
  • More than 85 percent of respondents require all visitors to sign in and receive a badge.
  • Eighty-five percent of schools use a manual sign-out process for parents picking up students; however, 11.5 percent have no identification system in place.
Two-thirds of all districts report that exterior doors are rarely or never propped open, leaving one-third of buildings with exterior doors that are occasionally or often propped open.
While funding issues will continue to affect some school safety initiatives, significant security program improvements can be made with little or no cost. Some initiatives requiring planning and collaboration include the following.
  • Visitor Management (controlling access through measures involving sign-in/sign-out and requirements to display identification while moving about the property).
  • Staff IDs (visible badges or uniforms that identify school personnel such as faculty, staff and substitutes).
  • Student Pick-up (clearly identified areas and documented procedures that address student and guardian accountability).
  • Closed Campus policy (all exterior doors are closed and locked when the facility is occupied, requiring visitors to enter through the main entrance and sign-in at the main office).
However manual log-ins of visitors is not adequate for maximum perimeter security. At the least, schools should follow the lead of the Greenwood Community Schools (Ind.). There, front desk personnel used to issue a visitor’s pass but never got it back. Today, they need to see a photo ID to make sure the person signing in is who they say they are, and they also hold the visitor’s driver’s license until they sign out and return the badge.

For greater security at the Boulder (Colo.) School District, most main entrances have been renovated to incorporate a vestibule adjacent to the school’s office, which functions as an access control point. When visitors enter, they encounter a locked door leading into the school but an open one leading to the office, where they must stop and register.

For authorized credential holders, the door to the school will open when they present the credential. At schools where the vestibule has not yet been reconstructed, a visitor calls the office from a telephone intercom in the vestibule and the office staff verifies his or her identity using a video surveillance system before remotely unlocking the door. In either case, the doors are locked automatically once school is in session.

For the best solution, schools should identify and track visitors with an integrated visitor tracking and management system that includes a badging printer and badges. Here’s the good news — most brand name security management systems used to track employee access also have sophisticated visitor management systems. Indeed, visitors can be managed… and managed with little additional investment.

With a visitor management system that is integrated with badging and access control systems, schools can effectively institute rules for visitor oversight. Operators can assign access control privileges to authorized guests and verify that guests are tracked to a particular location. No longer must they use manual system or, paper-based visitor logs. Now schools can track visitors, schedule their activities and maintain a database for reporting purposes. With these capabilities readily available, one could argue that even small schools should at least create the same type of control for their visitors that they do with their employees.

Another important aspect of visitor management is the ability to maintain a list of people who are not allowed into a facility, whether for security, guardianship/custodial rights, personnel restrictions or other reasons.

The visitor management system can require a photo and/or signature from the guest and the school can compare these items to stored information. Such verification is becoming more important for legal reasons as well as security concerns. With visitor management, all visitors can be screened against a banned parties list.

Guest Pass Systems Also Provide Soft Benefits
While visitor management systems provide hard benefits of improved security, it can also yield soft benefits, especially to visitors, such as contractors, student teachers or a visiting audit board, reflecting a positive image on the school’s behalf. Check-in can be much faster. The systems can automatically send an email to the visitor’s host, including photo if desired or required, upon arrival or departure. The system can print on-the-spot labels, photo IDs or generic visitors’ badges. Systems can even define color codes for the badges, based on the visitor’s status.

When the school expects a large group of visitors, they can preload their names and information and have the badges waiting for them when they arrive. This streamlines movement in and out of the lobby. Groups can be expedited through the lobby. This can be seen as a public relations tool — visitors that are not kept waiting translate to happy advocates.

Elements of a Visitor Management System

First of all, the visitor management software should integrate fully with the organization’s security management system. As earlier mentioned, most major access control software systems include a visitor management module. Some key elements that a visitor management software module should include:
  • automatically emailing of the host upon a guest’s sign-in and sign out, along with the option of including a guest photo;
  • printing of visitor badges or labels;
defined color codes for valid guests, guests about to expire 
and expired guests;
/sign-out instructions defined per guest; and
interface to the school’s intranet.
Increased Security and Increased Convenience
As a result of deploying a visitor management system, the school can provide faster check-ins of guests since employees can host visitors based on their own access privileges. Schools can additionally assign access privileges to visitors based on who they are and whom they are seeing. Security guards can even issue passes on a case-by-case basis.

With a visitor management system, schools can now provide the same access control to guests that they do to employees in an easy-to-use, automated manner, thereby increasing security and convenience for all. 

April Dalton-Noblitt is the director of Vertical Marketing for Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies.
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