Facility Planning

The School Security Matrix

Most school leaders have excellent safety programs in place to deal with emergencies such as fires or tornados. Their security programs, however, are being scrutinized as parents and community members demand to know what measures are being taken to keep intruders out of school facilities. Given limitations of both time and money, school leaders should prioritize implementing research-based strategies that are within their capacity to enact in the short-term, while planning to implement longer-term strategies as they are able.

There are four overall strategies to consider when approaching school security — direct, indirect, proactive and responsive. A strong security plan includes strategies from all four categories.

There are multiple subsets of each of the above categories. For example, direct security strategies include passive techniques (e.g., facility design) and active techniques (e.g., hall monitors.) Indirect security strategies pursue an “end around” approach to security by focusing on desired rather than negative behaviors. Proactive measures focus on the prevention of incidents that have yet to occur, while responsive strategies attempt to apply lessons learned from past experience (both positive and negative.)


  • Explicitly addresses security concerns
  • Focuses on preventing negatives


  • Culture-building
  • Pursues desired outcomes directly, which indirectly affects security
  • Focuses on creating positives


  • Building design/layout


  • Hall monitors
  • Security cameras


  • Envisions possible future security threats
  • Asks the question, “Are there viable threats that our community and communities like ours have not yet experienced but might in the future?”
  • Involves both direct and indirect measures


  • Reacts to what has happened in the community or similar communities
  • Involves both direct and indirect measures

As with any strategic plan, this four-pronged approach to addressing school security should be a living document, reviewed at least once a year and edited as officials deem necessary. It is also important to remind staff of the holistic nature of security planning. Responding directly to threats experienced at the school or in other schools is vital and the most common approach. A direct-responsive strategy alone, however, ignores two vital aspects of security planning.

It is imperative to intentionally build and support the kind of environment (physically and culturally) that supports desirable behaviors, rather than focusing exclusively on preventing undesirable behaviors. In a 2009 study, “An Application of ‘Broken Windows’ and Related Theories to the Study of Disorder, Fear and Collective Efficacy in Schools,” Stephen Plank showed there is a direct association between physical disorder and social disorder in schools. After studying more than 30 junior high schools in Atlanta, the researchers came to believe that physical disorder in school facilities negatively impacted collective efficacy among students by triggering increased fear and the perception of threat. “We hypothesize,” Plank notes, “that the social and physical indicators of disorder serve as signals that the environment is unsafe, which in turn may contribute to further disorder.”

Furthermore, Sampson, Morenoff and Earls believe there are three core strategies leaders can use to promote a positive culture that indirectly enhances security. They argue that, “the active maintenance of intergenerational ties, the reciprocal exchange of information and services among families, and the shared willingness to intervene on behalf of children to produce a social good… yields positive externalities that potentially benefit all children.” At the school and district levels, leaders can take note of this research and seek to build positive cultures by adopting strategies that build more adult-student and parent-parent relationships.

Secondly, focusing exclusively on direct-responsive strategies can blind school leaders and staff from thinking creatively about future threats that may not exactly follow previous patterns. After a security incident, school administrators should ask themselves, “Given what I know about what just happened and what I know about my community, how might this threat evolve in the future, and how can I address that potential threat both directly and indirectly?”

School security requires intentionally employing direct, indirect, responsive and proactive strategies. Unfortunately, administrators will always need to respond to negative events to adapt to threats as they evolve. In addition to responding to recent and sadly sometimes tragic events, administrators need to remember to keep some of their focus on proactive and indirect security strategies.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management July 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Tracy Richter has coordinated and directed facility planning and educational specifications efforts for school districts of all sizes throughout the United States. He and the DeJONG-RICHTER team have helped 1,000-plus school districts develop outstanding learning environments through a systematic process that combines key data analysis with community participation and feedback.