Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

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physical access control systems


“When it comes to physical access control,” says Ken Wilson, CSP, Safety and Environmental manager for Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) in Washington, “our top priority is maintaining the separation of visitors from our students until we have the opportunity to understand the visitors’ purposes for visiting and if they may come into contact with our students.”

“If we are able to keep difficult situations confined to the front office,” adds Miguel Villahermosa, TPS director of Security, “and prevent them from penetrating into hallways and classrooms, there’s more integrity to the education environment. This is a challenge because our district, which includes 30,000 students, has a high percentage of dependencies and domestic violence.”

Just what does TPS have in place in terms of physical access control to keep students safe? “We have 62 schools,” says Wilson, “and they’re all different ages, so we have a lot of design fluctuations and different infrastructures for the security measures we have. Overall, it’s a moving target, and we have limited funds, so we make improvements and upgrade a little bit at a time.”

“What we do have,” adds Villahermosa, “is a visitor entry procedure, which includes a form of checking in. This is the only consistent method of access control we have across the district — except the consistency of expectation. Maintaining constant communication with each site reaffirms that consistency.”

TPS isn’t alone in terms of having design fluctuations and different security infrastructures at its schools. Lack of funding, schools built at different times, and advances in both security protocols and equipment mean that plenty of school districts are in the same situation, making it all the more challenging to create safe school environments, even though all administrators would agree that safe school environments are a priority.

Security can only be ensured if administrators know the identity of each person on campus, and this requires an effective access control system. “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has weighed in on this topic,” affirms Brett St. Pierre, director of business development, Education Solutions for HID Global, “saying that optimal security requires that no one shall enter a school without supervising staff or the use of appropriate access control devices.” The question is: What constitutes an effective access control system?

Common Physical Access Control Measures

If you believe everything you read, you might believe that schools are outfitted with all the latest red buttons and loud alarms available. Don’t believe everything you read. “Contrary to public and media perception, the vast majority of schools in the nation do not have metal detectors, x-ray machines and armed persons at the schoolhouse doors screening and patting down students before providing access to schools each day, nor do they need to do so,” says Kenneth S. Trump, M.P.A., president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

With that clarified, there are a number of common physical access control measures that many school districts do employ. They include the following.

1. Perimeter fencing: “Generally speaking, administrators are looking for control of their site, so they usually employ perimeter fencing to limit people accessing the grounds from any site other than main entrance,” says Greg Drennen, AIA, project architect with Dayton, Ohio-based LWC.

2. Signage: Signage works with fencing as a CPTED element of defining a school’s boundaries. “Sometimes signage is overlooked,” Drennen indicates. “But it communicates such messages as ‘This is school property, there’s no trespassing, please enter the parking lot here, please park here, please enter this main entrance, this is not an entry.’ Signage must also state visitor policies, such as ‘Please report to the main office where your credentialed identification will be checked before you enter the school.’ These are fairly important things to consider.”

3. Secure vestibules at the main entry: This is a vestibule with two-way communication to a receptionist and visibility for the receptionist to see into the vestibule before buzzing a visitor in through a remote lock. “Most now seem to also be employing a secure waiting area to keep people from running into the building once they pass through the vestibule,” says Drennen, “thereby providing two levels of secure entry.”

4. Visitor management software: Administrators should badge visitors, using systems that improve security, visitor trend/pattern analysis, watch-list flagging and emergency evacuation. “This can be done with visitor management software rather than an error-prone system consisting of paper-based badges and visitor logs,” says Brett St. Pierre, director of business development, Education Solutions for HID Global. “The latest software solutions also enable schools to quickly flag visitors who are either not allowed on campus or who need to be handled differently than typical campus guests. Visitor management systems can be implemented on a PC at the lobby reception desk or another entry point. They are easy to use, and training can be completed in an hour or less.”

5. Video monitoring: Video monitoring does not stop incidents from occurring. It does work as a deterrent to poor decision making in that people behave better when they know they are on camera. Drennen encourages administrators to consider combining video monitoring with lighting to capture night images, indicating that LED lighting offers good color rendition and clear images, and it uses little energy.

6. Electronic hardware: Perimeter doors are kept locked and are monitored via electronic hardware like door positioning switches to ensure they remain locked. “Sometimes the electronic hardware is connected to the building automation system to monitor the positions of the doors,” says Drennen. “The system indicates when a door is propped open so administrators can take action to secure it.”

7. Locking control: Placed on classroom doors, these allow teachers to secure doors from the classroom. “It’s been a long time since we’ve used anything other than a classroom door knob,” Drennen indicates, affirming to wide scale use of these locks.

8. Lockable windows: “Some school districts are now employing lockable windows and may even have controlled monitoring of the windows, which can be a weak link to security,” says Drennen.

“These measures used to be employed periodically,” Drennen sums. “Now they’re a real imperative for schools, and school security projects are designed to provide these measures.”

What Minimum Systems Should You Employ?

In an ideal world, Drennen recommends the following four physical access control measures be employed at a minimum.

1. Locked exterior doors: “All exterior doors must be locked and monitored. “The monitoring should be tied into the building automation system, which controls the HVAC system,” says Drennen. “This allows you to have control and access at the school site or remotely.”

2. Connection to the police department: The local police department should be given access and the ability to view what’s going on in the school so that, if there is an event, they can see it online from the police station and direct first responders to the correct, specific area.

3. Secured vestibules and waiting areas: This is essential to knowing when visitors arrive and leave.

4. Teacher and staff training: Training is imperative to the success of a school’s physical access control. This is includes security drills, such as practicing lockdowns so teachers and students know what to do and what not to do, giving teachers time to practice locking a door and securing a room. “Training gives teachers a feeling of better security and actually provides better security,” Drennen says.

How Do You Know What Systems to Employ?

Sure, those four minimum recommendations are all well and good, but how do administrators know what they really need at their schools, especially in light of the fact that budgets often prevent them from purchasing even the basic physical access control systems? Trump has the answer. “The needs of each school district, and each school within a given school district, are ideally determined based upon a security assessment of each site,” he says. “School facilities vary so much from school to school that it is not uncommon to find vast differences in school sites within the same school district. The designs, age and uses of each school can be unique to each individual site and school community. Understanding these unique aspects can help security professionals and school administrators determine what is best in terms of access control and other security measures at each site.”

How do You Ensure That All the Systems Work Together?

Regardless of what physical access control systems you have or will be purchasing in the near future, there’s one important factor for ensuring that they all work together, and that is the human element. “The most important point for school administrators to remember is that security products and hardware are a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a strong human security element,” states Trump. “The first and best defense is a well-trained, highly alert school staff and student body. Hardware is only as effective as the weakest human link in the chain.

“As a litigation consultant and expert witness in school security lawsuits,” Trump continues, “it is generally the case that claims around negligent security are not typically about alleged failures of products. They instead focus upon allegations of failures of people, procedures and/or practices. A focus on staff training, protocols and procedures must be in place to support access control and other physical security measures.”

Villahermosa echoes Trump’s wisdom and indicates that TPS focuses on communication to ensure that their security systems work together. “We have a communication system in place whereby if something happens that an administrator believes warrants the attention of the superintendent, we tell him/her. Similarly, when an incident occurs, we do an assessment of what happened, why it happened and what we can do to keep it from happening again. Another avenue of communication is developing and maintaining communication with principals, office coordinators and custodial staff, because they’re the users of the systems and equipment — they know what works and what doesn’t.”

Effective physical access control is a layered element consisting of hardware, policies, people and more. As daunting as it may seem, its efforts have great payback in terms of providing students with a safe learning environment. “There’s always a group of people who see physical access control as not family friendly,” says Villahermosa. “How can keeping students safe not be family friendly? The students have an opportunity to receive high-quality instruction in a high-quality environment.”


The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), which was formed in 2013 through a collaboration between the Security Industry Association (SIA) and the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA) is a resource for physical access control systems. Its goal is to help integrators and schools implement the most appropriate and effective security technologies. “PASS has published guidelines for analyzing school security threats, outlining the legal, moral and other arguments for security investments, examining the nature of risk, risk assessment and risk mitigation, and understanding the importance of layered security,” says Brett St. Pierre, director of business development, Education Solutions for HID Global.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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