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DCD Magazine

School Security Post-Columbine
The More We Learn, The More Challenges Remain.
By Lynn Murray

So often in the course of history, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact dates or events that changed the way we do things. But April 20, 1999 – and more recently, April 16, 2007, mark the history books as days of infamy for school safety and security.

The Columbine High School tragedy, now almost a decade behind us, was the wake-up call that bad things can and do happen in our schools. Unfortunately, it became the universal example for dozens of other smaller countless and senseless acts of school violence across the nation. And less than two years ago, when our awareness of such tragic events had diminished, the campus massacre at Virginia Tech one cool spring morning once again reminded us that we cannot afford to take safety and security for granted.

The remote – yet real – possibility of events such as Columbine and Virginia Tech must be weighed with more common school security challenges, such as theft and vandalism. Administrators, architects and contractors must plan, design and budget for passive and active design elements to address and prepare for all internal and external threats.

Limiting Access
The rules of the school house once were simple: raise your hand, stay in your seat, walk in a single file, and show your hall pass if asked. But access control has become increasingly complex. Schools must restrict access from unauthorized visitors, and further, restrict passage to certain areas by students, faculty and staff. The safe haven of learning must protect its inhabitants from outsiders, and in some cases, from each other.

James Davison, AIA, Alpha Associates, Inc., suggests a two-way communication system and areas that contain students are equipped with security locks that enable a teacher to lock the door with a key from the inside to protect students and staff from any outside threats.

“Beyond the theft and vandalism issue, the more ominous concern in schools today is the potential for violent acts performed against students and teachers while school is in session,” said James Davison, AIA, vice-president, Alpha Associates, Inc. in Morgantown, W. Va.

“To protect students and staff from outside threats, the design strategy must involve both passive and active systems. Passive design elements include providing good visibility for natural surveillance; clearly defined and controlled access points in the building; and physical barriers to intrusion. Active design solutions can include CCTV systems and electronic locking and monitoring of exterior entrance points,” said Davison.

Washington High School, in Jefferson County, W.Va. features areas accessed by members of the local community. For after hour events, a separate entrance is used along with an open corridor secured with electrically operated security grilles that descend from hidden pockets above the ceiling.

But many of the well-publicized acts of violence in schools such as Columbine and Virginia Tech are performed by people who are supposed to be there, not outside intruders.

Davison, whose firm has designed and managed projects for K-12 and universities throughout West Virginia, suggests a two-fold strategy for addressing these threats. A two-way communication system between classrooms and the administration area will facilitate a quick and easy alert system. All classrooms, offices and other areas where students may be contained must be equipped with security locks that enable the teacher to lock the door with a key (and not just a thumb throw latch) from the inside, to secure the students inside. This allows the room to be used as a secure shelter if the school goes into a lockdown mode resulting from a violent outbreak.

Lockdowns are used to restrict and limit access to buildings and/or contain a violent situation or dangerous intruder. But regardless of situation, the appropriate physical security barriers must be available for a lockdown to be effective. And even that might not be enough.

Electronic Security
According to an August 2008 survey of school resource officers and K-12 administrators by Wren Solutions, a developer of IP-based surveillance solutions, 91 percent of respondents said it was critical to be able to lock down a school in the event of an emergency. But only 28 percent of schools responding felt “extremely confident” in their ability to ensure perimeter security doors would securely lock in the case of an emergency lockdown.

Only 36 percent of the schools surveyed indicated they are using electronic access control systems, and of those, the majority is only using them at the main entrances of the school.

Less than one-third are using electronic access control to protect or limit access to administrative offices, server rooms, personnel and student files, computer and science labs and other areas.

Perimeter Security
Schools are designed as places of academic learning. But after hours and on weekends, many are also destinations for plays, concerts, sporting events and fundraisers.

Washington High School in Jefferson County, W. Va., features a “public side” of the building, with a gym, cafeteria and auditorium that are frequently accessed by members of the local community. During the school day, this section connects to the academic section of the school by a very open 18-foot corridor. For after-hours activities, a separate event entrance is used, and the connecting corridor is secured from the academic wing with electrically operated security grilles that descend from hidden pockets above the ceiling. This arrangement ensures the security of the school, while allowing it to gain revenue from holding events or renting part of the facility to outside groups.

But unattended schools can also present temptations for vandals and criminals looking to create havoc or gain access to expensive technology and equipment. Such events, if they occur, can be expensive lessons for schools that have not addressed these concerns.

Closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) can serve to both deter and prosecute would-be criminals by monitoring and recording activity both inside and outside the building. The entire building perimeter, parking lots, entrances, lobbies, corridors and main public areas such as cafeterias and gymnasiums can be monitored by cameras.

According to the CDW-G School Safety Index 2008, 70 percent of 403 K-12 schools surveyed are using security cameras to monitor schools. While such advanced technology enables schools to do more with the same or fewer security staff, cameras are only part of the overall security plan of an educational institution.

Making School Safety and Security a Priority
One of the biggest security challenges schools face is funding. Of those schools surveyed without electronic security systems, 72 percent cited a lack of budget dollars. More than two-thirds would be dependent on federal or state grants to fund their security needs, and over half reported that the money to upgrade security would need to come from the existing school budget.

In West Virginia, school safety and security has been made a priority. The School Access Safety Act, introduced by the governor and approved by the Legislature last year, helps ensure that school facilities are better secured and their access monitored. The program, funded at $10 million for the first year, allocates grants to all West Virginia county school systems based on student enrollments. To receive funding, each county must develop a School Access Safety Plan and supplement state funds with a minimum of 15 percent local matching funds.

“A safe learning environment is fundamental to a good education system,” said Gov. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. “The events at Virginia Tech have shown us that we must look closely at all of our levels of learning, from elementary schools to college campuses, to see what else can and should be done to ensure the security of our students.”

All “fixes” to security need not be expensive. A comprehensive security assessment – conducted by someone who’s not selling security equipment – can help a school identify vulnerabilities and risks that can often be remedied by procedural fixes.

For example, all schools should have established and enforced protocol for visitors – all visitors, no exceptions. Another fix could be use of a single entrance by everyone, and procedures to guarantee that other doors remain secured but accessible for egress in the event of an emergency. Further, external barriers and obstructions like construction debris or overgrown landscaping should be removed, as they may create opportunity for intruders to hide or gain access.

In the decade since Columbine, we’ve learned not to take security for granted, and have begun to take some concrete steps toward safer, more secure schools. But we remain challenged – by budgets, resources and staff, and most of all, the knowledge of what really can happen.

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