School Security Post-Columbine
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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.
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
“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
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.
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.
Schools are designed as places of academic learning. But after hours and on
weekends, many are also destinations for plays, concerts, sporting events and
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
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
“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
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.