Schools … and Security Expectations

Can you think of a place where safety and security is more important than a school?

I suppose you could argue things like nuclear power plants, a municipal water supply or an airport. As angry as we may get when security at one of these types of facilities is breached or found to be lax, it doesn’t raise the same emotional response as does an attack on innocent school children.

As a security consulting firm, our job is to design systems that meet expectations and budgets.

But the difficulty with meeting budget expectations is obvious. The client almost always needs to accomplish more than the budget permits. Expectations, then, at least on the surface, sound easier. By asking the right questions, we can define what needs to be accomplished and what technology exists to achieve the goal. The challenges really emerge though when you consider how the facility is used, and designing a system that is not a major impediment to daily operations.

Many school systems start with the idea that they need to protect against a violent attack. But as we delve into other areas, we often find the added value that a good video system offers.

Coverage of student parking lots at the high school level becomes important when you think about the potential for crime in these areas. Hallway and cafeteria coverage may help prevent some instances of bullying, or at least assist with investigating reports of abuse. Cameras in remote or blind spot areas may deter certain drug activities.

What sort of system is required nearly always starts with asking the various stakeholders about their objectives, and then figuring out what their tolerance is for inconvenience and intrusion on privacy. Our firm has worked with a handful of both private and public schools to date.

We have seen many commonalities between the various projects.

Video surveillance seems to be at the top of everyone’s list, even ahead of electronic access control systems. First and foremost, they want the entry and exit points covered. Cafeterias, gyms and other areas where a high number of people may be gathered at one time are next on the list.

In our experience, classrooms don’t even make the list unless there is an exit directly to the exterior of the building within the classroom. In such cases, an interior camera view would have to be limited to the immediate vicinity of the door in order to capture an image of someone entering through that door, without viewing the classroom itself. Typically, cameras are not deployed in all classrooms due to privacy concerns and budget limitations.

Exterior areas such as the building perimeter, parking lots and nearby paths through adjacent wooded areas were also on the list of desired video coverage areas. No one may be actively monitoring cameras at these locations, but the thought was to capture as much useable video as possible of a perpetrator no matter what approach to the school was used.

When budgets are tight, we recommend cutting back on the quantity of cameras rather than the quality. So far, our school system clients, both public and private, have accepted that recommendation, often pre-wiring for future cameras in a phase 2 or 3 rather than installing no-name, cheaper brands and risking low quality video or higher fail rates down the road.

We tend to make a similar recommendation when it comes to video management platforms and stick with what we know works well and will integrate easily with other systems if required. So far, schools have accepted this, and, if necessary, will reduce cost by reducing hard drive size with the intention to upgrade later as more cameras are added.

Remote access, so far, has been limited to school staff or local police departments. Installation costs may be funded through a grant or by some other means, but the operating costs associated with a remote monitoring service usually aren’t available.

Electronic access control systems generally come in at second place behind video systems. Schools tend to already have access controls covered, to an extent, with mechanical locks.

The advantage of being able to schedule certain doors to lock at pre-determined times and to view audit trails to quickly lock down all or a portion of the building from a single location or to be quickly notified of a door propped open are clear, but when the budget is limited, cameras are seen as more of a necessity, and the advantages of electronic access control may be viewed as more of a luxury.

They’ll do it, we’re told … just not right now.

Our last project involved a large school district in New Hampshire. A comprehensive video system again topped the list. But this time, panic alarms found themselves in second place. They wanted to provide a quick and easy means for staff to be able to summon a full scale emergency response from anywhere in the school. We accomplished this by recommending a mobile panic alarm system throughout the school. The system features wireless devices issued to key personnel who carry them on their person throughout the day.

The challenge here, though, was to do thorough testing to make sure there were no dead spots anywhere in the facility where the panic signal would not be picked up when a teacher or staff person activated the wireless device.

The public schools we’ve dealt with were required to issue a Request for Proposal and accept the lowest qualified bid. So, it was vital that the specifications for the desired systems be well-written and very specific with regard to installation and programming. The rules didn’t allow us to specify just one brand for each system component.

So, rather than write the specs around one preferred brand, “or equal,” we listed “approved equals” on the bid spec. This met the public bid requirements without leaving it to a systems integrator to determine what an equal was and what wasn’t.

The public and private schools we’ve helped to design security systems realized going in that there were no easy or quick fixes to the complex challenge of school security. They first and foremost had prevention on their minds, but also recognized that the systems, especially video, may become invaluable in investigating an incident.

The approach was to start with whatever they thought would deliver the biggest bang for the buck, and plan to supplement that with money from future budgets.

David C. Sawyer is president of Safer Places, Inc., a full-service firm based in Middleboro, Massachusetts that specializes in security consulting, pre-employment screening and tenant screening.

(Visited 8 times, 1 visits today)

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

Leave a Reply