Of the hundreds of school shootings that have taken place in the last 50 years, only a few have involved the attacker having to physically break into the building, either through a window or – as in the case of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting – through a glass door. While there is technology available to mitigate that risk even further (including several brands of bullet- and impact-resistant glass), Advanced Data Risk Management LLC President and school security consultant Dan O’Neill says that perimeter security should only be one factor in eliminating easy targets for active shooters.
“Especially in a K-12 environment, an active shooter incident is not likely to occur, but the consequences are potentially higher than anything else they face,” says O’Neill. “Schools should take a hard look at prevention as well as response – identifying potential threats early, providing or arranging for counseling, and actively encouraging the community to come forward with problems.”
He adds: “Classroom doors are robust by design. Add a robust lock, and the typical school shooter’s weapons are not ideal for opening doors. Having a good lock and good lockdown procedures can buy you time. If a door takes too long for the gunner to open, he’s likely to go and look for an easier target.”
Roll-down gates and doors that lock off large sections of a school building also help to isolate the shooter and protect larger groups of students during an incident, O’Neill says.
To Jim Cody, Technology Coordinator at North Bend Central School District, protecting the school is also protecting a community gathering place. As a graduate of the Dodge Country, Nebraska, K-12 district himself, he understood how much access to the school and its resources means to the community, while also comprehending the risk a completely open campus could pose to staff and the district’s 560 students.
Four years ago, the district made the decision to install electronic card access controls to the majority of exterior doors in the school buildings, as well as upgrading wiring and adding more infrastructure for surveillance cameras, and integrating the system together through Genetec’s Security Center solution.
“Years ago, we just left the doors open,” says Cody. “Janitorial staff would open the doors in the morning, lock them once classes had started, and repeat in the afternoon. But they might get called away or miss a door, and it was difficult to rely solely on them for our access control.
“We also had lots of keys floating around the community. The schools’ set of physical locks hadn’t been changed since the early 1970s,” he adds. “We had to trust community event organizers to lock up when they left after a meeting.”
It was a clear move, he says, to switch to an electronic system that can be programmed for reliable access management. Every Monday, school staff meet to review that week’s schedule of extracurricular events and plan the access schedule accordingly. The system checks for updates every few minutes to relay any changes in permissions or lockdown protocols to the doors in the event of an emergency.
“This capability helps us to get ahead of any potential problems, instead of chasing behind with a ring of keys,” Cody says. A principal in each of the district’s buildings can reissue and deactivate cards, so it’s not necessary to call a specialist for missing credentials. This helps to ensure participation and quick resolution of any potential vulnerabilities, he adds.
At Brigham Young University, a need to update access control infrastructure also led to improvements in lockdown capabilities, although it took time to coordinate a new solution. Working with ASSA ABLOY and Software House to find a common system that could gel ASSA ABLOY’s Persona wireless locks with the university’s existing network, eventually the university gained an upgraded 1,000-lock system across the campus that could be installed in-house in less than 30 minutes per lock.
“We have 320 buildings on campus, and all major buildings have electronic access control,” says Steve Goodman, Police Technology and Communications Center Manager for Brigham Young University, based in Provo, Utah. “We were giving options to departments in those buildings to add more locks to their offices, but we were running out of ports on panels, and costs per department were running up after adding in a new $7,000 panel to the estimate. The new system has a much lower up-front cost, as it runs on our network, not relying on nearby panels.”
The construction of 16 new student housing buildings on campus also led to Power over Ethernet (PoE) locks on dorm room doors. “We were already running Ethernet to all of the rooms, and it’s easy to add an extra port per room for access control. It’s an incremental cost – just the cost for the locks, not for a panel.” The Persona locks are also a modular solution, so Goodman and his team can upgrade hardware to accept, for example, near-field communication (NFC) access just by swapping the interface.
“We installed the PoE and hardwired locks in areas that could need lockdown capabilities, like perimeters and housing interiors, and it’s nice to have that ability,” Goodman says. “However, we have a lot of debates and tabletop exercises on when to activate a lockdown or a lockout. If it’s an outdoor shooter and you don’t know where he is or where he’s headed, you want people to be able to get inside to shelter. We want to know where the shooter is first, then we can either lock down one building at a time or do a full-campus, one-button-push lockdown.”
Goodman also relies on the campus’s mass notification system, which is integrated to the police dispatch system for easier deployment of texts, calls, emails, social media announcements, and messages on voice over IP telephones, websites, digital signs and the PA system. The system is tested three times per day, and there are canned messages ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Overall, 21,000 of the campus’s 32,000 students and 5,000 employees have opted in to text notifications.
“For lockdowns, we turn to the police watch commander on duty. For mass notifications, it’s up to the dispatcher. We trust our people to make the best decision in the situation, and if it saves someone’s life – that’s all we can ask for.”
Trusting first responders to make the right call also hinges on getting them the best information, says O’Neill. “One of the most neglected aspects of preparing for active shooter incidents is getting police involved and very familiar with the school layout and plans. I recommend giving police or dispatchers access to maps, schedules and even surveillance feeds, so if there is an incident, they can track the shooter at the police station and feed responders accurate information.”
For lockdown drills, however, O’Neill says that teachers and administrators should run through actual scenarios much more frequently than students: “Think of it as airline passengers and flight attendants. The attendant, or teacher, will tell the passengers, or students, what to do in the event of a crash, but the attendants and pilots are the ones who actually train for it.”
“Overall,” he says, “I want to see a focus on prevention, something better than just response.”