What if I told you that the average age of K-12 schools in the United States is almost 50 years old? That means most of the population in the United States is younger than the average school building.
Why is that important? Design and security concepts have drastically changed over the past half-century. What may have been adequate in the 1960s is no longer sufficient for today's education standards for safety. Not only has technology evolved, but so have the threats that face our country.
Long overcrowded hallways, easily accessible rooms and open conditions have not only become an opportunity for assailants but also increasingly difficult to protect for school administrators and security personnel. With the total number of public schools decreased by nearly 60% in the last century, district consolidation is leading to overpopulation. The outdated designs, along with limited budgets for renovations, create an even more difficult task for first responders to gain control of a situation. So, the question is, how do we move forward from here?
Currently, the United States spends roughly $3 billion on school security systems. While this amount is staggering, it pales in comparison to the $700 billion spent by taxpayers pay on schools in general. The $3 billion often includes high-tech solutions such as video surveillance systems and facial recognition programs; however, it still does not include the amount spent on security personnel. With this massive security budget, the question arises, are these high-tech solutions providing the best solution to preventing crime within schools?
Several new security principles have been introduced in the past 30 years that might provide a potential solution. For example, the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) offer a range of design solutions, often at a relatively low cost. CPTED focuses on reducing crime by designing the environment in such a way that it eliminates opportunities for threats to arise while simultaneously fostering a positive atmosphere. CPTED utilizes four basic strategies to accomplish this: natural surveillance, access control, territorial reinforcement, and maintenance.
If we can change the situation with concepts such as natural surveillance and access control and enhance schools' security posture with procedures such as exterior doors remaining locked during school hours, we would make these places of learning much harder to target. Ultimately, however, the responsibility of ensuring doors remain closed and locked during school hours falls upon the staff and the teachers.
From a security design perspective, the current challenge facing schools is modernizing an outdated system to meet today's threats. Modifications such as adding a see-through perimeter fence around school property, not only act as territorial reinforcement but also provide controlled access onto the premises. This is a means to extend the perimeter to provide early warning. Such fences do not need to be prison-like. There are many creative ways to create boundaries that fit the aesthetics and feel of schools. Designing a layout so visitors must pass through an area controlled by the administration office to gain entrance will increase natural surveillance into the area. These measures can be enhanced via door alarm systems that notify school administration when there is an unsecured door. Additionally, the orientation of classrooms and their doors can also increase natural surveillance and can be fortified with protective glazing that is inexpensive and effective in protecting students and staff.
While some schools around the country have increased funding, enhancing their security by adding shot and weapons detection systems, remote locking of interior doors, and virtual fences that use state-of-the-art video surveillance systems, these options may not be attainable by all schools. Technology alone will not solve school attacks and should be used as a tool to enhance schools' security programs.
Solutions such as enhanced communications, paired with design changes and improved procedures, can be more affordable than state-of-the-art technologies yet highly effective. Resources such as mass notification systems can alert school personnel of an evolving situation as well as provide early warning to authorities. These systems can be integrated into the schools existing PA system to provide an audible alarm or discretely to a personal cellphone. When supported by cameras, these systems afford security personnel real-time tracking along with the ability to pass pertinent information to authorities before their arrival, such as the location and description of the assailant. Lastly, well-rehearsed standard operating procedures guide school personnel and help alleviate confusion during a time of crisis. A combination of these procedures should be practiced regularly, and if possible, law enforcement should be involved. Funding every school with a trained SRO should be standard practice.
Security surveys and assessments are often relatively low in cost and provide the school with a list of threats and vulnerabilities along with potential solutions at varying costs. To assist in these costs, the Department of Homeland Security has begun introducing grant programs that offer schools funding around the country for security projects. Additionally, recent modifications to the American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) Plan have lifted restrictions on COVID spending. Not only has the modification extended the time in which schools must spend their money, but also has opened up what they may spend it on. The funding, which only sits at roughly 3% spent, is now authorized to be spent on school projects and upgrades. This will provide much-needed relief for schools that are limited by funding when it comes to security.
Physical security solutions can range in complexity and effectiveness. The key takeaway is that modern problems need modern solutions that should be designed by professional security firms. Another set of eyes on the issue to assist with developing the right risk mitigation measures. Threats, whether to personnel or infrastructure, are evolving every day.
Whether dealing with a renovation or a new design, physical security professionals strive for continuous improvement and seek ways to increase the safety of the known environment. Although we cannot simply rebuild every school in the United States, we can increase the safety of existing buildings and facilities, and drive change in the design of future schools to make them safer for our children.