Back to School Safety and Security in 6 Steps

As schools and childcare centers across the country embark upon the new school year, it is important for owners and administrators to take a fresh look at safety and security. In the midst of a busy school year, some of these checklist items can be put on the back-burner. Schools can use the summer months to refocus and consider: What should owners and administrators review each year to make sure their facilities are safe and secure? 

1. Revisit safety and security policies

All good safety and security starts with robust emergency plans and policy. And while most schools have something in place, rarely is it dusted off and refreshed. The summers months, without the usual day-to-day distractions, is an ideal time to review these procedures. 

High-quality safety and security policies focus on both the goals of the security plan as well as the feasibility of implementation. By starting with what needs to be accomplished — whether that’s protecting students during the day, creating a safe space for after-hours extracurriculars or making the site ready to evacuate in case of a tornado — the policies will be built to fit a purpose. This exercise also often exposed important gaps in the security posture that might require urgent fixes. For example, has summer-time construction changed evacuation plans? Do new front desk personnel have the materials they need to be successful in access control? Do new classroom configuration demand updates to teacher training and awareness?

From a feasibility perspective, policies should be honest about what is achievable. There’s no point installing hundreds of security cameras if there’s no budget to hire a security officer to monitor them. There are ways of stretching your dollar and prioritizing if budget is an issue, but don’t let your eyes be bigger than your wallet. Invest as much as you can, but be smart with how that money is allocated. In cases where money is tight, be wary of fancy new technology. Training and preventative measures will get you further than installing new security equipment. 

Successful policies are also preventative rather than reactive. They focus on addressing issues before they occur, not after. To this end, focus your policies around things like access control and staff training and certification (including how to spot issues and dangerous behavior early, while interventions are still possible). That’s not to say you can neglect the rest. Policies should address all of the major primary response protocols: lock out, lock down, shelter-in-place and evacuate. Policies should go even further and should address how parents are informed of procedures, reunification after an event and the cadence of school-wide trainings. 

The list could go on forever and will vary school to school. The key takeaway is that your policies likely need a refresh, and if you keep them comprehensive, prevention-focused and with an emphasis on training, your school will be set up for success in the coming year. 

2. Revisit safety and security equipment

Equipment, which possibly hasn’t been used since your last drill, ought to be tested before school starts. This includes alarms, locks, cameras, and any other technology that will need to work flawlessly during an actual emergency. While we strongly emphasize policies’ importance over physical hardware, hardware is foundational in a robust physical security posture. Imagine if there’s no one trained to watch your fancy security cameras, your panic button isn’t operational or your access control mechanism doesn’t have a speaker system (you’ve just paid for a very expensive doorbell, nothing more). The physical hardware must be tested over the summer, so it’s functioning on day 1. Moreover, this is a great time to replace broken hardware or add new infrastructure to patch any gaps. 

3. Put safety and security at the heart of staff professional development

Summer is a time for professional development for many schools, giving teachers and staff an opportunity to improve their craft. By making safety and security a core component, schools empower their staff to act during an emergency in accordance with the school’s policies. This is especially true for new staff or staff who hasn’t gone through training in a while; it should be done annually at least. Consider getting your entire staff security certified over the summer. As the Navy SEAL adage goes, “under pressure, we don’t rise to the occasion, we fall to our training.”

4. Confirm relevant emergency information and contacts

People and roles change outside of your organization as well. Make sure you have the most up to date contact information for local first responders as well as offsite locations such as reunification sites or other security contractors. Have their hours changes? Are they still aware of your relationship if roles have changed? Are they up to date on your policies?

5. Set a plan & schedule for drills and trainings

Schools are expected — often regulated — to conduct emergency drills throughout the year. Too often, these are squeezed in at the end of the school year to check a box. But these drills serve a critical function in ensuring everything runs as smoothly as possible during an actual emergency. Students and staff must be up to date and regularly practice these drill for them to be effective. By scheduling these before the school year starts, administrators guarantee their people are prepared at any point during the year. Be sure to front-load the first several weeks of school with at least one of each of the main drills — evacuations, shelter in place, and lockdown. 

6. Communicate changes to parents

Parents have the right and the duty to know what to expect in terms of school safety and security. This included how to access the buildings, what types of drills or trainings their child might receive, how schools communicate during an emergency and what to expect with regard to the reunification plan in case of an evacuation. This ought to be provided to the parents near the beginning of the school year. It will save time answering questions in the long run. 

Don’t wait until you’re underwater

Safety and security has never been more important, and a well secure school helps parents, staff, and students rest easy, as well as even being a competitive value add to your business. During the summer, administrators finally have the headspace to address such critical issues that otherwise get brushes aside during the year. Don’t wait until you’re underwater. Act now. 

For more information about how SEC can help your school get prepared before school starts, visit secureed.com.

The Door Knob Dilemma

Do your classroom door handles have locks on them? Are classroom door locks permitted by the fire marshal in your area? The answer to both of these questions is far from straightforward and the answer varies from school to school and fire district to fire district. Classroom door handle inspection is a standard part of SEC’s site security assessment and we always recommend that doors do have locks that can be easily engaged by staff members from the inside of the classroom.  In our experience, many of the schools and child care centers we visit have not been allowed to place locks on their classroom doors.  When asked “why”, the most common response we receive is that their local fire marshal does not permit them.  When it comes to locks on classroom door handle, security and fire-safety ideas can clash. We advise our clients to be aware of the potential clash and advocate for a solution that fits both security and fire-safety criteria.

Choosing a door handle can seem simple enough, so how can it create so much trouble? The type of handle and lock you choose has many implications for fire-safety and security. Let’s start by looking at the implications of a lock from both perspectives:

Security Implications:

From strictly a security perspective, being able to lock a classroom door is critical to secure staff and students in an efficient and effective manner.

  • Teachers should be able to lock their classroom door from the inside, to keep their class safe from intruders. Sometimes evacuation is not an option, or not the safest option. Recently, a school shooter was stopped in his tracks and because frustrated because the teachers locked the doors so he could not access classrooms. In classrooms with small children where evacuation is much more challenging, this is especially important.
  • Teachers can lock the door from the outside, to secure the classroom during the night.
  • Teachers should be able to unlock the door from the outside so that students cannot accidentally, or purposefully lock teachers out of the classroom or get stuck in the room alone.

Fire Implications:

“Egress” is a critical element of all fire safety protocols — being able to evacuate a building as quickly and efficiently as possible. Door handles should not hinder egress in any way. Locks that you have to manually twist or unlock with a key can hinder egress by delaying your exit out of the building. All outer building doors must have locks, but some fire marshals do not allow any internal classroom door handles to have locks because it has the potential to hinder an efficient evacuation of the classroom.

Can you find a lock that satisfies the ability to evacuate the building without interference, but also has the safety features that allow you to lock the door when necessary? Yes, but it may require additional research and advocacy on your behalf.

The Solution

All schools are required to consult with a fire marshal, and SEC always advises schools to adhere to all fire codes. There currently is no national protocol on locked doors, and different fire marshals have different regulations. We have encountered schools where fire marshals have instructed that no locks are permitted on classroom doors. We recently worked with two schools in the same state in fairly close proximity who had each been given different instructions by their respective fire marshal on this issue.

We believe that there is a solution for all schools, that should satisfy the requirements of all fire marshals and adhere to all security standards. We recommend door handles with a lock button in the middle that automatically unlocks when you twist the door to leave. You twist this door handle in the same motion whether it is locked or not, so the lock does not act as a hindrance to evacuation. In our experience, some fire marshals that originally did not allow door handles with locks ended up accepting these push and twist door handles as a safe and effective option.

Oftentimes in life two “good” causes can seem to be competing. How can you choose just one? When you work to satisfy both causes – in this case, safety and fire criteria—the best results occur. Be informed of your options and advocate for yourself and your security needs when working with a fire marshal. Bring the knowledge that other schools have successfully found a solution, and share all of your priorities and concerns with fire marshals. If you need assistance, please feel free to reach out to SEC. By working together and sharing the knowledge we can create safer schools.

 

The Importance of Sensing Danger

SEC’s experts believe that every person follows a specific path when responding to critical incidents or emergencies:

  1. Sense Danger
  2. Evaluate Response Options
  3. Commit to action

Step One, “sensing danger” seems straightforward – you can only respond to an emergency if you know that it exists. However, when it comes down to it, there are many roadblocks that can prevent people from sensing danger as quickly as might be possible. The faster people are aware that an emergency exists, the faster they can go through the rest of the response process and find their way to safety.

The five senses can be major roadblocks in sensing danger. How many times have we heard of someone confusing gunfire for “fireworks?” Historically, people have relied on their senses to alert them to danger – the sound of a gunshot, the smell of fire, the sight of a dangerous person. However, human brains are naturally predisposed to attribute sounds and other sensory observations to things more typical of daily life. This confusion can drastically slow down your response process.

Inability to share information can be another roadblock to sensing danger. Once one person identifies that an emergency exists, they can help other people by quickly sharing that information. If someone sees a gunman but has no way to share that information with the other people in their building, everyone else is at a disadvantage because they cannot begin to execute an emergency response.

The solution to effectively sensing danger is comprehensive alert systems. Unlike relying on your senses, an alert system makes it clear that danger is present. Alert systems can also disseminate information to many people at the same time. Institutions across all industries have set up alert systems. Think about severe weather alerts, alerts to suspicious activity on our bank accounts, or engine alerts on your car.

Schools have almost perfected their fire-alert systems. Schools have fire alarms that alert building occupants of a fire and automatically alert local fire departments of the emergency. All staff and students are trained to understand the alert, so when they hear it, they immediately sense the danger and can begin to respond in carefully crafted ways. It has been years since a child has died from a fire in a school building. Fire safety in school is proof that comprehensive alert systems do work.

While schools are increasingly well prepared for violent incidents including active shooter, fire preparation is generations ahead of where we are for violent attacks. We can take many lessons from the “fire-preparation” movement to apply to active shooter situations. Efficient alerts are one key concept.

In an active-violence situation, an effective alert will clearly and quickly inform others of the violence. Schools should utilize “plain-language” alerts (i.e. “Alert – there is a shooter in the building,”) or conduct drills to train students and teachers to immediately recognize alerts sounds. When the alert goes out quickly, people can begin to respond to the danger before they are physically confronted by it.

What specific alerts do we recommend? There are some great high-tech systems on the market, but many are not widely used or available. Your alert system does not need to be too elaborate or expensive. Phone PA systems, email, or text, are common alert systems, but keep in mind that these have their limitations. Many PA systems are not accessible by all, the speakers are not loud enough, and people don’t have the immediate enough access to phones and email to make those methods useful. Organizations can take lower cost steps by utilizing tools like boat air horns, coast guard whistles, or plain language voice alerts that can quickly be spread around a facility.

The key to a good emergency alert system is having a plan that is easily accessible and understood by all. How does your school plan to alert people in the event of an active shooter situation, or other emergencies? Develop a plan and share it will all stakeholders. If you need assistance developing a strong alert system, reach out to SEC.