Physical security at schools has become one of the most talked-about elements in childhood education in recent years. With the tragic rise in high-profile school shootings, and the often underwhelming ability to keep students safe in an emergency, a national debate has unfolded around how we keep our nation’s children safe. As a former Secret Service agents, we have found that many of the same principals of security that apply to protecting the President of the United States apply to schools. When it comes to protecting important assets, there are common principals that guide us to success.

What Does Good Security Look Like?

The United States Secret Service trains its’ agents to become the greatest physical security practitioners on the planet. Many people who see Secret Service agents flanking the President know they are experts in responding to emergencies, but overlook what is happening behind the scenes. The Secret Service is above all else experts in preventing emergency situations from ever unfolding in the first place. A flawlessly run Secret Service operation means those agents next to the President never have to lift a finger. Agents spend weeks and months in advance of any event running site assessments and building security procedures, preparing locations to be as safe as possible. The Secret Service is equipped with the most sophisticated of tools, but the general principles for emergency prevention are basic and easily replicable at schools and other institutions around the country.  

School Evaluations from a Secret Service Agent’s Eye:

At SEC we have conducted site assessments to evaluate hundreds of schools and found two problems to be most common:

  1. Too narrow a focus on physical hardware
  2. Too much emphasis on reacting to an emergency

Too narrow a focus on physical hardware

Schools are investing in powerful tools to keep their students safe. From camera systems to doors with sophisticated locks, there are countless products on the market. Some schools worry that because they can’t afford the latest technology they are leaving their students at risk. We have found that when schools put too heavy of a focus on investing in hardware, they can lose sight of their most important tool – humans. Technology is only as good as the people and policies governing them. A fancy camera system streaming to an empty desk is not effective. A sophisticated buzzer for the front door is just a super expensive doorbell if a human doesn’t perform some type of vetting before buzzing each person inside. Without tapping into your human potential, you are not getting the most value. Moreover, it is people who are best at preventative security; identifying warning signs, designing powerful security policies, mentally scripting an emergency scenario and training for the worst. People are you most powerful assets; invest in them before investing in technology. 

Too much emphasis on reacting to an emergency

The focus here is on “react.” The most effective security programs focus on identifying threats before they are threats and building policies to catch issues as early as possible. We can compare building your security plan to building a house. You could build your house with tinder and stock it with fire extinguishers to quell the inevitable fires, or you could build your house with concrete from the outset to make it more indestructible. Create your security plan with concrete, not tinder. Focus your efforts on preventing crises, not reacting to them. Good safety programs incorporate humans and technology, and start with robust, preventative policies and procedures. 

Treat Every Child Like the President

Our philosophy is to give the same consideration to our children as we do the President. This means taking lessons from the Secret Service and reinterpreting them for a school setting. By being prepared with security plans and putting special emphasis on human integration with physical security features, you can create a safe environment for your students. In the words of one of our former protectees, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Plans mean nothing, but planning is everything.”