Simple, low-tech solutions for school safety

Simple, low-tech solutions for school safety

Summary: Before politicians take the next 4 years to debate gun control legislation of dubious merit, there are things that schools, districts, and communities can begin doing right now to keep our kids safer at school.

TOPICS: Education, Security

Last week, Newtowne, CT, and the nation as a whole, witnessed an unspeakable crime in one of the safest, more affluent communities in America. Our hearts collectively broke for the kids, educators, parents, friends, and loved ones. As our thoughts turned to our own children and schools, the calls for everything from assault weapon bans to arming teachers like federal marshalls on airline flights became a cacaphony of grief, fear, and desparation.

This is totally natural and I hope that a reasonable conversation on gun control comes out of it. However, conversations about gun control and related policy matters are rarely reasonable and most likely won't be especially timely. Nor will any legislative action around specific gun control measures be a panacea for school safety. Determined and sophisticated attackers will find means other than an assault rifle with an extended magazine to threaten our children. So let's set gun control aside for a bit.

Instead, let's think about some very reasonable, affordable solutions that don't literally require an act of Congress to move forward. Just as gun control legislation won't be a cure-all, neither will these, but they can definitely be part of an holistic approach to ensuring that schools are the safe havens they are supposed to be for young people. I'd like to thank Tony Roman, CEO of Roman & Associates (a full-service security, investigation, and risk management firm with a worldwide portfolio of clients from banks and insurance companies to art museums and schools), who reached out to me this week for a long and informative discussion about school security.

As Mr. Roman pointed out, the entire tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary unfolded over less than five minutes. By the time police arrived, it was over and the shooter had killed himself after taking 26 lives at the school in addition to his own. Tony explained that schools don't need to jail-like institutions and the extreme solution of armed teachers is both unnecessary and dangerous. Rather, in the security field, he said, "10 minutes is the magic number...what schools need to be able to do is buy time."

Interestingly, when a fire alarm gets pulled in a school, even if it's just by a kid who doesn't want to take a test the next period, the fire department is automatically called and dispatched to the school and fire personnel must clear the building before students are allowed back in. Yet few schools have such a system for automatically contacting police if the school perimeter is breached or if staff hit a "silent alarm". This sort of alarm that doesn't require staff to waste precious moments calling police (if they are even able to do so), explaining the situation, having the call passed through to dispatch, and finally getting officers on the scene.

Banks have had these so-called silent alarms for so long that every movie or television show featuring a bank holdup inevitably makes some mention of whether or not it was activated. But our schools? We just hope that someone who knows what's going on is still capable of making a phone call.

Continuing along the lines of buying time, security experts generally agree that simple door and lock upgrades could make every classroom a "safe room" or "panic room" (yes, the same safe rooms that the wealthy and powerful build in their homes and offices to protect themselves and their families from would-be attackers and kidnappers). Schools have the advantage of generally being built like concrete bunkers to meet specific fire codes and contain costs. Thus, most classrooms have only a single point of entry. Robust locks that can't easily be kicked or shot open will deter and delay all but the most determined of attackers.

Most schools have a lockdown procedure and it's clear that the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary executed their lockdown with aplomb. However, a lockdown is only as good as its locks. Newer schools will often have intrusion-resistant doors and locks, but the many older schools in the country could benefit more from classroom door upgrades than any computer upgrades I could dream up.

The final facilities upgrades that Tony recommended also largely apply to older schools, but aging schools far outnumber modern facilities in this country. Essentially, the goal is to absolutely and transparently control entrance to and egress from the school. All doors other than the front door, for example, should have panic bars installed for rapid evacuation but be 100% inaccessible from the outside. These doors also all need to be centrally monitored to ensure that they are always closed and locking mechanisms are never bypassed. Finally, while security cameras can be incredibly sophisticated with thermal imaging and automatic license plate screening, they can also support administrators and first respodeers with eyes in every corridor

A typical set of upgrades for a mid-sized school would run between $150,000 and $250,000 with nominal yearly maintenance fees. Yet a look back at Sandy Hook reveals that such a system could have had police on the scene nearly 2 minutes earlier and kept the attacker wandering long enough to possibly have dramatically changed the outcome. Certainly this is worth the cost of a full tech refresh.

As one security expert put it on NPR earlier this week, 

"I'm being inundated with phone calls from schools looking to improve their safety. My question for them is, 'Why weren't you calling me before now?'"

None of this is rocket science. None of this is high-tech wizardry. It's a set of simple, low-tech physical security upgrades that need to be on every school's budget for the coming year. There simply isn't any excuse to accept less.

Topics: Education, Security

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Great Logical Post

    I agree with everything here! The problem is that schools are looking to cut costs (still) rather than provide a safe experience for their kids
  • Talking to those who know best

    Nice job, Chris. It sounds like you talked to someone who specializes in this, a smarter choice then taking advice from some fool in the NRA.

    I deal with schools all the time (they are our clients) and at times I do drop by on site in the course of my job. You would be surprised to know that while many of the schools we deal with already have security measures as was mentioned, many don't.

    The best way to avoid things like this isn't putting one or two armed guards in the school hoping they'll be in the right place at the right time in the building before the gunman pulls the trigger, instead keeping the gunman OUT of the building altogether.

    What happens if those two police officers are taken out? Then the gunman just killed you're security system. Or there are more then one gunman (Columbine)? Now one has occupied you're security, and the other has free range of the whole school.
    William Farrel
    • Except you can't.

      "You would be surprised to know that while many of the schools we deal with already have security measures as was mentioned, many don't."

      In the most recent shooting, the school had just increased their security measures. It did them no good. Problem wasn't the procedures. The procedures were fine. The problem is that you can't really tell who is a potential gunman, and furthermore, the REAL problem is that we have a broken culture that puts into every movie, TV show, and video game the idea that shooting other people is fun.

      " instead keeping the gunman OUT of the building altogether."

      Except you can't. If any school thought these people were potential gunmen, you know they'd do their darnedest to keep them out of the school. Problem is, they didn't know, and furthermore there's no good way of knowing.

      "What happens if those two police officers are taken out?"

      Then the policemen have pretty lousy training. The chances of taking two officers out should be minimal. Most of these shooters don't appear to have any training themselves, so they really shouldn't be a threat to well-trained officers.
      • Ya gotta love how to the gun control nut burgers

        a crazed shooter is somehow a special forces navy SEAL who always hits his targets, and is totally unstoppable by mere mortals, and how suddenly all teachers that we trust our children with every day are completely incompetent and would immediately injure themselves and every child in the school were they to actually be carrying a gun.

        Such is the mentality and critical thinking ability of your typical liberal.
        • You obviously haven't been a teacher

          I think I'll blame Bruce Willis for putting the idea into every dumb shmuck with a gun that they can take out all the "baddies" and emerge triumphant with Xmas songs singing in the background. Of course gun violence never happened before DOOM was invented and we were all pacifists until Hollywood started making movies.

          If there are more guns in schools then kids WILL get to them - they manage to grab everything else in a school, so guns shouldn't be a problem.

          The rest of the world despairs of the USA. You can ban fireworks, tag explosives and forbid people from purchasing missiles and tactical nukes, but assault weapons are somehow free from this logic. I've used .303s, bren guns, and shotguns and understand the attraction of destruction, which is exactly why I'd like to make sure the general community doesn't have guns. When you only have a gun to solve your problems, then everything is a target.

          If you can babyproof a home to ensure your children don't get a nasty bump, why would you put weapons in schools? Living in Australia which has had a few nasty massacres, we now have strict gun control laws. I've taken a knife or two from a student who had delusions of using it to protect them from bullies, I don't want to see a student turning up with one of their parent's assault weapons.
          • The moment you used the word

            Assault rifle, you labeled yourself an ignorant, propagandized tool. Assault rifles in the military sense have been illegal since 1934. When a gun control nut burger uses the term assault rifle today, what he means is a gun that looks really scary. And, of course, like all good, unthinking gun control nut burgers, you think arming teachers simply means dumping a bunch of guns in a box and having a raffle draw. Arming a teacher includes training. Here's the truth. You are so afraid of guns, you'll put your children at risk rather than protect them.
          • I see you've been watching Die Hard...

            Good flick but it's make believe. IMHO a teacher or administrator who is trained in gun safety and gun handling would be an effective last line of defense - not a deterrent but as a last line of defense. The deterrent would be two-fold: The security measures Chris mentioned in is article and the presense of at least 2 obviously armed resource officers - be they ex police or ex military. The "gun free" zones are nothing more than an express invitation to any nutjob with a gun saying "easy victims within".

            I have to agree that the gun regulations in the US are a bit ridiculous... IMHO as a US citizen and a gun ownership proponent guns need to be better regulated - regulate them like automobiles with a yearly inspection of all registered firearms, educate the gun owner - heck educate everyone - in how to handle a gun safely and train them HOW to use it even if they never pick one up again, and evaluate the registered gun owner on his/her skills, knowledge, and mental stability.
    • Personally

      I think a mix of the security measures in Chris's article as well as at least 2 armed resource officers - which would give returning military veterans a job - or a trained teacher or administrator would be the ticket. IMHO an obvious armed presence would go a long way to deter someone from attempting to enter the building and the security measures in the article would help tie up the would be attacker until help arrives.
  • All for the good, but not all schools are within a 10 minute response!

    As for dangerous to be armed within the school. I'd be surprised to find that more then a few teachers, administrators, and support staff have not served in the armed forces, some having more training then local police.

    One solution does not fit all!
    Lost Target
    • proper defense requires training and continuous alarm state

      A gunman arises and starts killing people. All this happens in only a few seconds. To prevent this a heavily armed security guide would have to be in a fully alarmed state all the time. Impossible. That's also the reason why carrying a weapon makes no sense.
      • The facts show you wrong. The Newtown shooter

        entered the front office, and the principle tried to tackle him and was killed. If, instead, she had been armed with a Glock, the shooter would have been killed, and no one else would have been injured.

        This idea that it is somehow morally superior to get all shot to hell by a lunatic instead of carrying a gun is the most asinine thought process to ever come out of the liberal mind.
        • When did your brain death occur?

          Here's how an intelligent person would have written your sentence. Notice it starts and ends the same way, but with a few more details in between.

          If she had been armed with a Glock --- was wearing body armor, had formal combat training, was a good shot, and could somehow dodge the spray of bullets coming out of the shooters ASSAULT RIFLE -- the shooter would have been killed.

          Get yourself an education and therapy, you desperately need both.
          • Education

            You are right that a single person armed with a Glock is no guarantee against this sort of thing, but that is more or less where your correctness stops. You have a huge number of misconceptions there and a very Hollywood idea of an "assault rifle".

            Here is the situation:

            1.) If you can close range that semi-auto rifle loses much of it's advantage. At melee range it is a liability. If you are in cover and the shooter is in the open chasing innocent people it also evens the odds. Since we are talking schools here this will often be possible.
            2.) Getting shot doesn't hurt less if you are carrying an AR-15 than if you are carrying a banana. Shot is shot.
            3.) If the shooter is not a tactical god why would you expect it would require a tactical god to shoot him? Carrying an AR-15 does not suddenly make him Rambo. Most police are not tactigods or incredible marksmen either btw. Many CCW folks are ex-military, ex LEO, or are simply willing to put in the time on training. Not all of course, but on average you can expect a CCW holder to be marginally better trained than the shooter.
            4.) Mass shooters do not have a "gun radar" where they can walk into a building, smell who has a concealed weapon, and shoot them first. He has to contend with the fact that ANYONE might be armed and that he may be hit from any direction at any time. That rifle does the shooter little good if he is shot in the back because he is too busy mowing down kids to notice.
            5.) You don't have to win, just buy time. If you can't close range but can take safe shots (ie good backstop behind the target) from good cover you can force the shooter to focus their attention on you in a stalemate... and buy time for the cavalry to get there.

            Victory is hardly guaranteed, but it is also very far from hopeless. Certainly better than no odds. And the odds get better and better with more people.

            I'm not for arming teachers who don't wish it, but at the same time there isn't really any cause for banning teachers with CCW permits from carrying in schools.
          • More brain death

            1) Taking cover in a school? Gonna find a great spot in the cafeteria to provide covering fire?

            2) Yes, getting shot HURTS even if you are wearing body armor, a fact that you almost completely ignored. So when the perpetrator feels the impact, he's going to turn around, and BLOW AWAY the shooter.

            3) Your average CCW is going to be better trained? Well that's an absurd assumption, but even then IT DOESN'T MATTER. Your average CCW isn't wearing body armor, your average perpetrator does.

            4) THAT'S WHY THEY WEAR BODY ARMOR. And if you don't get REAL lucky and kill him with your first shot (which will be a MIRACLE considering how much adrenaline you're pumping and loss of fine motor skills) he's going to turn around and BLOW YOU AWAY. As he moves along to his next victim, he might give you a nice little nod saying, thanks for pointing yourself out.

            5) Buy time by distracting the shooter? What universe are you living in? You're going to be carrying a couple hundred rounds on you at all times? What, you think you're going to have lots of time to find some nice little perfectly covered sniper spot to distract the shooter? Please.

            Your points are laughably pathetic. It's ironic that you suggest I have a Hollywood idea of assault rifles. You are the one living in a fantasy world if you believe your average CCW is in any way equipped to deal with a COMBAT situation. Get therapy, you desperately need it.
          • Insults make your arguments more correct?

            1.) Most schools I grew up in are inundated with cinder block doorways. A cafeteria is about as bad as it gets (good job cherry picking), but even cafeterias have doorways. All of my schools also had nice big concrete pillars. Mileage of course varies depending on the school.

            2.) Not all shooters wear body armor. Not all body armor is equal. Getting hit in soft body armor like LEOs use (most probable) hurts like crazy, can break ribs, and seriously knock the wind out of someone. It can be very disorienting. That can buy time to close where you can bypass the body armor or (if physically capable) tackle the guy. Body armor also doesn't cover head to toe. "Aiming for the leg" is generally a bad idea, but many shots still end up on the head, arms or legs where body armor does not help.

            3.) Admittedly that is an anecdotal assumption based on my own life experience. The CCW people I have met tend to be ex-military, ex-leo, or enthusiast marksmen. The shooters are often relatively untrained or only self-trained. I would want to analyze that better before swearing to it. As always we are talking average here not guarantees.

            4.) Again you ascribe Hollywood villain capabilities to the shooter (superb marksman, laughs in the face of pain, lightning reflexes, perfect emotional control under fire) and real-world capabilities to the person trying to stop him. The adrenaline motor skill bit works both ways. Even assuming Sergeant Andrew Scott Jr here takes the hit no problem (can happen), snaps the rifle back up and kills you before you can get another hit in or close, at least it is now a winded shooter in serious pain. Better result than dying trying to tackle him. As baggins noted many mass-killers give up or commit suicide on the spot when confronted, let alone shot, body armor or no.

            5.) A person with something like a compact Glock 9mm and a single extra magazine would have 25 rounds to make them keep their head down with. That may be enough to hold until the cavalry comes. Or maybe you just buy 20 seconds. Depends on the shooter and luck. But you certainly break the tempo of the rampage, force him to stop and think. And that is 20 seconds more that people had to lock doors, take precautions and escape, and 20 seconds less time the shooter has to kill. You don"t need a "perfect sniper spot". Doorways and hall corners work. Anywhere they have to come across open ground to remove your cover.

            You seem to be thinking in a binary fashion. ie, if a single CCW individual could not stop any shooter 100% of the time then it is pointless. Real gunfights are chaotic, messy things and equipment and training only tilt odds. If someone is willing to risk their life to save others in a mass killing I would like their odds to be better than hopeless.

            Your primary method of discourse/problem-solving seems to be TO SAY IT IN CAPS, obfuscate through sarcasm, and throw insults. Yet I'm the one requiring therapy?
          • This isn't a debate...

            I'm MOCKING you.


            The guy, who has forgotten more than you'll ever know about combat, says right off the bat that people like you are living in a fantasy world. Like I said, get therapy, you desperately need it.
          • Carry on

            "I'm MOCKING you."

            I know. You are cognitively locked at this point it is not as if I can change your mind. But those still in the middle with open minds get to watch you doing your court jester routine with bells on in the face of information and take note of who sounds like they are using their grey matter. So please. Do continue.

            As for the video, lots of people know more than I'll ever know about combat. And many hold different opinions on the subject. Since hard data is scarce its a tricky subject even for people with experience.

            The video was HILARIOUS. They take random kids who have never used a gun and put them into a simulated situation that a member of seal team six would struggle with in real life. They make it REALLY obvious to the "shooter" who the person with the gun is because everyone else in the room reacts according to the script. Assuming that he didn't already know since the gun goes straight from the teacher to him. They give them shirts designed to trap the gun. And work gloves. And the "shooter" is a firearms instructor who knows he is in no danger. And they put them in nearly the worst place in the room to go unnoticed or escape.

            Stack that deck any harder and you could climb to the moon.

            What's next? Saying people shouldn't drive because people who have never driven before can't run Pikes Peak at race speeds?

            Then the news anchor trying to do a quick draw in a situation where only a very very small group of people would have a chance..... Yeah, this is not a study, it's a poorly done hit piece.

            No one does well getting jumped completely out of the blue by someone with a gun. Brain takes time to put things together and an untrained draw from concealment is a multi-second process. But that was already factored into my thinking on the subject so you can put that strawman away now.

            Here is a more interesting study: take a few people who have only punched paper a few times a year but have no combat experience or training. Give them a two day course on how to conduct themselves during these events. Come back a year later and run them through a simulation of what happens when gunfire erupts in a neighboring room when they aren't expecting it. Make sure it is not funded by Brady or the NRA and let it be peer reviewed and replicated. Science!
          • And now I'M mocking YOU

            Dude what part of the fact that these shooters are basically cowards behind guns do you not get? Why do you think they kill themselves when a real threat to themselves shows up? As for your link there are likely 100 more that say the guy in your link is wrong. Even if he is right he and you are missing the point which is to slow the shooter down or to incapacitate or kill him quickly. Even in body armor a shot will hurt provided it hits the armor and not an unprotected part.
          • Pathetic indeed. Where do you idiotic trolls come from? vats of some sort..

            1) There are hallways, columns, and other places for cover - it depends on the design of the school... in my old school there were brick columns that ringed the cafeteria.

            2) That also depends on where the defending shooter is - if they take the shot and duck behind a column, in a doorway, or dodge down a hallway there is a chance they won't get blown away... and that is assuming that the shot hits the body armor and not an exposed area of the invading shooter.

            3) "Your average CCW isn't wearing body armor, your average perpetrator does." And THAT should be a red flag right there. However the body armor does NOT cover the head, the arms, or the legs - it covers the torso. And most people with CCW DO indeed practice quite often are more likely to be better shots with a handgun than your "average perpetrator" is with an "assult weapon" - which is a term that is a complete misnomer and automatically proves YOUR ignorance of the subject.

            4) I covered this bit of your idiocy above.

            5) Yes buy time for the police to arrive, for the children to be taken/hidden somewhere safe - which is the goal after all.

            Speaking of people who need therapy jackbond you sir are a prime candidate for it.
          • The facts once again

            Prove you wrong. When a lunatic shooter is confronted with a gun, they usually commit suicide at that point or surrender. Look it up. In other words, take your own advice.