Simple, low-tech solutions for school safety

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

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.

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