School Safety: Lessons Learned

In a perfect world, schools are places where teachers can focus on educating young minds and students can focus on learning, unbothered by external threats or concerns. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. The horrific tragedy that took place in Parkland Florida is just the most recent in a long line of terrible events occurring in our schools.  Despite the shocking event and community devastation, students will return to school and hopefully assume their normal routine. This process of returning can be challenging unless the school and community take necessary steps ensuring the school community is safe.

The recent rise in school violence prompted us to attend the A4LE School Safety and Security Symposium in Dallas, Texas on March 1-2, 2019. Staying current with the newest technologies and strategies regarding campus safety as well as revisit and refresh ourselves on what we already know, is a high priority in our design approach for the schools we design.

We know designing safe schools is not only about keeping intruders off campus, but also about helping students feel safe each and every day. It is important to work with the community, emergency personnel, school staff, and school leaders to thoughtfully address user concerns.  At the symposium, the breakout sessions covered topics including:

There was so much useful information …too much to talk about in one blog…so we will do a series of blogs.  For this blog, we will discuss all we learned about interior and exterior factors as they relate to safety and security.  But before we talk about those, we wanted to share some common sense takeaways.


If you are doing a safety and security evaluation for your campus, observe the campus, how the students and staff use the facilities, traffic patterns on the campus and the surrounding areas.  Examine the building envelope, exterior doors and hardware, windows and use of glazing… or lack of. Take note of entries and exits, blind spots that may need additional security cameras, and fencing to determine the level of risk present and how risk can be mitigated to increase the safety of the campus.

Building Perimeter Security

Many campus leaders are looking to enhance how people, goods and services enter their facilities. A secure, gated entry requiring card access can prevent unauthorized entry, and when prevention fails, the entrance should mitigate an intruder’s ability to enter the facility. The goal of the secured entrance is to detect, deflect and deter the potential attack long enough so that law enforcement can be summoned and the campus can be locked down.

Phil Santori, the Security Consultant for Sandy Hook and World Trade Center Sites provided comprehensive strategies based on lessons learned from those two events.   Mr. Santori and other speaker discussed the importance of having a direct view from the main building to the parking lot and drives leading to the campus. Natural surveillance is a powerful tool because aggressors are afraid that people can see their activities. Natural surveillance means people can see each other without technology. It can even exist where a person who is considering committing a crime merely perceives that they are being watched.  Natural surveillance and line of sight should be maximized as much as possible on campuses. The thoughtful placement of windows in relation to student bicycle racks and visitor parking lots is another way to enhance visibility on campus and increase campus security.

For an existing campus or if designing a new campus, try to designate school bus drop-off and pick up areas, parent car drop-off, and pick-up areas, and staff parking areas in separate areas.  The road providing school bus access to the school should be separate from the road providing parent access. Any connection between the two areas should be gated, restricting access to school personnel only.

Fencing and Gates

Fences should encourage entry to areas that are highly visible and well monitored, preferably under video surveillance. Fences alone will not prevent unauthorized access, but they will make persons approaching the facility from unobserved or remote areas more obvious. Fences also make it more difficult to access the site. Fences and perimeter boundary definition serve as the first layer of security for persons to gain access to the main entrance. If fencing will be installed, make sure that it is at least five feet tall to prevent reach over to grab young children.


Points of Entry and Door Hardware

Another very important topic in many of the sessions was the discussion on points of entry.  Multiple points of entry make it difficult to control who is able to gain access to a school. Having one main point of entry and reconfiguring other doors to be exit-only, building-access points can be better controlled.  This way, exterior doors can be locked during school hours to control visitor access. Even the type of locks used can increase the safety for students. Using automatic door-locking systems can be utilized to increase safety, so when a threat is determined, a single button can be pushed to lock all or specific doors in the facility, eliminating easy access to classrooms.

Most of the presenters discussed the importance of adding a secure vestibule at the main entry.   A secure, reinforced vestibule will enhance security layering and screening.  The vestibules allow all visitors to show credentials before the administrative staff allows them to enter the main building.  Installing hardware designed to resist tampering should also be considered. Adding window glazing and film to resist glass breakage makes it more difficult for intruders. Window glazing supports natural surveillance and acts as a strong physical barrier making a forced entry more difficult.  The consultant from Sandy Hook suggested the vestibule glass be SchoolGuard or to add two layers of SG5 film to existing glass.

Door hardware and monitoring are extremely important.   All exterior doors should be monitored electronically if possible.  The installation of motion detectors and/or alarms at doors that should always be closed is an effective tool to increase safety.  Maintain all equipment to ensure sensors and latches are in proper working order. The use of a latch device needs to show it’s actually engaged. Establish rules or policies prohibiting propping doors open. Propping doors in the open position is tantamount to an invitation for anyone to enter whether they are welcome or not. On all exit doors, only use non-removable pins.

Safety and Security Devices

At elementary school campuses, an intercom or video callbox can be installed on the outside door, and with the installation of a magnetic lock, can be opened remotely with the push of a button.  This allows the main office or administrative area to screen all guests before allowing permission to enter the building. Electric Strikes are door-locking devices installed in the place of the conventional strike plate and can be another added measure of security, traffic control and also have the convenience of remote operation.

Student and staff ID and access cards have become common in schools and are highly recommended.  A school can use ID cards to implement different policies to enhance security.  When it comes to choosing an ID card, the possibilities are endless and there are many different factors to consider.  Some smaller, community schools use ID cards simply for identification, with the school’s logo, the student name, and their photo.  Having a policy stating that all students and staff must carry their ID card at all times is a simple measure to enforce. This helps detect unwanted visitors to the campus. Some larger schools use ID cards to perform a function.  They can have magnetic strips or internal chips programmed in them to perform school functions like attendance, cafeteria, and library access and use and also entry and exit to buildings.

Panic and duress buttons allow staff to discreetly summon for help.  Having a panic button in the main office or administration area is a type of communication technology allowing school staff to rapidly and sometimes discreetly notify emergency personnel when they are in need of assistance by simply pressing a button.  When teachers and students exit the main building to go to the cafeteria, gym, playground or other outlying buildings, using a Standard Response Protocol (SRP) is beneficial.  This is a system utilizing pushbutton locations, or with the use of a cell phone, allowing a teacher at his/her location to initiate a lockdown.

If your primary entrance is designed of mostly glass and metal mullions, it is a good idea to have some kind of barricade, such as landscaping and bollards. These may help stop vehicle entry and can be designed to be visually appealing and look as if it is a part of the door entry system.
Another resource used for safety and security is video cameras. Video cameras are often used and were discussed by the symposium speakers.  The mere sight of a surveillance camera is enough to deter the majority of troublemakers. But remember, security footage obtained by cameras is usually only valuable after the fact, it is not the first line of defense.

Interior Doors

One of the most visible tools we have to protect our schools and students are doors.  Doors originally served to allow people to come and go and minimize distractions outside the classroom, but doors have evolved into being an important factor in school safety.  Even interior doors need to be thoughtfully considered. A low-cost item for campuses that creates a huge impact is adding door locks. Door locks need to be easy to use for everyone, from elementary to high school.  The doors have to be lockable from the inside and should be kept locked at all times. Adding bullet-resistant glass on interior doors with sidelights adds an extra layer of security. Tinting the windows or applying interior frosting also allows for sightline control as well as creates a hiding -place inside the classroom.

A common challenge for schools and educational leaders is managing school safety appropriately, not only to prevent physical accidents and incidents but also to create an environment promoting physical, emotional and social well-being, both individually and collectively. Strengthening the built environment is a crucial component, but it’s not the only factor requiring examination. Districts should put into practice a comprehensive approach involving students, staff, community and emergency personnel. The primary consideration should be are we applying what is the best fit or just reacting to the most expedient and/or convenient solution available in the moment.  Reaching the best solution for your district requires involved and inclusive conversation to result in prudent stewardship. Remember the same measures you are applying to security and safety may be the ones you may have to apply to a student as the perpetrator. Stay tuned as we share more of our lessons learned to increase safety.