A Watershed Moment for School Security

by Joel Griffin, Editor-in-Chief, SecurityInfoWatch.com

School security experts say it’s time to start holding school administrators responsible for safety on their campuses, among other recommendations, in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In the May 25 edition of Security Info Watch, they discussed the implications of the tragedy for the larger industry moving forward. Educational Dealer has permission to use excerpts from the article here.

The usual refrain from both sides of the political spectrum has begun, with calls for increased gun control on one end and arming teachers and staff members on the other. However, those who eat, sleep, and breathe school security know that neither of these proposed solutions will truly eliminate the threat of mass shootings. Despite a plethora of federal- and state-funded studies and vows to address the problem from lawmakers, the fact is that very little has been done to address the deficiencies that exist in the industry.

Patrick Fiel, founder of PVF Security Consulting and the former executive director of security for the Washington, D.C., Public School System, lays blame for this inaction on school boards and administrators. “It is a lack of funding, a lack of knowledge and a lack of empathy where they don’t care,” he says, adding that they need to be “held accountable” – whether through federal mandates or some other type of monitoring instrument.”

Access control breached

While details surrounding the shooting are scarce, school security experts agree that there was clearly a breach of access control on the campus, and that authorities are going to have to determine how the gunman was initially able to enter the building. “It’s like putting a fox into a hen house,” Fiel adds. “It can’t happen.”

“Security should, especially in an elementary school, have a single point of entry and every other exterior door is closed and locked,” adds Paul Timm, vice president of Facility Engineering Associates and author of the book, School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program. “And, in every school, we should be teaching with the classroom door closed and locked. Both the Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas after-action reports said the bad guys never breached a locked classroom door.”

Timm says he has yet to encounter an incident of this type that did not involve some failure of access control. While many will point to a lack of budget or training, Timm says it is the security culture within schools – or lack thereof – that is one of the biggest contributing factors to mass shootings and other incidents of violence.


More gun control?

Even if tighter gun-control measures were implemented immediately, Security Consultant Patrick Fiel says it would do little to solve the immediate challenges facing schools in terms of active shooters.

“The issue we are having is weapons are coming onto school campuses; so how do you stop that?” he says. “If you go into an airport, you have that checkpoint.

We haven’t had any shootings since 9/11 in the sterile areas at an airport because they have metal detectors, X-ray machines and security.”    


“I’m not saying schools couldn’t use more funds or pieces of equipment, but let’s face it: the value of the security systems and products we have depends on the people that are utilizing them,” he says. “If we’ve spent $10,000 on an electronic access control system, but somebody is allowing tailgating – or worse, propping a door open and leaving it unmonitored – we just rendered the value to zero.

“I generally find that in May, schools have cabin fever. Everybody is kind of just making it until the end of the year and maybe are not as sharp as what we would have been in the middle of the semester. I hope that’s not the case. I hope they weren’t leaving everything accessible, but again I wonder how, if the elementary school has a single point of entry and a secured vestibule, how that bad guy gets in.”   

Kenneth Trump, president of consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, agrees and says that even the best security technology is only as good as the people behind it. Lawmakers cannot continue to just throw money at the problem and hope it goes away.

“The limited investments of resources that have been thrown out by state legislatures or governors have been nearly 100-percent, or very heavily skewed towards hardware and technology,” Trump says. “Superintendents and principals are struggling because it is easy to beef up physical security and point to something tangible, but we are not seeing investment in training school staff.”

Though schools now largely do a much better job of developing emergency plans and improving response protocols, Trump believes the training needs to be shifted to emphasize heightened situational awareness. “Educators [must be aware] that everything is not going to come on a checklist, and that by having physical security measures or even a police officer or a security officer on campus doesn’t exclude the responsibility of everyone else. Security is everybody’s job.”

Immediate steps

Among the first things that all schools can do in the wake of this incident, according to experts, is to evaluate access control and visitor management systems to ensure that they are not only working properly, but that all internal policies are being strictly followed.

Beyond the budgetary issues Kenneth Trump says that time is actually a rarer commodity these days, as security must compete with academic considerations. “Right now, I’m having conversations with school administrators who will tell me they want to bring me in for training, but I am in competition with the academic side of the house just to get on the agenda.”

Fiel says that there needs to be a school resource officer (SRO) always stationed on school property, and that they need to take a more proactive approach to security overall. “At a lot of schools, security is on patrol in the vicinity,” he says. “That is a little bit too late when seconds count.”

Additionally, schools should be able to implement a lockdown on a moment’s notice. “When I say lockdown, that means a working PA system where you can announce ‘code red’ (or whatever they decide to call it) and create a secured environment,” Fiel says. “A shooter is not going

to waste time kicking in doors, they are just going to look for open areas where people are located.”


Arming teachers?

One possible solution to shootings, like the one at Robb Elementary is to arm teachers or other faculty members. However, experts say this type of action is littered with potential pitfalls.

According to school security expert Timm, there are number of questions that schools should ask themselves when they consider a policy of this sort, like

• when will armed personnel officially be on duty? Is it when they arrive in the parking lot? In the building? In their classroom? When are they off duty?

• can we agree on what type of firearm they are going  to be carrying?

• is everyone in agreement about what type of psychological background screening must take place?

• What will armed personnel have to wear so that they  are not mistaken for the shooter if police arrive on campus?

• Where will weapons be stored?

• What kind of firearms proficiency must armed personnel demonstrate on the range?

“Once we start to arm people who are not law enforcement, we introduce more risks than we address,” Timm says.


An integrator’s perspective

The shooting really hits home for Shaun Castillo, president of Texas-based Preferred Technologies LLC. His company does a lot of work in the K-12 market, and many of his employees have children in local school districts. And while funding may not play a role in ensuring schools follow security protocols, he says it is very much a factor in what solutions they are able to deploy.

“Unfortunately, there is a very wide variance in funding for school districts,” he says. “Some can afford top-of-the-line security solutions, which can include general construction of entry vestibules and that sort of thing. Obviously, security technologies can get expensive across a whole district. And not everyone can afford a high level of security. With the limited amount of funding available today, unfortunately school districts have to make tough choices. Sometimes that means not having an ideal security solution or posture.”

One thing that integrators, consultants, architects and engineers can do, according to Castillo, is help design campuses to deploy security technology in a more cost-effective manner. “We can help design spaces that enhance security for as minimal an amount of money as possible,” he says. “Beyond physical security barriers, there are policies, procedures and other things we can do besides adding more cameras and card readers.”

Holding administrators responsible

“I just got done talking to a school board that had technology and other security measures implemented, but there were no checks and balances,” notes Fiel. “If they say all of their doors are locked and secured, but I can walk in the cafeteria door, I should be able to write them up and report it to the superintendent. We have to hold the administrators accountable.”

Timm says he would make school safety part of the overall evaluation for administrators, as it varies so much from one campus to the next, even within the same district. “I could be in a district where we are all supposed to be wearing IDs and the principal will say, ‘Yeah, it is just too hard to do that,’” he says. “I can walk into another building in the same district and the principal will say, ‘Everyone wears an ID here. I require it.’”

Despite the tragedy in Uvalde, Timm believes that the security posture of U.S. public schools today is much better than it was two decades ago. “In general, schools have secured vestibules at the main entrance and, in general, schools are required to practice drills more than just for fire. The number of incidents that have been averted because we were successful with threat assessment or by running a closed campus – we couldn’t possibly keep an accurate count.”

SecurityInfoWatch.com is the leading online news portal for the physical and cybersecurity industries featuring articles on the latest technology, risk mitigation and business trends impacting end users, systems integrators, and product manufacturers. Joel Griffin is the Editor of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at joel@securityinfowatch.com.

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