November/December 2016

Physical plant and school buildings: Three keys to facility security

By Paul Timm
Paul Timm, PSP, is president of RETA Security and a board-certified Physical Security Professional. He is the author of School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program, and a nationally acclaimed expert in school security.

For too long, school security measures have been compromised as students, staff, and visitors unwittingly trade security for convenience. Visit a typical school and notice that exterior doors get propped open, vacant interior rooms are left wide open, and visitor management practices prove far less than effective. This “Mayberry mindset,” a false sense of security, leads to higher levels of risk and inevitable regrets. What is the remedy for this culture of compromise? How can schools move from a Mayberry mindset to more of a “defensive driver” mentality?

Consider the following three keys to effective facility security.

The first key is awareness.

People tend to fall into routines. For example, staff members get used to always parking in the same space, entering the building through the nearest door and dropping their keys on a desk they soon leave unattended. Introduce change into that routine and you will occasionally encounter resistance.

Culture therapy begins with awareness. Increased security awareness takes place through education and reinforcement. Give detailed explanations for the adoption of security measures. Say something like, “In our ongoing efforts to provide a safe learning environment, we are installing…” Provide answers to questions such as the following:

  • Why did the school move from mechanical key access to electronic access?
  • When I utilize my card/fob to enter the building, why is it important to make sure that no one follows me (“tailgates”) through the door?
  • How many security cameras do we have?
  • Where are they located?

Inform people. Give staff members compelling reasons to take ownership of security measures. Describe how and why people’s actions determine the effectiveness of those measures.

Regular staff meetings provide an excellent opportunity to reinforce security measures. Carve out just a few minutes at each meeting to share relevant crime prevention information, test people on security system features, touch on an important aspect of emergency preparedness, and remind people of the value of national security campaigns, such as “See Something, Say Something.” Keep reinforcement efforts consistent, relevant, and engaging. Doing so will go a long way toward achieving a culture of awareness.

The second key is collaboration.

School districts typically assign responsibility for security to an individual. Quite often, that person already wears another hat, such as oversight of facility operations. An effective physical security program, however, depends on collaboration. No one has shoulders broad enough to carry the load alone.

Collaboration requires contributions from both internal and external stakeholders. External stakeholders include emergency responders, parents, and outside entities that utilize school spaces such as the gymnasium and auditorium. Internal stakeholders include teachers, administrators, students, and personnel that oversee areas such as technology, facilities, and transportation. Each of these individuals sees security from a different angle and has a vital part to play in ensuring that practices are followed. Organize a school and/or district safety planning team. Meet at least once each semester. Make sure that meetings do not exceed 60 minutes.

Involve students. They make up the most important stakeholder group for two primary reasons. First, they are ahead of adults in terms of technology. Naturally intuitive and unafraid, students have already gone beyond the technology place most adults will ever reach. Second, students have a much better “pulse” for real and potential security issues. How can schools appropriately involve students in improving the security program? Consider the following suggestions:

  • Involvement in the safety planning team
  • Educating staff in technology areas such as social media
  • Providing information regarding existing security vulnerabilities and the value of existing security measures

The third key is Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED).

CPTED is a set of theories and strategies designed to discourage criminal behavior by creating a safe and positive physical environment. CPTED is really more of a field of study than a set of hard-and-fast rules. Ask several different practitioners for the core principles of CPTED and you will undoubtedly receive differing opinions. For the purposes of this consideration, the focus is on three principles: natural surveillance, designed access control, and maintenance.

The goal of natural surveillance is to increase the perception that people can easily be seen on and around school property. That perception can best be achieved through the use of good exterior lighting and landscaping that permits clear lines of sight. Begin by focusing on building entrances, parking lots, and the walkways that connect them. Take steps to ensure that these areas are well lit throughout the night. Trim vegetation so that shrubs are no more than three feet tall and tree limbs are cleared to a minimum height of eight feet. For new construction projects, insist on the specification of “miniature” shrubs at entrances, parking lots, and walkways.

Designed access control involves efforts to make clear distinctions between public space and private space. Specific elements include highly visible gates, striped walkways, and labeled entries that indicate approved areas. These elements seek to afford people safe and monitored access and movement. Conversely, schools also utilize elements, such as security signs, exterior doors without handles, and various kinds of barriers to deter unwanted access into certain areas. These elements seek to restrict the access and flow of people and vehicles.

Maintenance is the demonstration of investment in buildings and grounds. For our purposes, the opposite of maintenance would be deterioration. Deterioration is the demonstration of lack of control by the property owner and an indication of tolerating disorder. The Broken Windows Theory asserts that the mere presence of a broken window actually entices potential vandals to break more windows. Therefore, quick replacement of broken windows will reduce the risk of others being broken. Demonstrating investment in school property through good maintenance shows the community a sense of pride and order that discourages criminal behavior. Keep all areas clean and orderly. Remove debris piles. Store any items of value which could be used as vandalism tools in secured places.

The Broken Windows Theory also applies to the closely related areas of graffiti/tagging and door propping devices. When encountering either of these issues, make use of the alliteration memory tool known as the “Three Rs.” The first “R” is report. Graffiti should immediately be reported to local law enforcement; door props should be reported to someone in charge of buildings and grounds. The second “R” is record. Graffiti should be recorded photographically. Door props should be documented. The third “R” is remove. Do whatever it takes to get rid of the graffiti, or the door prop, as soon as possible. Make both graffiti and door propping abnormal.

School leaders can change the culture of compromise that leads to higher levels of risk and inevitable regrets. Create change by raising awareness, undertaking a collaborative approach, and implementing CPTED principles. The time to act is now to make schools safer.