School safety has been top of mind for years. But the urgency to make improvements increased considerably following the tragic events earlier this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
After a gunman killed 17 people on the campus, legislators across the country began to push for more funding to safeguard learning institutions—from kindergartens up through universities. Over a billion dollars has already been allocated for improvements from coast to coast. Now, it is up to individual schools to create security plans and apply for the grants that will help protect their students and faculty.
While every school safety initiative requires a detailed, exhaustive look at all potential points of vulnerability, the following simple steps will help ensure that any school is well on its way to strengthening security. By addressing each of these key points, it will be much easier to create and implement a plan that works.
Step 1: Identify Physical Points of Attack
One of the most common changes schools have made in response to recent shootings has been to limit access points. This is generally a good practice. By making it more difficult to enter the building, even a school that lacks the finances to hire more personnel can maintain better vigilance over who is coming and going.
Naturally, this must be balanced with fire code regulations, logistics and other factors. But every school should systematically analyze its points of egress. These are the primary locations in which to position security upgrades. Having a greater understanding of the premises will be invaluable in the event that the school ever experiences an active-shooter situation.
Step 2: Assess Digital Security Vulnerabilities
As with physical security, schools need to take greater precautions to shore up their digital defenses. While we have not yet seen incidents in which a disturbed student takes over a school’s system to disrupt surveillance or physical infrastructure before launching an attack, the need to fortify all areas remains critical.
Beyond violent threats, schools house sensitive data about students, finances, strategic planning and many other areas. These all must be protected to prevent malicious actors from gaining access that could inflict financial damage or expose potentially-embarrassing information to the public.
Take a good look at all areas that might be exploited. These could range from physical servers and other devices, to system access points and admin logins. Implement stronger firewalls, ensure proper privileges are reserved for the right people and eliminate access for anyone who no longer needs to use these systems. Users themselves are often the weakest link in the chain. This makes it vital to properly train all faculty members on how to create strong passwords. They should also be taught tactics to avoid phishing, social engineering or other methods employed by hackers.
Step 3: Establish Emergency Protocols
It is a sad reality, but schools today need to have plans in place to deal with an active-shooter scenario. Administrators and teachers must be prepared for this type of emergency, just as they would if a fire started. This includes assigning leadership roles to certain employees and establishing protocols for when to shelter in place versus evacuating students.
In any crisis situation, communication will be difficult and emotions will run high. So these plans must be very well explained and practiced. This will provide a better chance of a good response if an actual event ever occurs.
Students also need to have some level of training. A balance must be reached between due diligence and going overboard (you don’t want to needlessly frighten young children). But there can be emotional benefits to educating students about what to do during a crisis. They see these tragedies on the news and many are scared that they could be next. Empowering them with the right level of preparation can go a long way to ease their minds.
Step 4: Talk To Your Students
If student shooters are the enemy, their classmates can help bolster your defense. A study in California found that up to 30% of students have seen some kind of weapon at school, with at least 125,000 saying that they have been threatened. Just getting them to report these incidents can greatly improve prevention. A student who brings a knife (or even nunchucks) could someday come to school with something much more dangerous.
These conversations need to go deeper than spreading the “see something, say something” message. Schools should create initiatives that aim to lower the levels of bullying and discrimination among students. Administrators that establish counseling resources are more likely to reach kids who feel ostracized. Protocols should also be instituted to share any truly worrying cases with law enforcement or other relevant authorities.
There is no guarantee that these approaches will keep a troubled student from doing the unthinkable. But they will help foster an environment that is better prepared. Addressing mental and emotional health concerns can potentially reach someone before they go over the edge.
Step 5: Be Proactive with School Safety and Security
Fortunately, much of the assessment and planning phase can be done with relatively minimal expense. It just takes a dedicated team of people, willing to engage in some careful consideration about how to locate vulnerabilities and outline emergency protocols.
Virtually any school could also benefit from some physical improvements, however, and these will require funding. Given the ongoing threats faced by our educational institutions, this is more of a necessity than a luxury. Jurisdictions ranging from the federal government and states, to individual counties and cities have allocated money for schools to implement security upgrades.
Simple technology should not be overlooked. Two-way radio communication devices, for example, are incredibly useful. Additionally, relatively inexpensive software can create detailed facility mapping to help security personnel and administrators better understand the location they are protecting.
Most schools are also opting to invest in other types of improvements. Entry control systems, intrusion alarms, screening equipment and emergency alert systems have so far been the most common. Better video surveillance can do wonders to help monitor entry points and key areas within the building. This can be useful both for general supervision and during an active-shooter incident. School security will always be challenging, but modern plug-and-play camera systems can help provide a simple solution for school districts and campuses of any size.
Planning to Succeed
Each of the elements above is critical to upgrading school safety and safeguarding those who work and learn there. There is no way to completely eliminate threats. But better planning and vigilance can help make sure that security remains a primary focus.
Remember that conducting thorough and systematic assessments at the outset is just as important as establishing and implementing emergency protocols and upgrading equipment and technology. When everything is done together in concert, and any available funds are spent wisely, any school can create great results.