Safe schools are a priority in every community across the United States. Vantage is especially interested in the design of safe schools and we have been working with leading architects to promote best practices and incorporate appropriate technology in the design of academic facilities, and with school administrators to conduct risk assessments and create revised security and safety plans, policies, and security practices.
Our 2-part series on designing safer schools covers:
Best Practices for School Building Security from the Federal Commission on School Safety
On December 18, 2018, the Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety was presented to the President of the United States.
The impetus for the formation of the Federal Commission was the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last year and the desire to provide guidance and recommendations to federal, state and local professionals to minimize the number and impact of future violent incidents at our schools.
The Federal Commission on School Safety was tasked with producing a report of policy recommendations to research and recommend solutions to advance the safety of our schools and help prevent future tragedies. To accomplish this goal, the Commission conducted formal meetings, field visits and listening sessions to gather information and public input, and observe and learn about the best practices in school safety.
School Safety Report Approach
The Commission report offers a holistic approach to improving school safety, ranging from supporting the social and emotional well-being of students to enhancing physical building security and is organized into three broad categories:
- Prevent—preventing school violence
- Protect and Mitigate—protecting students and teachers and mitigating the effects of violence
- Respond and Recover—responding to and recovering from attacks
Under the Prevent category, the report covers a wide range of topics including character development, cyberbullying and school safety, threat assessments, mental health and counseling and suspicious activity reporting. The Protect and Mitigate chapters present information on training school and law enforcement personnel, family rights and school building security.
Best Practices for School Building Security
The Commission report summarized best practices for school building security in Chapter 16 of their report. The report starts out by saying that schools must balance many different objects including “reducing risks, maintaining open access for students and staff, facilitating a learning environment and complying with required building codes and standards.”
The report acknowledges that there is no universal school safety plan and that each school should tailor their school safety plan to their own unique situation and circumstances.
“There is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across the country.”
The top-level recommendation is that there are a variety of avenues for “designing in” layers of security which starts by controlling access at the school perimeter and working inward to secure individual classrooms and other spaces. The Commission also noted that school security must be based on a sound security management program combined with enhanced physical security.
Security management recommendations
- Establish a security management team and cultivate a “community of interest” for school safety and security – Schools should first establish a security management team and designate a team lead. Including members of the community such as parents, neighbors, local first responders, social workers and elected officials can help carry the message of safety to the broader community.
- Conduct risk assessments – The security management team should first conduct a risk assessment to determine needs, identify vulnerabilities and develop a security strategy. Many states are requiring all school districts to complete extensive risk assessments for each of their schools.
- Develop comprehensive emergency operations plans – A comprehensive emergency operations plan should include regular engagement between schools, districts and first responders as collaboration will increase the efficiency and effective of response. Regular training and drills will ensure that everyone is educated on their roles and responsibilities during an emergency.
- Consider before school, after school and extra-curricular activities in security planning – At many schools, large numbers of students or other community members are present before and after school or when school is not in session. When designing security and emergency operations plans, schools need to be vigilant about security for these situations too.
Enhanced physical security recommendations
Three key areas comprise the physical aspects of school – the campus, the buildings on the campus and the classrooms in the buildings. Considerations such as available funding and the age of existing infrastructure also play a role in determining the best strategy for physical security.
- Respect the school mission – When designing physical security measures, schools should ensure that the primary education mission is not sacrificed for enhanced security.
- Provide layers of security – School security strategies should use a layered approach that incorporates multiple measures consisting of policies, programs and physical protective measures.
- Limit the number of entry points – Denying potential intruders and attackers access to school campuses is the key line of defense. Strong entry control measures limit the number of access points and ensure that only authorized individuals have access to the campus. Controls can also deter individuals from initiating attacks, provide early detection from a safe distance and delay attackers from reaching vulnerable locations.
By applying the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, schools can implement security measures such as fencing, bollards, planters, curbs or walls to create a single point of entry to a campus for pedestrians and vehicles.
Other security considerations include:
- Access Controls – Video Surveillance – Video surveillance is a valuable security measure for entry control. Surveillance cameras can also be used beyond entry points to monitor areas that are not within the normal view of teachers, administrators, or security personnel, such as hallways and enclosed stairwells.
- Access Controls – Screening Systems – Some schools may also wish to use screening systems to limit who and what can enter a building. These systems typically require one-at-a-time entry to check the person and belongings. Such systems can use metal detection, X-ray, explosives detection devices, or a physical search.
- Building Envelope – The exterior face of school buildings, including the walls, roof, windows, and doors, comprise the building envelope, and these structural components can serve as a significant layer of defense from an incident or natural disaster. Replacing doors with fire-rated steel or aluminum can improve protection. Replacing non-reinforced glass windows with tempered, wire-reinforced, laminated will also increase protection. It is also important to secure exterior windows to improve overall security of the building. Clearing exterior spaces of unnecessary foliage or structures can also contribute to school safety.
- Classroom Doors, Locks and Window Panels – Depending on their construction and configuration, classroom doors can significantly delay or prevent an attacker. All classrooms should have door locks that can be locked from the inside with the ability to be opened from the outside by an authorized administrator, teacher or first responder.
- Door Numbering Systems – To help first responders gain access to an incident scene in the most efficient manner, schools can collaborate with local first responders to apply a common numbering system to the walls, doors (interior, exterior, and non-access), roof hatches, and stairwells.
- Hallways, Stairwells, Utility Rooms and Other Areas – Developing or installing systems to monitor these spaces by either physical inspection or surveillance cameras may be necessary to mitigate their use for nefarious purposes.
- Portable Classrooms – If a school has portable buildings which frequently do not have the same construction features as primary buildings, additional security measures may be necessary, including increased monitoring, assigned security personnel, retrofitting doors and locks, or ballistic protection on the windows.
School safety and preparation is an ongoing challenge and the important job of protecting our schools and students will continue. The best practices mentioned are recommendations to be considered and adopted as appropriate to individual schools and communities.
“Only by working together at all levels and in communities nationwide, can we truly make a difference.”
Vantage Resources on School Safety
- Developing Effective Lockdown Procedures on School Campuses
- Designing Safer Schools – Insights from the AIA| LA Panel Discussion
School Safety Resources
- Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety
- Transcripts and recordings of meetings of the Federal Commission
- Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans
- A Summary of Past Findings and Recommendations from Key School Safety Reports
- K–12 School Security: A Guide for Preventing and Protecting against Gun Violence