The woman saw what she was looking for, a classroom full of students with the fire door propped open on a beautiful spring day. She slowly approached the door and peered inside. The teacher was facing the chalkboard while talking to his students. Seizing the opportunity, she smiled and motioned for a little boy in the classroom to come with her. Obediently, he exited the classroom and left with the woman, a woman he had never seen before.
Fortunately, the woman was Sonayia Shepherd, who was at that time an area school safety coordinator with the School Safety Project of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. She had been asked by the school’s principal to test the security of the school by trying to lure a child away from a teacher’s care during a tactical site survey of the school. As she has been able to do on most attempts, Shepherd was able to lure this child out of the class on the first try without being observed by the teacher. She has been able to repeat this around the country, showing the critical importance of the close supervision of children. This demonstration also highlights the importance of proper access control for schools.
Every educator must understand that if a stranger can enter a school and walk through the building for 10 minutes without participating in a proper sign-in process, or being challenged by school staff, they can probably leave the school with someone else’s child. On occasion, sexual predators have entered schools to victimize children. Keeping in mind that a child molester above all else seeks access to children, it is critical that school officials deny these and other predators that access. Reasonable access control using simple systems like time-fade-out-adhesive visitor badges and state of the art electronic access control systems can help make reasonable access control a reality in any school.
The tragic reality is that in spite of dramatic and significant improvement in access control technology and methodologies, many schools still have little or no access control. I know this, because I have entered hundreds of schools in almost every state without signing in, showing identification or being escorted by a staff member. Unfortunately, terrible things have happened to children and educators when dangerous individuals have been allowed to freely enter and wander campuses. A large district is now in litigation because an individual entered an elementary school classroom and struck a little girl in the head with a hammer causing permanent brain damage. A deranged individual entered an elementary school and attacked students and staff with a machete. A teacher in another district was beaten unconscious with a fire extinguisher and brutally raped by a trespasser. In yet another district, a former student lived in a high school for more than a week before he was detected, and there have been scores of shootings, stabbings, abductions and other attacks in schools where intruders found it easy to enter to commit their crimes. Whether the concern involves drug dealers on campus, child molesters trying to lure children away from a school or acts of terrorism, access control is a basic and fundamental requirement of a safe school environment. Any school that does not have reasonable access control measures in place is a less safe school than it should and could be.
Create a Culture of Safety
For access control to work properly, a cultural change must occur in the school. Safety and security have to become a natural part of the outlook of staff, students and parents. Training, periodic briefings of staff, student assemblies and distribution of printed materials can help in creating this cultural change. As a nonprofit safety center focused on the safety of children rather than profitability, we urge our clients to use consultants to teach them how to coordinate their own tactical site surveys, rather than to pay consultants to do them. This not only reduces costs dramatically, it helps to affect a cultural change among educators so risks and hazards can be instantly identified and corrected, rather than just once a year when a site survey is conducted.
Risk and Vulnerability Assessment
The tactical site survey is a multidisciplinary evaluation of the school and surrounding grounds and neighborhood that should be conducted at least once annually. A trained group of educators from the school and area public safety personnel from outside the school conduct a thorough evaluation of every room in the building, as well as the area around the school. During the site survey, any potential hazards are noted and corrective action determined by the team. When this process is done by school staff rather than an outside consultant, school staff are much more prone to actually change behavior in positive ways. During the site survey, access control of parking areas, playgrounds, athletic fields, portable classrooms and outbuildings and the school itself is evaluated. Check with your state emergency management agency or department of education to see if they can provide free training or assistance. For a free copy of the Safe Havens International Inc. Tactical Site Survey Checklist, visit and click on the resources button.
Additional evaluation should involve a careful analysis of incident data for the past several years. Any trends or patterns of incidents that involve students accessing unauthorized areas or of intruders coming onto campus and causing a problem should be noted and taken into account when considering improvements in access control. Another critical aspect of evaluation involves the use of safety surveys for students, staff and parents. Properly designed safety surveys can help to identify trouble spots that could be missed by the other two assessment approaches. As with any other safety measure, improving access control should be based upon a formal risk and vulnerability process rather than gut feeling.
Perimeter Access Control
A reasonably secure perimeter is a basic must for a safe school. I have visited countless schools where administrators lament that they cannot possibly keep all of their outside doors (except main entranceways) locked. Typically, if I am visiting multiple schools in the same district, I find that other administrators in the same district have found a way to make proper access control happen. Many principals around the country have shown that proper access control can be achieved in any school if the school’s leadership team decides to make it happen.
Inside Access Control
While most people focus on exterior perimeter control when access control is discussed, internal access control is also important. Almost every room in a school that is not occupied by a staff member should be locked. We have seen many cases of students engaging in sexual misconduct in schools during school hours when they were able to readily find places of privacy, such as an unlocked closet or classroom. This has not only been a problem at middle and high schools, but at elementary schools as well. Of course, drug, tobacco and alcohol usage also occur when we allow negligent privacy to occur through inadequate supervision. Administrators should minimize the areas in need of supervision by making staff keep all areas that are not in use locked. Of course, this approach will also reduce problems with vandalism, theft and arson in schools.
Integrate Access Control With a Broader Safety Strategy
Like other security strategies, access control efforts will be more effective if they are integrated into a comprehensive and community-based approach to safety developed with input from staff, students, parents and local public safety officials. While qualified and properly credentialed consultants can provide valuable assistance, input from the school and local public safety community will yield positive results. A consultant’s job should be to guide local personnel rather than to supplant them. If consultants are used, be sure their credentials match the type of work you need. Access control should be addressed at the building phase using crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). This research based approach to building design and use can be a powerful asset. Requiring that architectural firms selected to build a school have at least one architect who has formal training in CPTED on the project is a good idea. Having a CPTED expert train a local team is another option.
Make the Technology Fit the School
Too often, school, safety technology does not deliver what we expect from it, because it is not used properly for the school environment. School officials should work with vendors to integrate the safety technology, rather than to make the school fit the technology. As an example, we can look at the use of metal detectors in schools. While some schools are well suited for the use of walk through metal detectors, most are not. Rather than trying to make schools operate like courthouses and airports, many school systems have had success in adapting the technology to the school environment by using random metal detection programs rather than entry point metal detection.
Choosing Equipment Vendors
Safety equipment and vendors should be carefully evaluated. There are many companies providing quality safety equipment, installation and maintenance for schools. Unfortunately, there have also been very costly bad experiences for school administrators. Be sure to ask competing vendors what makes their equipment better. School officials should also check references from school clients that have used the equipment and the companies being considered to install and maintain it. Obtain a clear understanding of who will troubleshoot problems. Sometimes, schools get caught between a safety product manufacturer and a local vendor who installs the equipment with each blaming the other for problems.
Making it Happen
Reasonable access control is not easy to achieve in schools. Modern technology when properly applied and integrated with other measures can make the goal of good access control easier to attain. A thoughtfully developed access control strategy can not only enhance the level of safety in any school, it can also help to reassure parents, staff and students that their safety is a priority. Reasonable access control is not just an option for today’s schools, it is a must.
BY MICHAEL DORN Dorn is executive director of Safe Havens International Inc., a nonprofit safety center, and serves as a contractor for Jane’s as their top school safety expert for their offices in nine countries. He can be reached at .