The ABCs of School Security

Sadly, 2014 finds America at a time when attacks against our schools are at an all-time high.1 Beginning with the shocking Sandy Hook shootings (Newtown, Connecticut) in December 2012, the number of shooting attacks against schools has continued to escalate to the point where there is now some form of violent attack against a U.S. school approximately every 10 days.2 Many of the attacks are classified as homicides or suicides and the upward spiral is growing at an even faster rate if one includes attacks with other types of weapons such as knives and explosive devices. In fact, the law enforcement community has broadened its use of the term active shooter to active threat as agencies and officers work to improve partnerships with school administrators and the private security industry as a means to find more effective ways to better secure U.S. schools in a tough economy.

The increasing rate of school attacks is not isolated to any particular segment of society and does not discriminate as to socio-economic levels. Tragically, what the attacks have in common is the targets are usually defenseless students and their teachers, but the reason for the increase in attacks remains elusive. Most trained observers speculate that troubled individuals prone to commit suicide in the past may have left a suicide note; however, now seeing (in the mass media) the terror and notoriety created by school attacks, those troubled individuals may view mass violence as an avenue to sensationalize their grievances with society.

Regardless of the motives of attackers, horrified parents and school administrators are left asking the compelling question: are their schools safe and secure? In general, there is a difference between safety and security. In the context of school safety, the primary responsibility lies in the domain of building codes and fire safety experts. Security, on the other hand, has been left up to school administrators without formal background or training in modern security techniques or underfunded campus police and school resource officers. Neither law enforcement experts nor private security industry experts have engaged in developing school security solutions to the extent necessary to confront current and future security trends. In view of current trends, it is time to improve collaboration and embrace the latest security tools and techniques necessary to properly protect children and their teachers.

Evaluating School Security

To begin evaluating the current level or quality of security at any school, an evaluator needs to review the school’s strategic use of a series of crime prevention systems, some of which involve technology and others involve established crime prevention techniques and behavioral threat assessments. Traditional security programs tend to rely on a fundamental security principle known as target hardening, i.e., denying access to a target using locks and bars, or using sensors and cameras to detect and identify an offender coupled with some form of a security guard(s). A more advanced security principle or regimen is known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED). CPTED does not replace target hardening, but rather complements it by considering environmental conditions and the opportunities they offer for crime or other unintended and undesirable behaviors. It eliminates those opportunities by using elements of the environment to control access and, in a sense, deny potential attackers opportunities for concealment.

Using a CPTED methodology, the evaluation should begin by viewing a school campus from the outer perimeter, or from the street in, and from 360 degrees. Before even considering entry ingress into any building on campus, evaluators need to examine systems of outside camera coverage, lighting, vehicle and pedestrian traffic surge management, fencing, signage, landscaping, and vehicle crash intrusion protection.

School Building Perimeters

Working inward in concentric circles of security, the next consideration is school building perimeters, including portable classroom buildings. Building perimeter security involves the complex issue of door locks and key or electronic access control. The use of burglar alarm systems for the purpose of detecting unauthorized breeches of building perimeters, night or day, comes next. Finally, pertaining to school building perimeters, remains the issue of school policies and procedures governing building entries, especially around loading docks, cafeteria kitchens, and gymnasiums. All of these areas require access at various times of the day and night. In order to maintain proper security, each must be securely isolated and controlled to prevent unauthorized entry into the inner sanctum of school buildings.

Entry and exit of surges of students at the beginning and end of the school day are usually well-managed and supervised by school faculty, as well as school resource officers where they exist. Nevertheless, undetected entry of an armed intruder, aka an active threat, especially when a school is at maximum occupancy, is an overarching concern in terms of school security. However, there is good news in this area insofar as modern security technology provides excellent, reasonably priced security options in terms of biometrics—e.g., fingerprint, facial recognition, and retina recognition systems—and advanced video surveillance camera technology. The only caution here is that those interested in upgrading school security need to understand the difference between technology and products.

As good as modern security technology is, it cannot replace common-sense systems of visitor and vendor control. The days when there is nothing more than an unmonitored sign that reads “All visitors report to the main office” have become obsolete and ineffective in terms of effective school security. Visitor control is a critical point where both technology and CPTED must converge. Nevertheless, the use of surveillance cameras inside a school, which constitutes a whole chapter of security programs itself, provides many new economical solutions that overcome existing impediments involving the need for constant human monitoring by adding a sophisticated array of sensors that trigger smart alarms at the first sign of trouble. For example, a camera with audible sensors can be programed to trigger alerts to sounds such as a gunshot, rifle being racked, screams, or other audible signals of danger.

The fact is that currently available state-of-the-art surveillance cameras can be most appropriately described as computers with high-resolution cameras attached to them. They solve traditional data storage problems by providing abundant storage capacity inside each surveillance camera, as well as the ability to transmit active feeds from any camera to officers inside or outside the building. They merit serious consideration by anyone concerned with school security and, particularly, with containing the costs of security.

Beyond the dazzling advances in surveillance technology lies the issue of panic alarms. Whereas panic alarms have been traditionally associated with banks and financial institutions, they are catching on for school rapid-alert systems. Given that most schools are already equipped with burglar alarm systems, it is an easy and relatively inexpensive modification to incorporate a modern panic alarm. The key to their effective use, however, is rapid transmission of alert signals to the police. It is best to configure them to bypass two-call verification and central station relay systems and, instead, rout them directly to a 9-1-1 center. In essence, panic alarms provide the most rapid response from both school security and resource officers inside and from the police outside; therefore, they serve as another line of defense between school occupants and those who would harm them.

Threat Vulnerability Assessment (TVA)

The most practical way to determine if there are weak spots or vulnerabilities a potential attacker may exploit to enter a school is to conduct a threat vulnerability assessment. While there are good models and formats available to guide threat assessments, the heart of it is tapping the expertise and interests of police officers who have attended advanced tactical training. As part of the TVA process, these officers assume the role of a bad guy— a potential school attacker searching for ways to surreptitiously enter the school during a normal school day.

When they complete their physical threat assessment, whether using an established format or not, the tactical officers must prepare a comprehensive report of their findings, including photos of areas of interest (weak spots) and clear descriptions of all identified vulnerabilities. The report is then routed to school administrators for review with a word of caution: proper handling and routing of the TVA report is critical to its success as a viable security tool, as well as the good faith partnership that allows it to occur. With this in mind, it should be delivered only to the school administrator who authorized it and no one else.

Confidentiality of a TVA is important for two reasons. First, should it fall into the wrong hands, it may serve as a ready-made road map of how to penetrate school security. Second, if a TVA were to be made available to the public, it could be used to pressure or embarrass school administrators strapped with budget constraints and, possibly, damage existing partnerships. Thus, the effective way to route and control the document is for the police to provide a copy only to the school administrators who authorized the TVA and let them decide who, if anyone, will receive copies. TVAs are not likely to be an open or public record in most states because they contain confidential police techniques and are therefore exempt.

Terroristic Violence Prevention

Concurrent to the advances of all of the technological and CPTED security systems, the next area of concentration regarding school security involves human emergency preparedness and partnerships. The formidable challenges to school security in 2014 require revisiting all types of school security plans. Effective school security planning today requires viable partnerships and enhanced ongoing communication between school administrators, law enforcement (inside and outside schools), and the security industry. When all three elements of protection collaborate to share their areas of expertise and work in concert to solve school security issues, the result is more effective preventative school security.

By examining the school shootings that have occurred, and, for that matter, terrorist shootings in general, one can see that the majority were preceded by erratic behaviors on the part of the shooters in the months and weeks before the shootings. Most concerning is that relatives, associates, and coworkers, may have noticed the erratic behaviors, but lacked a formal mechanism to alert school officials or for anyone to intervene and conceivably prevent the ultimate acts of violence.

An applicable preemptive model or format for early intervention is found in both the public and private sector in the form of workplace violence programs. Simply put, workplace violence programs are written policies that instruct everyone in a given environment (in this case, a school) in recognizing the signs of mounting aggression; then urging or requiring them, when they see these signs in anyone, to immediately report it to management or administration. Management or administration is then required to investigate or implement appropriate interventions.

Interventions in the context of a workplace violence program can be as simple as a counselling session to determine if there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual in fact poses a credible threat and proceeding from there to prevent further escalation. Nevertheless, the state-of-the-art technique in this area is to establish, in advance, a behavioral threat assessment team composed of school administrators (preferably school principal, guidance counselor, or school psychologist) and, in the more extreme cases, a law enforcement officer (school resource officer, school police, or local police officer). Together team members determine the individual’s proclivity toward future school violence and develop an appropriate intervention strategy.

Granted, there may be occasional false starts or awkward conversations with individuals who are legitimately experiencing personal, medical, or psychological problems, but it is worth it to prevent a deadly attack. This method might also allow officials to get help for individuals who need assistance or treatment for an internal or personal problem.

Cyber Dialogue

Currently, there is more conversation about current activities and events transpiring on the Internet daily than there is verbally or in face-to-face interactions; those who fail to engage in the ongoing cyber conversations concerning schools miss enormous opportunities to head off school disasters. To be certain, spying or violating people’s privacy is not recommended (or even legal), but it is dangerous to ignore the volume of publicly available information exchanged daily in social media and that are directly relevant to school security.

While it is clear that there are privacy concerns expressed in today’s public narrative, it is not intrusive for school officials or law enforcement to monitor readily available information for the express legitimate purpose of providing safer schools.


Most schools and school systems are well aware of the requirements and needs to conduct fire drills, lockdowns, and evacuation drills during each school year. Drills of that nature remain viable, but as learned from the 9/11 attacks and the Sandy Hook attack, it’s necessary to significantly step up training and preparedness to avoid tragic outcomes. In this regard, schools are well advised to implement modern training techniques developed for other sectors under the heading of homeland security, specifically, tabletop training exercises (TTX) and full-scale exercises (FSE).

Both TTX and FSE are modern state-of-the-art training formats, viable for school environments; however, they require the involvement and engagement of the main stakeholders of school security and emergency responders to schools to be effective. Thus, they require partnerships that include school administrators, campus and local police, emergency communications organizations, fire departments, emergency medical responders, and the private security industry. It is also advisable to include representatives of local news media as conditions permit.

The format of a typical TTX involves bringing representatives, usually mid-management level, of all stakeholder groups together and seating them at several tables. An instructor or moderator presents them with increments of information about a developing scenario at a school and, after each increment, allows the groups time to discuss what each of their organizations would do based upon the presented information. At the end of each discussion period, the moderator picks individuals from each group and asks them to expound upon their conclusions. There should be an emphasis on the cooperation or coordination component between the concerned stakeholder agencies. A TTX includes the added value of facilitating networking among stakeholder agencies.

An FSE requires more planning and participation than a TTX, and, in the context of school security, it has to be conducted while school is not in session. It involves developing a script for an active threat scenario and breaking it down into chronological segments. Using role players and props such as mock weapons, mock explosives, and mock victims, emergency responders and school faculty are staged in advance and dispatched as the need is revealed for responders in their respective areas of responsibility. The entire exercise is filmed as it transpires, and, in the final analysis, everyone’s ability to communicate and coordinate with one another is critiqued in a learning environment.

An excellent guide and format for planning and conducting both tabletop and full-scale school security training exercises is available online from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Entitled the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), it is easily adaptable to guide the planning and execution of school security training exercises.3


The need to review, upgrade, and update school security programs has reached an urgent level due to an increasing rate of active threats and violent incidents in schools. Fortunately, there are several previously underutilized resources available within the milieu of school security. School administration, police, and the private security industry have relatively new strategies and technological applications, all of which are easily adaptable to comprehensive school security programs, provided that all three elements can partner with one another to overcome the barriers to safer schools.♦

Members of the IACP Private Sector Liaison Committee, Security Industry Association Security Alliance for Education, and the Marietta GA Police Department contributed to this article.

1 Niraj Chokshi, “Map: There Have Been at Least 74 Shootings at School Since Newtown,” The Washington Post, June 10, 2014, (accessed November 24, 2014).
2 Joseph Straw, “School Shootings Happen Every 10 days Since Sandy Hook, Gun Control Groups Find,” New York Daily, February 12, 2014, (accessed November 24, 2014).
3 The Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP), Federal Emergency Management Agency, April 2013, (accessed November 21, 2014).

Please cite as:

Dan Flynn, “The ABCs of School Security,” The Police Chief 81 (October 2014): web only.