Access control now a basic need at schools, but a ‘culture of security’ tops lists

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Monday, December 29, 2014

YARMOUTH, Maine—Two years after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. brought renewed awareness to security needs in public school buildings, experts in the field say the most important measure of progress is not new technology or even new applications of existing technologies.

The true test of whether a school is taking care of the health and safety of people inside is the extent to which they have created a culture of security awareness.

“For a few thousand dollars, you can have effective security” at K-12 schools, public or private, said Mark Bomber of Tyco Integrated Security, based in Bacon Raton, Fla., which has installed “thousands” of security systems in schools throughout the country.

When Bomber and other integrators describe recently installed security measures at schools, they do not present them as breakthroughs or innovations. If Sandy Hook were a demarcation point on a timeline of school security, the difference between before and after consists mostly of simple steps and greater commitment to what now appears to be a basic, simple need.

“The biggest thing they have focused on is entrance to the school,” Bomber said. “We teach them that the first thing they have to do is limit the amount of people with access to the building entrance.” At the same time, Tyco representatives teach school district officials that multiple entrances make for bad security policy.

A school that shows it is serious about security may have two features it didn’t have two years ago, according to several experts interviewed by Security Systems News.

First is a sally port, sometimes known as a mantrap, which is basically a double-entry system.  An access card allows a person into a vestibule and as that person waits for the next door to open he or she is observed by security cameras.

And second, faculty, staff, administration and students should always approach a visitor as a non-member of the school, asking if they can help that person and leading that person to his or her destination.

Dave Koenig, partner at Capital Fire and Security, an integrator based in Madison, Wis., said his work with a school district in eastern Wisconsin on behalf of the Electronic Security Association opened his eyes about what “a proper attitude of creating a culture of security” really looks like.

“The first time I went into one of these schools—and I visited 15 one week—at every step of the way, someone from the school challenged me as to who I was,” he said.

ESA released its 2013 Electronic Security Guidelines for Schools report in June of 2013. The report, which Koenig said had a major impact on the mindset of many schools, contains this passage for school officials to think about:

“All too often the school security program is viewed as someone else’s responsibility, or more frequently it is an abstraction without functionality. … Security Awareness Programs not only engage the participation of the faculty and staff, but they even enlist the participation of students to some degree.”

Koenig said that ESA “had a better response on [the guidelines] than any other endeavor.”

He and other integrators spoke about educating administrators, faculty and staff about security concepts that educators do not find intuitive. The best service that integrators can provide to schools, Koenig said, is to “get people high-level concepts and help them help themselves to access additional information.”

That includes an aggressive approach to federal and state grant money for security equipment and tech support. More importantly, the high-level concepts often boil down to creating a needs assessment and a priority list. This is where schools with a lot of funding and schools with small budgets are on the same page.

“Budget is extremely important, but whatever their needs are is also important,” said F. Patrick Mahoney, senior associate at CannonDesign, based in Chicago. “If the roof is leaking, that’s an immediate need. If security is a big concern, that’s an immediate need.”

In New York, he noted, state law requires all public school districts to construct a needs assessment before accessing public funds for building projects.

The installation of sally ports is a recent trend and a visual manifestation of heightened security in schools, Mahoney said.

“It used to be you’d have a sign pointing you to the front office,” he said.

In addition to video cameras that follow a visitor from the first door into the sally port and through the second set of doors, some schools now use software that provides a list of people who are supposed to be in the building, along with background checks.

For a child from a two-household family, the software can track whether mom is supposed to pick up the student on Mondays and Wednesdays, for example, while dad picks the child up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A school security officer in the lobby or a member of the front office processes the information before granting access.

“There’s no longer a sign,” Mahoney said. “There’s a camera.”

Video at building entry points, inside the school building and on the athletic fields are often used for review purposes to see who has gained access during off-hours—which can lead to student discipline, a police response or a need for new policies.

One trend noticed by Dan Budinoff, president of Security Specialists, based in Hartford, Conn.: At many public schools, a feature not seen three years ago is an IP-based mass notification system, with an app designed specifically for public education. Press a panic button, and as long as you’re on the network, an alert beacon pops up on every computer in the school. The alert beacons can be transmitted to 911 centers.

The major problem with integrating video surveillance with access control, as far as Budinoff is concerned, is that too often “nobody watches this stuff,“ and “the Sandy Hook shooter shot his way through the door. No camera is going to stop that.”

Which is why the security industry is focused on educating the educators about proactive safety measures.