How Safe Are Our Children While They Learn: An Examination of Impediments to School Security Programs2013-08-28T17:09:50-04:00

Lindsay Brashears
York College of Pennsylvania
May 7, 2003

How Safe Are Our Children While They Learn?

There are many security issues surrounding schools throughout the United States. Since September 11, security concerns have changed forever. Not only do schools have to worry about gangs, drugs and violence; but also now there is a new concern: terrorism. How safe are our schools today? "Your children are not safe anytime or anywhere" (Gips, 2003). In fact, a recent survey of members of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), an organization of school-based police officers, reveals that 95% of these officers believe that their schools are vulnerable to a terrorist attack (Gips, 2003). There are many security measures that need to be taken when dealing with children and their safety, many of which could be improved and revised. Access control is a very important aspect of security, especially in schools.

History

Hylton argues, "Traditionally, school facilities have been characterized as easily accessible, open to anyone seeking access" (2003). Schools have always posed a threat of security problems even with the changing circumstances (Hylton 2003). Security has always been taken as a light subject that was only thought about or improved during teachers' free time (Hylton, 2003). It has never been the first priority: "Thus teachers policed hallways when not in the classroom, and principals provided the last line of defense in the form of disciplinary action or, in the worst case scenario, by calling the parents or the police" (Hylton, 2003). According to Hylton, schools and teachers do take a few precautions during the course of a workday to make the day go smoothly:

  • Bringing in teachers aides
  • Attendance officers
  • Hall monitors
  • Monitoring the rest rooms
  • Monitoring the hallways
  • Checking passes
  • Supervising students in common areas
  • Escorting unruly students to the office

There are some students that can take on the responsibility of being a "hall monitor," taking on the job of making sure safety is insured; however, these students lack in experience and training. Generally, these "hall guards," some being teachers and some of which are hired, were also assigned a variety of nonsecurity responsibilities and tasks, working under broad job descriptions with few education or skill requirements (Hylton, 2003). This all started to change in the 1980's and 1990's when some schools established security departments in response to increased student aggression such as:

  • Gangs
  • Drugs
  • Weapons
  • "Stranger danger"
  • Other threats (Hylton, 2003)

Even with the growing consensus that safety was an important issue, security efforts suffered from misconceptions about security (Hylton, 2003).

Misconceptions

The following problems continue to stand in the way of effective school security (Hylton, 2003):

  • A lack of oversight
  • Low standards
  • Poor follow-through
  • Underreporting of incidents
  • Other problems

School administrations tend to deal with security with a much broader view. For example, rather than target their resources toward traditional security elements, such as access control, many school officials have focused limited time and money on improving school safety through a violence prevention curriculum, enhanced intervention services for "at risk" students, and stronger discipline (Hylton, 2003). Although these programs do support safety they do not help in an adequate security program.

Poor Oversight

Where traditional security measures have been implemented at schools, they have not been carried out as part of a coherent plan, nor have they been maintained procedurally with consistent follow-through (Hylton, 2003). For example, high-risk schools have installed security equipment such as

  • Surveillance cameras
  • Metal detectors
  • Posted signage (Hylton, 2003):

The schools have done this to attempt to reduce access but these efforts have been haphazard, rather than part of a well-conceived and comprehensive security plan (Hylton, 2003).

Poor Follow-through

Even though schools do take many safety precautions, they are not always practiced or followed correctly. In addition, crisis preparedness plans or emergency procedure manuals are now in many schools, yet few have tested or exercised the plans (Hylton, 2003). Many schools' personnel are not even aware of basic guidelines for these procedures and would not know where to locate the plans. Training on school security issues is often limited to one-time faculty meeting presentations or, at best, one-day professional in-service sessions that are often offered to the faculty on a volunteer basis along with a range of other optional education programs (Hylton, 2003). Access control measures are not enforced. Recent news stories have shown that in spite of signage and visitor policies, strangers can easily gain access to many public schools and walk endlessly without being challenged, even by school administrators and security officials (Hylton, 2003):

One reporter carried a hidden camera and walked through an entire public middle school never being approached or questioned, just three months after an intruder killed a custodian and shot a policeman in the same suburban school. The school subsequently addressed the shortfall in access security by installing card readers at entrances, rather than tackling the larger security issues." (Hylton, 2003)

It seems that schools only take action after an extreme event occurs. This can be very costly in terms of direct cost.

Underreporting of Incidents

Incident reporting is often inadequate; many administrators are too worried about the reputation and image of their schools to be bothered with reporting incidents to the police. The undefined and marginally accepted position of security director in the school system's organizational structure also contributes to an environment where employee crimes, like the student crimes, go unreported or are handled administratively to avoid media attention (Hylton, 2003). Nonreporting and underreporting of school-based crimes prevents educators, law enforcement officers, security specialists, and others from identifying the true extent of crimes in public schools and, in turn, selecting the most effective prevention, intervention, and enforcement actions necessary to counter the problem (Hylton, 2003).

Other Problems

There are other specific employee problems in the schools that are not taken seriously during the hiring and training phase:

  • Background checks--these background checks are not as thorough as a regular security background investigation.
  • Key control--is best summarized by one veteran school security officer who said, "The kids have keys to more rooms in this school than I do" (Hylton, 2003).

Most of these problems can be fixed over time; however, the fact that there are unethical decisions made by different employees including teachers shows a lack of training and good decision-making.

If school leaders are serious about establishing and maintaining safe schools, two significant changes must occur. First, security must be viewed from a new perspective both politically and administratively. Second, there must be benchmark standards established for public school security. (Hylton, 2003)

New Perspective

Lack of money is an important issue in school security. Without money there is no funding to create the much-needed programs to improve the lack of security. Although the administration might be able to buy more equipment and increase the number of personnel to perform security functions, funding alone would not improve public school security for all of the reasons already discussed (Hylton, 2003). Introducing new plans for security could help to obtain efficient funding. There needs to be some type of liaison between educators and security professionals so that relations can be beneficial. School security must be organized, structured, funded, supported, and accepted as a professional support service, just as school law, finance, business, transportation, student services and related departments have been (Hylton, 2003). Additionally, security directors must have the authority to select, train, supervise and fire the school's security personnel (Hylton, 2003).

Benchmarking

School administrators and security professionals need to set goals and higher benchmarking standards:
Standards would serve to focus staff attention and resources toward consistent objectives. Standards would also provide the public with a more rational tool for analyzing school security and, by doing so, would likely reduce some of the overly dramatic coverage of school security issues by the media. (Hylton, 2003)
In addition, schools need to develop professional qualifications for front-line and management security personnel, including minimum requirements for education, experience, and training and reasonable standards for pay and benefits (2003). There are some guidelines that need to be followed by school security professional when hiring: training, supervising, evaluating, firing, and thorough background checks (Hylton, 2003). The standards or guidelines should require that every school first undergo a security survey and threat assessment, after which a written security plan should be developed that addresses:

  • Crisis preparedness
  • Physical security
  • Asset protection
  • Loss prevention
  • Security education
  • Training (Hylton, 2003)

The plan should be coordinated with prevention and intervention programs. This plan should also be drilled and kept up to date. Every school has its own needs for security; however, the school must have the flexibility to adapt its security program.

Cameras

Gips (2003) has found that cameras are rolling in schoolhouses across the nation, not just in the hands of students with dreams of Hollywood, but also in security monitoring locations, protecting students, faculty and school property from harm. The climate or "feel" of a school may make a school more or less prone to violence (Lumsden 1998). Due to acts of terrorism, some schoolteachers are required to wear picture ID's. In addition, more schools are now installing metal detectors (Gips, 2003). Video surveillance is another security solution being adapted to the public school environment, and the results are encouraging (Gips, 2003). CCTV installations in conjunction with other security measures have led to a significant drop in fights and violent crime (Gips, 2003). CCTV surveillance is a good way to detect any crimes such as fights, break-ins, theft, and vandalism.
Along with the cameras, school uniforms have helped to decrease gang representation, and students seem to be better behaved when they are required to dress a certain way. Even though there has been an increase in camera use, most of the cameras only detect crimes outside of the school, which can be more beneficial for detecting trespassing of people that are not supposed to be on the property. Another good aspect of the cameras is that they are admissible in court. The cameras are a definite deterrent, but only if they are monitored and watched on a regular basis. There is a lack of consensus among experts, school personnel, parents and students regarding the prudence of installing video cameras, hiring police or security guards to patrol school campuses and taking other steps designed to increase the physical security of the building and premises (Lumsden, 1998).

Legal Concerns

Some attorneys see that in the future CCTV may become a legal concern (Gips, 2003). Attorneys are concerned because CCTV may violate privacy rights, and attorneys have to require specific evidence. Moreover, surveillance can infringe on the rights of freedom of association and free speech of the students as well as the faculty and staff (Gips, 2003). Video surveillance may be warranted in cases where there is an immediate threat to public safety or assets, but it would have to be narrowly tailored (Gips, 2003). Other attorneys say that video surveillance of public areas is not an invasion of privacy where many people can see any given person's action anyway (Gips, 2003). However there is a definite agreement that the cameras may not be placed in a bathroom or locker room. Doing so invades student's privacy.

Expense

The purchase of surveillance equipment further strains notoriously paltry school budgets (Gips, 2003). For example, one school spent about $23,000 for twelve black and white cameras, two monitors, a VCR, and a multiplexer (Gips, 2003). In addition to the initial purchase price, systems have an ongoing maintenance cost as well. A much cheaper way to use surveillance is to have handheld cameras; however, this could expose the surveillance to a perpetrator. Colored cameras are more expensive but may be a good investment since they show clothing color and skin tones. Safety motivates spending money on surveillance equipment because it can be beneficial in saving money due to direct cost and crimes that may be committed in the future. "Video cameras are a part of life, in the bank, grocery store, malls and everywhere. Why should it be any different in schools" (Gips, 2003)?

Terrorism

"Although our national education policy is "No Child Left Behind," it is clear that our federal and state officials to date have left all schools behind in homeland security planning" (Gips, 2003). September 11 only made the situation worse in some ways. According to the Security Management survey, 75% of respondents said they have not been able to attend needed antiterrorism training due to lack of funding (Gips, 2003). Gips is asking why our schools are not being looked at as being as important as bridges, tunnels, and airports (2003). The key to making this problem better is to get the attention of Congress and the Office of Homeland Security. Without their help schools will not see any change in the antiterrorism programs.

Considerations

It is apparent that most schools in the United States do not have the funding, the dedication of employees or the guidelines to have an adequate security program. It is a major concern of many parents, students, teachers and administrators to have safe and reliable schools. With education, training and the hiring of professionals in the security field, it may be possible to one day have a school that is well protected. There are a host of measures that can be taken to help this process to become successful. Administrators and faculty have to get more involved in the planning and regulation of security around the schools. With this involvement of administrators, they may be able to one day say that their school is well secured in a professional manner.

References

Hylton, J. Barry. Hard lessons in school security. Retrieved February 23, 2003, from http://www.securitymanagement.com/library/000458.html.

Gips, M. A. News and trends: Not safe anywhere anytime?. (2003, January). Security Management.

Lumsden, L. (Ed.) (1998). Trends and issues: School safety and violence prevention. Retrieved February 23, 2003, from ttp://eric.uoregon.edu/issues/safety/01.html