Principals and school administrators are tasked with more than the education of the children that pass through their hallways. The school experience extends well beyond textbooks and homework. For students, it’s a place for personal growth and social interactions.
As the caretakers of the scholastic experience, the concerns of a principal are extensive and include the safety and well-being of students as well as attendance and performance of the entire student body. With a diverse student population, this can be a tall order.
It is not just hyperbole to say that a safe and nurturing environment is crucial to the success of all students. Studies have shown the critical nature of safety on student performance. Feeling unsafe, either due to direct or indirect violence while at school decreases participation, impacts learning potential, and leads to an increase in emotional problems. It also manifests symptoms of depression in students. These symptoms, in turn, interfere with how well students do in classes and can even result in lower graduation rates.
However, feeling unsafe at school may go well beyond what happens on campus. Research shows that students who feel generally unsafe in their lives bring that feeling with them into the classroom. Children who endure chronic poverty and in unsafe neighborhoods carry that burden wherever they go, even to school. Yet these causes are more difficult for an administrator to see.
Principals must also address appropriate levels of concern. There is a fine line to walk between addressing school security and safety concerns and appearing to promote an authoritarian-like atmosphere. Go too far and students become overwhelmed. The community, too, can become concerned about the significance of threats based on the steps administrators take to protect the student population.
The proper solutions should strike a balance between ensuring the security of students and leaving the impression that a greater threat exists than actually does.
Administrators must be measured in the solutions they choose as part of a safety management plan. Effective solutions will enhance security, provide data for proactive interventions, and improve other areas of the school at the same time.
Securing schools and establishing a safe learning environment requires more than barriers to entry. A comprehensive plan should include these physical systems as well as solutions to address other potential threat vectors, while ideally creating awareness and interventions to the precursors to school violence.
Improving school security can be as simple as locking and monitoring doors, but this method ignores issues inherent with this solution and many other threat vectors. Thanks to modern technology and training, though, this common-sense security intervention’s effectiveness can be greatly increased.
At the most basic level, locking school doors during class hours increases the overall security of the building. Doors should be equipped with locking mechanisms that prevent entrance from outside of the building but allow for easy exit in the event of an emergency, like a fire.
To accommodate deliveries, visitors, parents, and other non-students and staff, entrance to the building itself should be done through the main office. This allows administrative staff to control who has access to the building, when, and for what reasons.
Schools should also require visitors to leave through the same doors. This extends the office’s awareness of visitor whereabouts and removes uncertainties about whether someone is still in the building. Some schools do this simply by requiring a visitor to leave an item – such as car keys or a driver’s license – with office staff while on site.
There are legitimate reasons to allow authorized access through more doors than just the main office. For instance, a school’s office may become overwhelmed during the lunch hour for an open campus, or a campus may have multiple buildings. It could even simply be inconvenient to have all staff and students enter through the office at any time other than the start and end of the day. In these instances, a broader solution should be considered.
One such solution is a proximity card. Proximity cards can be keyed to allow entrance for authorized individuals. Swiping or tapping the card at the door sensor unlocks it, and the door relock once closed again.
This access can be monitored from a single point, such as a computer in the administrative office, and these cards are associated with specific individuals, providing the school staff with information about who entered by which door at what time. The same software used for monitoring permits administrators to quickly change the access rights of cardholders, adding permissions or quickly removing them as needed.
Key cards do create a potential breach point, however. Students and staff, merely being polite, may hold open a door for someone coming in behind them. This entrance method, known as “piggybacking” or “tailgating” is one of the most common methods of bypassing security, and can undermine proximity locks specifically and physical security in general.
Tailgating, however, is an issue that can be simply and inexpensively mitigated. By educating students, staff, and parents on the purpose of locked doors, proximity cards, and the dangers of tailgating, schools minimize the security gap that holding a door for someone can create.
Threats to school security come from both inside and outside of the building itself. While physically restricting access to the building is important, it is impractical to deny all visitors to the campus. Parents, meeting attendees, even vendors need access to the school on occasion. Schools must balance security with projecting a welcoming environment.
It’s well known that visitors present a threat vector. Maintaining equilibrium between the conflicting concerns of safety and conducting school business requires a means of managing who gets access to the building, and how and when they get that access. Visitor management is another critical piece of a comprehensive school safety plan.
The right visitor management solution provides a myriad of benefits to school safety initiatives and is considered a best practice when increasing security. Beyond providing a means to check in, identify, and track visitors, a management system gives visibility. With printable badges that are worn throughout a visit, it is easy for staff to recognize who belongs on the campus and who does not.
A printed badge that includes a bar code simplifies scanning visitors in and out of the building. And some solutions, if provided, allow mobile scanning capabilities. With mobile scanning, a visitor can be stopped anywhere on the campus and have their credentials validated on the spot.
Another challenge solved with a modern visitor management system is the cross-referencing of data. Management systems can interface with a school’s SIS data to connect visitors to student information. The right solution will also cross-reference a visitor’s identification with up-to-date sex offender registries, keeping staff vigilant in preventing the wrong person from gaining access to the campus.
Visitor management should be married with other procedures to increase its effectiveness. Establishing a single point of entry and exit, as discussed above, funnels visitors to where management resources, like scanners and badge printers, are located.
Not all visitors need access beyond the front office. Policies should restrict access to school grounds while permitting business to occur. For instance, parents dropping off a lunch or picking up a sick child don’t need to enter the depths of the building. Vendors can meet with staff in meeting rooms or offices located near the entrance without going far into the building.
Well defined escort procedures should also be an element of visitor management. Staff that is trained on what to expect when they see a visitor’s badge, such as a requirement of a staff escort, will know immediately when something is amiss.
Schools should also encourage an open communication policy with staff and parents regarding difficult or compromised relationships. While it may be uncomfortable for a teacher to inform her employers about a bad breakup, or for a parent to notify a school about issues with a non-custodial parent, this information can help a school flag visitors that could threaten school safety.
Adding on to physical building security and visitor management is identity management and monitoring. Identity management does more than provide data on the comings and goings of students and staff. It can also provide information that administrators need to identify signals to potential problems.
Schools long ago adopted photo IDs as a layer of internal defense. Being able to quickly identify students and staff by their ID helps minimize the likelihood of someone being where they don’t belong. Today’s IDs, however, offer more functionality than a simple visual check.
A modern identity management system layers access management, like the proximity cards already mentioned, into a security device already commonly in use. Additionally, the monitoring and data collection capabilities of these same cards can help uncover issues with attendance, tardiness, and truancy and return teachers to educational tasks while limiting administrative ones. They can also increase efficiency with additional functionality outside of security, such as acting as a payment card for lunches and snacks.
For staff, centralized identity management offers a single point of permission setting and monitoring. ID cards used for building access give valuable information on what staff members are in the building, when they are there, and if they are there at unusual times. Because of the single point of control, management of permissions can happen quickly and efficiently, granting staff access to new areas of the building or rapidly shutting down entry rights when needed. For instance, if a staff member with permission to open exterior doors loses their card, administrative staff can immediately manage those rights as soon as the card is reported missing.
When students are part of an identity management program, schools gain a wealth of data that can help improve security while getting insight into student behavior and needs. Smart ID cards can be used as part of an attendance program, automating student check-in on buses, entering school, and even in the classroom. With classroom attendance automated through a student’s ID, teachers can concentrate on lessons and be less concerned with time-consuming attendance taking at the beginning of each class.
Why is accurate school and classroom attendance recordkeeping important? Studies have shown that attendance issues can be an early warning sign to potential problems. When students miss classes, they aren’t receiving the lessons that will make them successful in school. Chronic absences can set students so far back that dropping out is preferable, in their eyes, to the effort required to get back on track.
Beyond the impact on students, high absenteeism and low graduation rates can directly impact school funding. With fewer financial resources, principals struggle to provide the services and security that can right the ship and get students back into the classroom.
Tracking clear and accurate attendance provides school administrators with the tools to uncover issues that might otherwise be obscured in paper tracking and inexact or inconsistent record keeping in the classroom.
With attendance data aggregated into a single data source, it becomes easier for schools to pinpoint issues that can lead to greater safety and student performance concerns. More importantly, it provides schools with the opportunity to intervene early.
For instance, spotty and inconsistent attendance can signal one of several issues, all of which can be helped by intervening with the appropriate district services:
With clear data and proper analysis, administrators can step in to help students, while at the same time addressing a potential storm of safety issues.
Much like attendance tracking, behavioral tracking is an area that benefits from consistent reporting but can place increased stress on teachers. It is also an area in which intervention and access to student services will help secure the school and provide a better experience for students.
Occasional acting out in the classroom is expected across grades. However, consistent behavioral problems can signal bigger issues. Even when clear procedures are in place for tracking outbursts and other negative behaviors, recording incidents may not always be at the top of a teacher’s to-do list. Notes are sometimes made in a grade book, periodically information is provided to the office, or perhaps a note is sent home. Incident reports can be time consuming to fill out and takes attention away from other students.
Approximately fifteen percent of students require additional services beyond what is provided in a traditional classroom. These students are better served in smaller groups with focused goals beyond academics. To truly succeed, these students must have their needs recognized so that the processes of getting them appropriate services can begin.
If incidents are not accurately and consistently recorded, however, a student that would benefit from a non-traditional classroom setting and additional support may remain underserved for an extended period of their scholastic career. This, clearly, has a negative effect on both the student’s chances at academic success as well as impacts the traditional classroom setting and the learning environment of the other students. It is a school’s responsibility to ensure the needs of all attendees are being met.
This is where a behavior management system can benefit the entire student population while proactively identifying student needs that could morph into safety concerns. Behavioral management systems provide clear and actionable data across a student’s entire career. This creates a complete picture so that student’s that need help can get it and those that don’t aren’t unnecessarily removed from classrooms.
With a system that allows for accurate and consistent incident tracking, school interventions can be explored and enacted on the student’s behalf. With behavioral problems being addressed early and appropriately, administrators can head off more significant issues such as bullying, fights, theft, and attacks. It becomes a proactive and positive action instead of a reactive one to negative situations and improves overall school security.
Modern principals and school administrators face an increasingly difficult task. They must provide high-quality education as well as a safe nurturing environment in the midst of an uncertain world. To help maintain a welcoming environment, schools must implement security solutions that do not increase the anxiety of students, staff, or parents. At the same time, systems must be put in place to ensure the safety of everyone on campus.
A combination of technology, procedures, training, and data analysis is needed for security while still allowing business as usual to occur. The right solutions go beyond simply barring access. Modern solutions provide school administrators with the information needed to admit and monitor those with legitimate business on school grounds. These solutions can provide additional benefits to schools, as well, providing the data needed for proactive student interventions.