Security challenges faced by school administrators
Despite recent statistics showing that fighting and bullying in schools have declined over the past two decades, high profile, acts of violence on school grounds have parents and school communities demanding increased security. School shootings, while rare, draw intense media coverage that creates an unwarranted level of fear. Compounding the problem for school leaders is a national debate that often exploits school shootings to further political agendas.
Parents, students, and school personnel need to feel safe in school, or as safe as possible. The challenge for school leaders is to recognize this and create a sense of security while implementing safety measures that are financially feasible and address real threats. While worried parents may be reassured by the addition of armed resource officers and ballistic-grade glass, these measures are not necessarily the most effective for protecting the health and wellbeing of students and school personnel. A district’s resources are not infinite, and a security plan needs to address the threats that are more likely to occur daily while also taking sensible precautions to protect against the rare targeted attacks.
Education security is now a $2.7 billion industry. In a Market Insight report by Security Technology Analyst Jim Dearing points out that although schools have ramped up security over the past 30 years, there has been no corresponding decline in school shooting incidents. Through changing administrations, Washington politicians have formed committees to study school violence, and members of Congress have proposed various legislative remedies to reduce gun violence, but not much has changed, and the debate continues over how to keep children safe in school.
The Federal Commission on School Safety, which was formed by the Trump Administration in response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, released its final report December 2018. The report aggregates findings from two decades of studies, including The report of Governor Bill Owens’ Columbine Review Commission, Report to the President: Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy, the Obama Administration’s plan Now is the Time and the final report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. In addition to a review of the literature, Members of the Commission on School Safety went into the field for listening sessions and met with parents, students, educators, law enforcement and professionals in the security industry to develop their recommendations. While the final report is comprehensive, it may not be the last word.
School security expert Kenneth Trump, who testified before the Federal Committee on School Safety, wrote his analysis of the final report. While the Commission does recommend best practices that have been recognized for years, the overall tenor of the report, K. Trump believes, is political. Much of the previous administration’s recommendations were criticized, and the report offers controversial and politically charged remedies to school violence such as arming educators. Additionally, the call for increased “target hardening” may be seen as a plug for the security product and hardware industry. It falls on school leaders to sort through recommendations, separate the truly effective measures from lobbyist-driven solutions, and determine which security measures will be most effective in their district.
School administrators did not always need to place school security near the top of their priority list. Schools were generally assumed to be safe places. Certainly, measures were in place to keep drug dealers and pedophiles off campus. Policies to address fighting and bullying were established, and buildings were protected from after-hours vandalism with locked doors and security lighting, but the issue of school security did not have a life-and-death tenor. This changed in the later half of the 1990s with the Paducah and Columbine shootings.
Districts that once encouraged community involvement with open door policies began to lock doors and strictly control building access. It became the norm to require faculty and staff wear ID badges so that an adult not authorized to be in the school could be quickly identified by the right official. Many schools altered dress codes to ban trench coats and duffle bags that could conceal weapons. Schools across the nation began hardening their buildings.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 94.2 percent of high schools in the country have installed security cameras, and 10.6 percent hold random metal detector checks. These measures do provide increased levels of security against armed intruders, and they help to satisfy public call for action, yet it is impossible to prepare for all possible dangers. Some research suggests that overt security measures may create a more hostile, less safe school. Resources may be better spent on less obtrusive security systems.
In a summary of research on school security measures, The National Association of School Psychologists asserts there is little evidence that armed guards, security cameras and metal detectors drastically reduce violence in schools. Additionally, the Association points to studies that indicate overt security measures may undermine safety as students report that the presences of security hardware and armed personnel in their schools make them feel less safe. This uneasy school climate is at odds with a school’s essential mission and forces students to adopt a self-preservation mindset.
Most schools will never experience the type of violence that has captured national attention. School leaders do need to implement emergency plans and hold drills to be prepared for an armed intruder, but other acts of victimization occur daily in schools across the country, threatening the health and well-being of students and school personnel. Addressing these problems will go a long way towards securing a school against more severe incidents.
Indicators of School Crime and Safety – Key Findings
The National Center for Education Statistics report makes it clear which types of violence and victimizations are most prevalent in U.S. schools. During the 2014-2015 school year, 20 youth homicides occurred at schools. This is tragic, but with a national K –12 population of nearly 57 million students, it represents a sliver of the school violence problem. More common are non-fatal acts of violence. In the same school year, 750,000 students were victims of theft and non-fatal violent crimes; 11 percent of teachers report they were threatened with violence and a student physically attacked 6 percent.
Additional statistics reveal that while reported incidents of bullying have declined over the past decade, 13 percent of students in middle and high school say they have been made fun of, called names and insulted in school. Physical attacks, such as tripping, shoving or being spit on were suffered by 5 percent of the students surveyed. The same number of students report they were intentionally excluded from activities; 3 percent of survey respondents claim other students tried to make them do things they did not want to do and 2 percent said their personal property was intentionally destroyed.
Violent deaths are horrific and unacceptable, but the far more common acts of victimization show an underlying disregard for others. A school climate that allows these attitudes to fester will not be safe in the most fortified of buildings.
What We Have Learned About Perpetrators
An investigation follows each school shooting. Were there warning signs? Could this have been prevented? It makes sense to analyze the shooter and attempt to develop a profile that will help identify troubled youth before they commit violent acts against their peers. The U.S. Secret Service did just that. The Secret Service Safe School Initiative conducted a thorough study of shooter demographics and concluded there is no accurate profile of students who have engaged in targeted school violence.
The one commonality was gender, all attackers, as of the time of the report, were boys. Beyond that, attackers ranged in age from 11 to 21. Three-quarters were white, and they came from a variety of family situations with the majority living with both biological parents. Academic performance, social relationships, and histories of disciplinary problems did not serve as indicators that these students were prone to violence.
The significant finding of the Secret Service report is that nearly three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted. Before the incidents, they had been bullied, threatened or injured by others. In more than half the attacks, revenge was a motive.
In witness statements from that incident, schoolmates alleged that a lot of child in the school had at some point thrown the attacker against a locker, tripped him in the hall, held his head underwater in the pool, or thrown things at him. — U.S. Secret Service, Safe School Initiative Final Report, 2014
The Safe School Initiative found that despite the seemingly sudden and random nature of targeted attacks on schools, these acts are usually conceptualized and planned by the perpetrators. Individuals determined to carry out an attack of this nature usually signal their plans. According to the Secret Service study, in most cases, at least one person knew the attacker wished to harm others. Students and adults report witnessing alarming behaviors before the attack. Some behaviors were directly related to the attacker’s plan, such as attempting to obtain weapons, others report that the attacker made comments about harming or killing others. Unfortunately, these signals were not enough to trigger interventions.
The Federal Commission on School Safety acknowledges there is no single plan for school security that will work for every LEA, and Commission members refrain from prescribing universal actions. “Hardening” measures that large, urban districts feel are necessary may not be appropriate for small, rural schools. The final report does emphasize that measures to prevent school violence should include efforts to develop a positive school culture and should consist of character education as an essential component of these efforts.
The Commission, drawing from its review of research on school violence, writes that “Character development is essential for a healthy school climate,” and ethical values of respect, fairness, and responsibility underlie a positive school community. Character Education programs in schools are not new. More than 30 years ago, the ASCD recognized that schools play an important role in instilling values and promoting prosocial behavior. Educators cannot assume their students come to school understanding concepts such as respect and honesty. However, these concepts can be directly taught as civic values, and students should be offered the opportunity to engage in character building activities such as working towards personal improvement goals and participating in community service programs.
Character.org, formed in 1993, developed the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education framework from a study of schools with successful character development programs. The free guide is available at Character.org and is a useful resource for developing and expanding character education programs. Character development programs can serve as a uniting force within a district by enunciating the core values and beliefs all members of a school community are expected to hold.
School Climate and a Culture of Connectedness
A school’s climate is the day-to-day atmosphere that overtime becomes a culture of accepted habits and norms. Ideally, a school’s climate is positive and free from fear with a supportive culture that embraces learning and success for all. A climate of intimidation and fear engenders a culture of suspicion and distrust, forcing students into a survivalist frame of mind that isolates them from their peers. Studies on school violence have identified feelings of isolation as a precursor to violence, and improving the school culture to be inclusive and the community may contribute to school safety more effectively than security cameras and armed guards.
The National School Climate Council has established standards for developing and sustaining a positive school climate. An inclusive sense of community is necessary to nurture a safe and supportive environment. With this in mind, the Council advocates a team approach to developing activities and practices that promote personal responsibility and civic engagement.
The standards begin with creating a shared vision — with input from school personnel, students, families and the community — of actions all stakeholders can take to improve school climate. Such a project may use surveys to collect student, parent and school personnel beliefs and feelings about their school and identify areas that need attention. Armed with this information, teams may develop policies to address areas of concern such as barriers to teaching and learning and issues with school infrastructure.
The Introduction of New Technology to Streamline Operations
The primary focus of any school is learning and creating an environment that encourages personal growth and supports success. Accountability requirements, many of which are tied to funding, have schools bogged down with bureaucracy. Demonstrating adequate yearly progress, meeting minimum attendance/required days of session numbers, and adhering to reporting requirements under state anti-bullying laws are a few examples of red tape that takes resources away from a school’s main mission.
Over the past several decades, advances in technology have eased the burden with SIS, attendance, grade books and other computerized systems replacing tasks that once required pen, paper and hours. The development of the personal computer reduced the time needed for record keeping and producing reports. State and federal technology initiatives equipped schools with new tools to facilitate curriculum development, lesson planning, and record keeping. While these systems made possible the initial heavy lift of digitizing records, and they increased efficiently, relieving educators of many tedious tasks, they have become outdated.
For most districts, these systems were added incrementally as the technology and funding became available, and today’s school IT professionals are tasked with maintaining these disparate systems that do not combine information in ways needed for comprehensive analysis.
New Challenges Require Integrated Systems
The Federal Commission on School Safety recommends updating data systems and using the collected information to improve school security. These recommendations include:
· Using a variety of data to develop school climate-improvement strategies
· Creating a central reporting system for identifying threats to school safety
· Establishing effective communication systems to both keep all relevant parties informed of
· Developing effective communication systems to be able to disseminate information during an emergency rapidly
These recommendations require data systems that collect student information, including parent contact details, real-time attendance, and building access records, behavior management and administrative essentials such as class schedules. This combined information must be available to school personnel from a central location and ideally accessible remotely in the event of an emergency that affects district servers.
Too often, students view the school as belonging to teachers and other adults, or to students with better academic or athletic records or students who belong to popular cliques. Disengaged students may feel they have little or no voice in their education and this builds resentment towards other students, teachers, school staff and administrators. Students need to feel a sense of ownership in their school if they are to engage fully as members of the school community. Technology can be a valuable part of the solution. Twenty-first Century students are growing up in a hyperconnected world. It is their milieu; it is where they are comfortable. School should be a part of that connected environment.
Smart card technology gives students the ability to check themselves in and out of school with a multi-purpose ID card. Allowing students to record their attendance sends a strong message of trust, a recognition that students are responsible and reliable. Allowing students to take responsibility for their attendance is a positive step forward in creating ownership and encouraging an “every student, every day” orientation.
Automated attendance contributes to school safety in other ways as well. No longer will teachers be occupied the first few minutes of the class calling roll and manually entering attendance data. They will be free to focus on setting the stage for the day’s lesson. Automated systems are more accurate than systems requiring manually entered data, effectively eliminating teacher/student disputes over attendance. Beyond security concerns, increased accuracy is also an essential consideration for state funding purposes.
The reporting functions in automated attendance systems make it possible to quickly identify chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent or more days in a school year — and take action to prevent students from becoming disconnected from the school community. Automated attendance via smart card technology also gives administrators real-time data on who is in the building at any given moment. This information becomes critical in emergencies.
Smart card readers may be installed at room entrances throughout the school, including group meeting areas such as the library or cafeteria. This allows staff to identify students who have a pattern of being in areas of the building where they should not be at certain times of the day, and central control of door locks means unauthorized people will be prevented from entering restricted areas of the building.
Schools may also choose to link Smart IDs to the cafeteria point-of-sale program to increase efficiency at lunchtime, and students may use their IDs as a library card to check out books. Streamlining these tasks frees up time for school staff and provides records of student transactions.
Visitor Management Systems
School officials should consider replacing their outdated system with a more robust way to track new visitors on campus. When a new visitor comes in, most school grounds had tracked with a simple pen and paper. Providing basic information about the visitor, that in reality, is not very valuable. Instead, if a visitor management system were in place, the new visitor would use their state-ID card or driver’s license and the system would automatically match the visitor’s ID with a large registered sex-offender database.
By checking the background of the new visitor, the administrator just saved a large amount of time it would have generally taken to look that information up manually. Now, the administrator would be able to flag at-risk visitors in a fast, simple way. Once the visitor passes the check, they will be given the appropriate badge to enter the school grounds.
Behavior Management Systems
An inclusive school community includes students with special needs and those with behavior issues. Any school security plan needs to address how these students will be served in the least restrictive environment possible.
Determining if a student needs a CSE recommendation, writing, executing and assessing a student’s IEP or 504 plan, requires input from special education teachers, general education teachers, school psychologists, physical, occupational and speech therapists as well as the child’s parents. The configuration of individuals involved in a student’s education plan changes annually. With legacy systems, interventions and progress are tracked with a combination of written reports and data entries that record behaviors long after they were observed. Privacy protocols may inadvertently leave key team members uninformed of changes to a student’s program. Without a central system for collecting and storing interventions and observations, important insights may be lost as a student progresses through the school system.
Tracking and mitigating student behavior issues become even more difficult outside of CSE administration as decisions about which behaviors require action and what action should be taken are usually up to an individual teacher or other adult involved. Even within a day, a teacher may react differently to behaviors, less tolerant in the morning of a “mouthy” student and quick to write a referral, yet too harried by the end of the day to do more than issue a warning for the same behavior.
Student behavior issues must be recorded accurately and consistently so that teachers and building administrators can develop appropriate responses to misbehavior and develop interventions for students with persistent behavioral issues. Anecdotal information is not enough, and attempts to recall past behaviors to put the newest infractions in perspective are slipshod ways to approach behavior management.
A Computerized behavior modification system, such as ScholarChip’s ABE system, replaces handwritten, on the fly note-taking that many teachers use to record student behavior issues. By logging behaviors as they happen, or shortly after, notes are accurate and complete. Should behavior problems persist, or escalate, the teacher has documentation to accompany a referral to the principal’s office.
A well-developed, integrated behavior modification system offers age-appropriate interventions that engage students in activities designed to teach appropriate behaviors, screen for behavioral patterns that need addressing and place a measure of accountability for behavior on the student. Robust analytics provide actionable data to assess the efficacy of interventions and modify them as needed.
Controlling Building Access
The most obvious security measure most districts take against hostile intruders is control of access to district buildings. Smart ID cards allow faculty, staff, and students to swipe in each morning, but every day, substitutes, parents, vendors and other guests also need access. Most schools have sign-in protocols for visitor management. Typically, these are logs found either in the main office or at a security desk positioned at the school entrance. Visitors may be issued a stick-on badge to let hall monitors know they have signed in. The weaknesses of this system are clear. It requires a dedicated staff member to monitor the entrance, visitors may misrepresent their identity or intentions, and there is no way for administrators in another part of the building to know, in real time, who is in the school.
Data Management for Improved Security
The ability to access data collected through SIS, attendance, behavior and administration systems from an administrative portal provides an overarching umbrella of security. From a single dashboard, a building administrator may lock down rooms or an entire building, identify individuals within a building, and send this information to law enforcement. Powerful reporting functions simplify the process of segmenting data and producing reports to help identify security threats and to inform decision-making better.
Secure cloud storage means a school official may access this information from a remote location and data is protected from events such as fire or flood that may damage school servers. Software updates are simplified, as a district’s IT professionals may install updates from one location rather than having to physically visit classrooms, offices and computer labs, ensuring that updates and repairs to systems are quickly completed, minimizing data breaches and security risks.