What the Nation’s Largest School Districts Are Doing to Protect Students and Staff

children in school
Recent mass shootings have again sparked a national debate on gun laws, mental health, and approaches and attitudes toward public safety. But for K-12 school districts across the country, protecting students and staff from dangerous intruders has never truly been a matter of debate. In the wake of the tragedies at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and Santa Fe, school officials nationwide have been working constantly for several years both to evaluate their districts’ vulnerabilities and put in place practical measures to help safeguard their campuses. And parents want to see these safeguards in place. A 2018 survey of parents’ attitudes toward public schools revealed that only 27% had confidence that their children’s schools could deter an attack like those that have occurred in recent months, while 34% — more than one in three — expressed fear for their child’s safety at school, a level of concern not seen since the immediate aftermath of Columbine. Funding is often a limiting factor for public schools seeking to bolster school safety. But many of the nation’s largest K-12 districts — Miami-Dade County (FL) Public Schools, Houston (TX) Independent School District, Orange County (FL) Public Schools, Dallas (TX) ISD, Prince George’s County (MD) School District, and Metro Nashville Public Schools, to name just a few — have already taken steps to reduce their schools’ vulnerability and help ensure the security of their students, faculty, and staffs. What are some of these steps?

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Installing Robust Visitor Management Systems

Visitor Check in

Asking visitors to stop in the main office upon entering a school has been a common practice for decades. But simply having visitors, volunteers, or contractors sign a logbook does little to confirm the person’s identity, much less ensure the safety of the students and staff members in the building. Signatures are often illegible, and the process of checking a person’s identity against potentially outdated manual files of banned or restricted individuals takes time and is prone to error. Add something here about no way of knowing if someone actually stopped at the front desk (i.e. they aren’t wearing a badge.)


Automated visitor management systems eliminate or dramatically reduce the likelihood of such errors.
The best visitor management systems screen a visitor’s state-issued ID against the sex offender database of all 50 states in real time. A positive flag, usually occurring in just a few seconds, results in instant alerts being sent to designated building and district personnel to intercede and escort the person off campus. Some systems include the ability to upload locally customized databases listing such items as custody alerts or bans for terminated personnel. Visitor badges are instantly printed for authorized visitors so schools staff can visually see when a visitor has or has not been vetted.

Installing Wireless Panic Buttons

Panic button

Hard-wired “silent alarms” have been around for decades — picture the bank teller in the heist movie pressing the button under the counter or stepping on the switch on the floor. But the highest-quality current visitor management and emergency management systems feature built-in, on-screen panic buttons that allow front office staff in the nation’s largest districts to easily and discretely alert a customizable list of district leaders, building administrators, and law enforcement with a simple touch. And because the systems are wireless, the panic buttons are much more difficult to tamper with or disable.


Beyond the panic button feature, the best-designed emergency management systems extend school security much further. They offer comprehensive emergency preparation, response, and recovery modules, including drill scheduling and management features, desktop and mobile in-incident management, with real-time line of sight to student and staff member status and location, and student-guardian reunification and verification capability that is significantly faster and more accurate than manual paper-and-pencil reunification schemes.

Limiting Building Entry and Access Points

school building doors
Hard-wired “silent alarms” have been around for decades — picture the bank teller in the heist movie pressing the button under the counter or stepping on the switch on the floor. But the highest-quality current visitor management and emergency management systems feature built-in, on-screen panic buttons that allow front office staff in the nation’s largest districts to easily and discretely alert a customizable list of district leaders, building administrators, and law enforcement with a simple touch. And because the systems are wireless, the panic buttons are much more difficult to tamper with or disable.

Beyond the panic button feature, the best-designed emergency management systems extend school security much further. They offer comprehensive emergency preparation, response, and recovery modules, including drill scheduling and management features, desktop and mobile in-incident management, with real-time line of sight to student and staff member status and location, and student-guardian reunification and verification capability that is significantly faster and more accurate than manual paper-and-pencil reunification schemes.

Involving and Integrating Local Law Enforcement

school police
Several of the largest public school districts have their own police forces, and armed, sworn peace officers are now common sights in the nation’s schools. Districts that have not implemented their own forces have taken advantage of increased availability of public funds to employ school resource officers — police officers or sheriff’s deputies assigned from municipal or county forces to be present on school campuses during the school day as well as during extracurricular events. Officers patrol building entrances, exits, and other points of potential vulnerability in the school; they frequently monitor and control approaches to school driveways and parking areas; they maintain a visible presence in gathering areas such as entry foyers and cafeterias; and they are often asked to be present during disciplinary or counseling conferences with students, staff, and parents. Local law enforcement organizations often serve as advisors in the creation, implementation, evaluation, and revision of school and district security planning. And beyond their typical functional roles, law enforcement officers, by their daily presence on campus, both support and emphasize a culture of safety and security.

Revising District and Building Safety Plans

Man planning on school board

Detailed safety plans have been around since the mid-1980s at least, but plans created to both increase overall security and safeguard against violent acts have only really evolved since the Columbine incident. Large districts have generally formed planning and review teams with representatives from each school in the district, and they often include members of parent organizations and local first responders as mentioned above. The elements of good district and building safety plans include a set of clearly defined safety goals and objectives — essentially what the plan can and cannot practically address. The most effective plans include appropriate tiered contingencies for different degrees of threats — evacuation, lockdown, shelter-in-place, accounting for all persons, emergency communication and notification channels including connections to first responders, parent-student reunification protocols, etc., in alignment with both the Standard Response Protocol and the Standard Reunification Method. Well-designed plans clearly define individual administrator and staff responsibilities for the full range of possible emergencies and threat types, and they include training and staff communication plans.

Well-designed plans in larger districts take legal restrictions regarding information sharing (FERPA, HIPAA, etc.) fully into account, seeking appropriate legal guidance and including all necessary restrictions as part of all communication planning and contingencies. Larger districts also regularly and continually test and evaluate their plans’ effectiveness with table-top exercises, frequent drills, and full-scale dry runs that include outside emergency personnel (fire, police, EMS, etc.).

Looking Ahead

Telescope

School security has, in the past, been more reactive than proactive. But large urban and suburban districts have begun to take the lead in understanding and anticipating the dangers facing the nation’s schools and acting up front to mitigate them. Education and security experts are quick to point out that no school can be 100% safe, but these same experts emphasize the need to put in place measures like the ones described above as minimum bulwarks against the types of violent incidents that have occurred often enough now to seem commonplace.


One major consideration for districts as they move to enhance school safety is the need to recognize the importance of maintaining a balance between security and openness. Schools are intended to be nurturing environments for students to learn and socialize. They are a key part of their lives, the places where they spend nearly half their waking hours prior to reaching adulthood. Unfortunately, one of the realities of an open society is that it runs the risk of exposing its citizens to danger. The largest school districts in the U.S. are conscious of the need to avoid turning schools into fortresses while at the same time protecting their delicate developmental environment. Striking that balance may be easier when designing new learning environments as opposed to reconfiguring existing ones, but the country’s largest districts are actively accepting the challenge.

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