What safety and security improvements in private schools can be done now to create a secure learning environment?
While school shootings are a small percentage of gun violence in the U.S., the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the 2020-21 school year saw the highest number of shootings in 20 years. In addition to threats of violence, people are dealing with mental health challenges or escalating polarization within their communities.
Recently, the South Carolina Association of Independent Schools (SCISA) Executive Director Dr. Spencer Jordan spoke about the need for more funding to hire school resource officers (SROs) at all private schools in South Carolina. SROs are effective, but there are some other considerations private schools should address to keep their schools safe and secure.
When children feel safe and secure, their minds are free to learn, process, and focus. Subtle changes in school design and protocols can improve safety without creating a fearful environment for students. Here are a few effective campus security measures every private school should prioritize:
The entrance to a private school is the first line of defense against potential threats. Schools can improve entrance security by creating a single point of entry with layers of protection and a controlled access point.
Windows at a school’s entrance are vulnerable entry points. Installing ballistic or blast films to existing windows adds valuable protection that is virtually invisible. Security films are available in different levels of protection that range from bullet-resistant to shatter resistant. At the minimum, window film will slow an intruder’s access into the school and give authorities more time to react.
Joe Gambill, MPS architect, security expert, and member of ASIS International, the world’s largest membership organization for security management professionals said,
The recent tragedy at a private school in Tennessee might have been prevented if the shooter was unable to gain access through the front door window or if there was enough security on the window to slow the shooter’s access into the school.”
Another layer of security at a school’s entrance is a security vestibule that limits physical contact between staff and visitors. Upon check-in, visitors move to a waiting area without access to main circulation paths within the school, and finally to a controlled entrance with access to the interior of the school. Entrance to the school’s interior should be guided by staff.
Access control and emergency-specific door hardware on doors at the main entry / exit points allows the building to be quickly secured while allowing occupants to evacuate.
Improved entrance security shouldn’t just apply to new schools. Adding window film to entrance door windows is less complex and often overlooked as a reliable option. Existing schools can add a security vestibule by converting an existing space at the school’s entrance or adding a small renovation to provide this important safety measure.
Other “hardening” measures include installing locking hardware which allows teachers to quickly secure their rooms during a lock-down. Security works best when it is least disruptive and secure door locks can be installed so normal circulation isn’t disrupted.
Increase Natural Surveillance
The sooner a threat is identified, the more time a school’s occupants have to react. Effective natural surveillance design provides unobstructed views of school grounds, allowing for greater visibility of people and activities. Transparent materials like glass walls and large windows allow visibility of interior and exterior spaces, reducing opportunities for suspicious activity to go unnoticed.
Take Control with Better Landscape Design
Creating an identifiable boundary around the school makes it easy to recognize when an intruder has entered the school’s physical campus. Fencing around areas like playgrounds and courtyards provide a well-defined barrier with solid protection that requires minimal maintenance.
Landscaping is another way to control movement and reduce unauthorized access to the campus. Most schools have a sidewalk leading to the school. Use open space between the school and sidewalk to create an uninviting perimeter with large rocks, hedges, or a bioswale. The natural features create a welcoming atmosphere while establishing clear boundaries and control access point.
Focus on Cameras and Lighting
Private school security systems can include installing cameras throughout the campus to provide video surveillance of the school building and grounds. Directional cameras at exterior doors and at each corner of a building should be monitored by administrators and police. Well-designed lighting can increase visibility and deter potential threats. Schools can improve their lighting by installing exterior lighting around the perimeter of the school, parking lots, and pathways.
Safety and Security in Private Schools is a Team Effort
Safety training, drills, and preventative measures should be part of your school’s onboarding process. New staff, substitute teachers, parent volunteers, and maintenance staff need to be familiar with lockdown and emergency procedures.
Establish relationships with local police and firefighters by scheduling regular meetings. Schedule time for school leadership, police, and firefighters to walk through the school and form campus emergency plans. Keep threat assessment and emergency preparedness at the forefront of everyone’s mind as an on-going effort.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the school is, security can’t be up to one group,” says Gambill. “Everyone needs to work together and communicate.”
Design improvements, connecting with safety responders and training staff will help deter threats, create a welcoming environment, and provide a safe and secure environment.
For more information on safety and security in private schools and public schools, listen to our podcast with former Superintendent Dr. Joanne Avery, School Safety and Security. And read our white paper, Creating a Safe Campus: The Power of Environmental Design.
Ready to improve your school’s safety and security programming?
Joe Gambill, AIA is a member of ASIS International, the nation’s leader in physical security training and assessment for law enforcement, private security, and homeland security professionals. The organization offers certifications, one of which, PSP (Physical Security Professional), held by Joseph Gambill of McMillan Pazdan Smith.
Michelle Smyth, AIA, LEED AP is a Principal and K-12 Project Manager at McMillan Pazdan Smith. Since joining MPS, Michelle has been focused enthusiastically on projects in our K-12 practice area. She is a graduate of the Leadership Class of 2019 for the Greater Summerville / Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce and is a graduate of Leadership South Carolina Class of 2023.