Going Above and Beyond

Parents should not be forced to expect anything less than a safe and secure campus

LAST year's wave of school shootings garnered tremendous media attention and left the nation shaken and concerned for the safety of students and staff.

Despite the tragic events, many studies and statistics show that campus crime has slightly declined in the past few years. Still, there remains much that can and should be done to create a secure environment where teachers can teach and students can learn -- without fear.

While gun-related incidents receive the bulk of attention, there are many other dangerous and illegal activities happening on U.S. public and private school campuses every day. According to the most recent findings from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • There are an estimated 1.2 million thefts from students and 740,000 violent crimes (including 150,000 of the most serious violent victimizations--rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault) committed against students each year.

  • There are an estimated 119,000 thefts and 650,000 violent offenses committed against teachers at schools annually.

  • Twenty-nine percent of private and public school students reported someone had offered, sold or given them illegal drugs on school property within the previous 12 months.

These numbers do not begin to reflect the millions of dollars school districts lose each year to stolen computers, audio-visual equipment, sporting gear, books and other valuable items. The costs related to vandalism -- broken windows, damaged playground equipment, shattered restroom fixtures -- further cut into the money spent on educational resources.

Fixing the Problem
School officials are constantly searching for solutions to these problems that face the nation's 50 million students and 100,000 schools. There is no alternative to safe and secure campuses.

One school in Texas provides a good example. Elgin High School, located outside Austin, was rated as one of the safest in the state. Fearing complacency, administrators continue to improve security.

The school has 22 cameras installed to help provide better views of the hallways and other common areas in the main school building. The design of camera placement increases the likelihood activities will be captured from multiple angles. A 20-inch color monitor, mounted just inside the school office, reminds students and visitors that cameras are present. An identical monitor is located in a nearby resource room that also houses a DVR. The system only records when cameras detect motion to save space on the DVR's hard drive. The DVR can record video for a month or more before needing to archive any important data to disk or other media.

The principal and two vice principals are authorized to view the live and recorded video from their offices or home computers by accessing the school's protected computer network.

Within weeks of installation, fights were reduced, locker theft and one vexing problem -- students dialing 911 from the pay phone near the office and then hanging up -- also were reduced or ended. By matching the time of the call to the timestamp on the video, the principal identified the caller.

Increasing Security
Cameras are a great tool, but not the only piece of technology schools should employ. Officials need to control who enters campuses. Visitor management systems that require all campus visitors to register at the office with valid identification are critical. Once registered, visitors should be issued a temporary badge to wear. Staff members and students -- who should have their own ID badges -- must be instructed to challenge any adult or student on campus not wearing a badge. Also, if there is a problem with weapons on campus, passing all students, staff and visitors through a metal detector can help keep weapons out of the school.

According to a recent ABC News report, most schools are not putting a high priority on security technology. Less than one-quarter of schools use surveillance cameras. Metal detectors are used in only 6 percent of the nation's schools. ABC reports that 70 percent lock some -- but not all -- of their doors, while nearly all leave the main entry unlocked.

Resources are available to help schools. Government grants can help pay for some security solutions, and some technology can help pay for itself in the form of lower insurance premiums and by reducing out-of-pocket expenses due to theft and vandalism.

Beyond Technology
In addition to the use of technology, there are a number of other basic plans and procedures all schools should implement. These include conducting regular drills for staff and students to prepare for one or more armed gunmen entering the campus, cutting back landscaping that can serve as a hiding place for attackers, weapons or drugs, and checking perimeter fencing and lighting. It also may include posting signs around campus announcing the school is drug and weapons free and that violators will be prosecuted, conducting random searches of student lockers (subject to any applicable legal restrictions) and searching the interior and exterior of buildings, including all vehicles, and arranging for a security/law enforcement presence on campus at all times when staff and students are present.

One of the most important steps administrators can take is to request a campus security assessment from a qualified security expert who can help design a full plan for securing the site.

There is, of course, no technology, plan or procedure that can stop all crime. But it is possible to help protect students, staff and property better than we currently do. Through the use of appropriate policies and procedures, administrators can be preventive rather than reactive.

Schools need involved parents, aware students and administrators willing to take charge and make some tough decisions. Children and our teachers deserve nothing less.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Security Products, pg. 27.

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