A Complex and Dynamic Environment
Safety and security on K-12 campuses is complex and challenging. Schools must address a changing environment around physical security, cybersecurity, and privacy concerns amid heightened awareness of active shooter events, crisis management, emergency response, and reunification planning.
These topics and trends point to a highly dynamic environment that requires comprehensive solutions. Schools operate up to 18 hours a day, from early in the morning until after school activities conclude. The K-12 campus is a fluid space comprised of faculty and staff, visitors and vendors coming and going at a near constant flow, all adding to the complexity. But most importantly, students make up the bulk of the human activity on campus, and it isn’t practical to employ access controls on a per-student basis, as one might in an office or university setting.
The stakes are high. Security must find a way to fortify schools against an emerging threat landscape while still maintaining an open and nurturing learning environment. To that end, districts are seeking a more holistic approach, with greater coordination between people, departments and the technologies that serve as a force multiplier, helping school security to meet this high bar.
Finding a Common Approach to K-12 Security
While not every district or school will, or should, utilize the same template, there are global strategies that K-12 security professionals can utilize to reduce risk. These strategies should include the core principles of prevention, mitigation, preparedness response, and recovery within the security framework. The core capabilities and planning measures that underpin these principles include a layered approach to overall access control implementations, building upon solid processes and procedures, and upgrading to and integrating modernized solutions.
Address the Organizational Structure of School Districts Through Layers
K-12 security needs to be prepared not just for the challenges of today, but also for tomorrow’s unforeseen events. To get there, schools need to take a holistic view of security. This includes comprehensive planning and district-wide standards—leveraging updated infrastructure that includes open architecture and systems integration—to deliver security as a series of perimeters.
At the outermost edge are district-wide security measures along with comprehensive policies to guide individual school implementation. There’s a property perimeter encompassing the entirety of the physical campus, and within that are separate designations. Drilling down, security measures would encompass parking lots, the building exterior, and ultimately classrooms and other interior spaces.
Establish and Define Processes, Protocols and Procedures for Safety
To effectively support a safe K-12 environment, security professionals need to pay special attention to policies, processes and procedures. The security guidance needs to have breadth and depth, and it needs to be communicated in such a way as to drive widespread adoption.
Policy should be applied “across all of the layers of a school district,” said said Guy Grace, Chair of the Advisory Board for the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools and former Director of Security and Emergency Planning for Littleton Public Schools. In his district, defined policies cover emergency response plans and threat assessment plans, as well as physical access control. “That could be our use of technology, but also how we’re going to open our doors in the morning, how we’re going to get our children in and out [and] how our staff members are even coming and going.”
Strong policies can ensure that people know what to do in an emergency, and they also can help to support security professionals in their efforts to drive compliance with essential safeguards.
To be effective, policies centered on preparedness and prevention, as well as response and recovery, all need to be woven into the fabric of the school community. “It is critical to make the need for change felt,” Straw said. “If I come in and just start throwing a bunch of policies [at] a climate and culture that’s been this way forever, they may not be well received or understood.”
Employ Modern Technologies to Enable Better Security
A range of modern technologies can help schools meet the high bar around security and access control. From visitor management to interior access controls and modernized controller platforms, technology offers the means to implement a high level of security while still delivering the openness and accessibility required in a K-12 setting.
Vestibule—Visitor management solutions are one such technology that help support the security effort. “People can choose to get notifications by text for when their visitor arrives on campus,” said Kate Kim, HID product marketing manager, visitor management solutions. “The head of security could receive a text message anytime somebody is a potential match on a watch list or screening service.”
Interior controls—While students won’t typically show ID at the door, card readers and electronic door locks at exterior entrances are an important control mechanism for teachers, administrators, and staff. Credential-based identity can help to regulate after-hours access and can ease the security burden during the day as authorized personnel enter and exit campus buildings. Interior electronic access controls are another key piece of the puzzle. While such controls may mostly remain dormant, they can play a pivotal role in an active shooter scenario, a weather emergency, or during other unexpected events.
“We put access control readers on every single classroom door,” said Matranga. In the event of a lockdown, shelter in place or evacuation order—each of which requires a different response—specialized software drives the behavior of those devices.
“We were able to optimize the ability for our staff and our students to seek refuge in multiple different classrooms— not just the classroom that they’re designated, that they have that single key for,” he said. “They can now access any of those classrooms to seek refuge, and we can lock an individual door on our campus or the entire district with the push of a button.”
Such capabilities have generally been well-received by school districts in recent years, said Ron Baer, director of business development—K-12 at ASSA ABLOY Door Security Solutions. “When you talk about expanding access control in K-12 to the interior spaces like we’ve seen in the last couple of years, it’s really been driven by a lower price per opening capability of the lock,” he said. Wireless control mechanisms have been a major driver of K-12 adoption. “The installation is easier, the hardware’s less expensive.”
Controller platforms—Ideally, K-12 security isn’t just an assortment of pieces, but rather a coherent and coordinated effort built upon a firm foundation. “It’s like LEGO®. We start from the beginning and we start building piece by piece,” said Grace.
Controller platforms, like those offered by HID Mercury, offer the technology baseline upon which to build a strong K-12 access control infrastructure. A reliable and scalable open platform helps to establish a chain of trust, with encryption and other key controls reaching from the host all the way to the end device.
Grace said this platform approach is imperative for districts looking to shore up security. “There are lots of solutions that we could employ to lock the door, but it all starts with that infrastructure,” he said.
Mobile options—Schools can look to mobile credentials to enhance the user experience for faculty, vendors and visitors, while easing the management burden for security staff. Credentials can be instantaneously provisioned or revoked over the air, removing the need for a face-to-face visit with the school office.
Mobile offers K-12 a way to swim with the changing tide, to meet some users where they live while simultaneously streamlining management and administration for security personnel.
Empower People as Key Security and Safety Measures
While all of these varied technologies help to support robust K-12 security, it’s equally important to consider the human element. “We need to think about how we’re empowering people in our schools to respond to different emergencies. Whether it’s a lockdown, a pandemic or when a student or staff member is having a mental health situation or even planning to attack a school. We have to empower people. It’s all about people in schools,” said Grace.
If technology is the “force multiplier,” people are the force, the eyes and ears on the ground who often are the first to notice something amiss and to sound the alarm. As such, it’s important to engage all stakeholders when implementing new security technologies, to ensure end users understand the rationale for new solutions and are empowered and equipped to utilize them effectively.
Best Practices for K-12 Security
Despite the high stakes, many districts will find themselves resource constrained when it comes to issues of access control and student safety. Thanks to many factors, however, more public funding is starting to flow in that direction.
While every K-12 school is unique and will likely need to chart its own migration path, it’s possible to identify overarching best practices that apply to the journey toward modernized access control.
Identify a Champion
There will likely be hurdles on the way—funding issues, cultural resistance—and a highly-placed advocate can help to push change. Security can align itself with administrators who are willing to embrace the need for a modernized, secure school infrastructure.
Get Stakeholder Buy-in
The impacts of access control go well beyond security personnel. Students and their families, staff, and faculty all have an investment in the success of this effort. It makes sense to engage with stakeholders early on, to communicate clearly what is being done, and how it will support greater school security.
How many readers do you have on the doors? What are the existing access control systems, and who runs them? What interior controls do you have and what would you need in times of crisis? Finally, is there an underlying platform or infrastructure in place to support the security apparatus?
With grants available at the federal and state levels, districts can look to secure public funding in support of innovation. Federal agencies including the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have grants available, as do many states. An experienced consultant can help districts with the grant process, including those that are designed to assist with emerging threats, such as pandemics. A wide variety of safety and security grants “have been issued at a state level, and then we’re seeing an increase also at a federal level,” said Linda Alaniz, president of the Educational Research Institute and Comprehensive Training Center. “Now we’re starting to see foundations actually specifically wanting to assist in this particular area.”
Engaging the Community
Schools are inherently community spaces, and to keep the community engaged, security needs to be not just airtight, but readily explainable. “We share with the community what we’re doing. We try to gain their trust and confidence,” said Craig Straw, Director of Security and School Safety for Texas City Independent School District. “We have to help them realize we’re here to create a safe, secure, and nurturing learning environment.”
Stronger, Safer, Together
For schools seeking more proactive management of their security infrastructure, implementing clear policies and procedures supported by trusted physical access control solutions, enables them to leverage technology in support of enhanced student safety.
Technology offers the opportunity to better manage visitor access, and to secure interior spaces in case of emergency situations. With a firm foundation and a layered infrastructure that addresses multiple perimeters, K-12 security can ensure student safety while still being responsive to community needs. By engaging stakeholders in the process of modernization, security can ensure that teachers, staff, and parents understand what security measures are being taken, and how they align with industry best practices.