May/June • Volume 43 • 6

Building Better School Security

Ideas to make your school safer


Providing a safe and secure environment for your students to learn is a complex task. Some critical elements include building a positive school culture of respect and civility, working with local policy and emergency personnel on developing proper security procedures and plans, and training faculty and staff to handle difficult situations.

But there are also architectural or technological features that can be added to your school to help improve the physical security of your facilities.

Below we describe an array of solutions. Where possible, there is an estimated cost range included. The feasibility of any particular option may be dependent on such factors as your school’s existing building layout, staff availability, cost, and public perception.

The Three D’s of Physical Security Many security experts agree that three fundamentals are key to improving the security of your building.

  • Discern: Identify anyone who wants to enter your building by requiring everyone to enter the building at locations where they can be screened. In most schools, this is the main office. Some schools may use a lobby check-in station, entry kiosk, or other means to screen visitors to a school.
  • Delay: Install measures that slow down an intruder’s movement into and through your building.
  • Disrupt: Provide a way to notify law enforcement of an intruder as quickly as possible. Employing delay measures may frustrate and thus disrupt an intruder. The goal is to slow down an intruder and speed up law enforcement response time.


Remove visual obstructions Remove any obstructions that may prevent you from monitoring a building perimeter. Eliminate nooks and crannies and tall landscaping near buildings. These can provide a place for an intruder to hide. Remove trash cans, mail boxes and other objects away from the building. Expected cost: Utilizing school staff may result in little or no cost to the district. Measures such as fencing and gates may cost several hundred to several thousands of dollars, depending on the quantity and configuration needed.

Check all exterior door and roof hatch hardware and operation Doors and hatches which do not close or latch properly can allow intruders to enter a building at a place other than where they can be screened. The expected cost for changes can range from $100/door for simple repairs to $3,500 to replace a pair of exterior doors or to replace a hatch.

Improve Visibility Cut an opening in a wall and add a window or vision light in key areas to improve visibility of the building entrance and surrounding area. The expected cost can range from $1,500 for a simple vision light to $5,000 or more for complicated window configurations.

Re-Configure Main Office In some buildings the main office is located remotely from the main entrance to the school. In cases like these, there are several options to consider: Relocate the main office, relocate the main entrance or p rovide a separate manned control point near the entrance. Expect renovation costs to range from $225 to $275 per square foot depending on the scope of the renovation work needed.

Secure Vestibules: Configure the entrance to your building to require that visitors travel through the main office (or other check point) prior to entering the building.

Entrance intercom: The entrance intercom system (which combines call switch, camera, speaker, microphone and door release) is an efficient and economical way to screen visitors. The expected cost will range from $2,500 - $4,000 for the first door with additional doors costing $1,500 – $3,000 each.

Entry kiosks: A complete automated visitor management solution combining license scanner with limited background check, camera and visitor badge printing system. The system consists of kiosk structure and software. Expected cost will range up to $5,000 with recurring costs for software, licenses and maintenance.

Video cameras: A large variety of cameras with numerous features are available. It is important to select the correct camera for the desired application. Cameras are typically a part of a larger video management system, which can be web based. IP (internet protocol) cameras are most common. They require server capacity, power over Ethernet switches and storage capacity. Large camera systems may have a significant effect on your technology infrastructure and require network upgrades. Expected costs of a camera system will vary widely and are directly related to the sophistication and size of system. Camera costs range from $1,500 to $3,000 or more for each camera installed. Video management software may cost $5,000 or much more depending on type, features and size of system. Most systems can be scaled, allowing cameras to be added in the future. Camera licenses will also affect the price of the system. Technology upgrade costs may also be incurred if the network must be upgraded to accommodate the cameras. Recurring costs include software upgrades, maintenance and software/camera licenses.

Door access control system: This system allows access to locked doors by using a card, key fob, key pad or other device. The system may be local (residing in the door hardware) or global (building or district-wide). The system is usually highly customizable and can be set for users allowed, access levels, access times and other restrictions. There are a large variety of systems to choose from. It is important to be aware of the building code issues surrounding access controlled doors, and your design professional should be consulted before installing them. The modification of the operating characteristics of any door typically requires a building permit. Typical installation costs range from $2,500-$3,500 per door. Some doors may require additional hardware work which will add to the expense. There may also be recurring costs such as software, licensing and maintenance, depending on the exact system selected.

Door status alarms (door open): Door alarms use a set of contacts mounted on a door and frame to alert you when a door is not properly closed and/or latched. The alert may be local (at the door) or part of a security system. They are usually accompanied by a sensor (request to exit) to prevent alarms when people exit through the door normally. This system typically requires human intervention to check the door when the alarm sounds. The expected cost per door will be $1,000 to $2,000 depending on type of system. Some doors may require additional hardware work, which will add to the expense. There may also be recurring costs such as alarm company monitoring and personnel time to check doors on a regular basis.

Intrusion detection system: An intrusion detection system (i.e. motion sensors) in your buildings will protect your building at times when it is closed to reduce the risk of vandalism, theft or intruders with ill intent from breaking in and hiding in the building. Video cameras with motion sensor technology can also perform this function, recording the event while sending an alarm at the same time.

Security management systems: This system provides an integrated, comprehensive and scalable group of options, including door-access controls, video management, identification cards with door access, visitor management, forensics, intrusion detection and many others. Expected cost varies widely depending upon features and number of buildings. It is reasonable to plan for an initial budget of $50,000 in addition to the costs of hardware. There will be recurring costs as well for software upgrades, licenses and maintenance.


Ballistic films and glazing: Existing or new glass may be coated with ballistic, or bullet resistant film. Ballistic glass may be used to replace existing glass or in new applications. Most school buildings have thousands of square feet of glass. The cost of ballistic films and glass will make them of limited use in schools, perhaps only at entrances and other key areas. There are varying strengths of film and glass. Expected cost for ballistic film is $15 - $25 per square foot installed and for ballistic glass, $100 - $300 per square foot installed.

Intruder doors: These are doors located in corridors that close automatically when an intruder alarm or lockdown is activated. These doors will typically lock using magnets or other mechanisms. They will automatically release in the event of an emergency, such as a fire or power outage. The doors must be equipped with a means for law enforcement and other first responders to open them as needed.

Intruder locksets: These locks are located on the inside of a door in all occupied rooms and are designed to lock the outside (hallway) facing door handle without having to enter the hallway. The special design of the lock allows it to always have the ability to be opened from the inside. Some newer existing locks can be retrofitted for a relatively low cost (about $100-$500/door, depending on who performs the labor). Older hardware will need to be replaced for a higher cost (about $750-$1000/door installed, depending on type of door and fire rating).

Safe rooms: Typically, these are windowless existing rooms, such as toilets, storage rooms or offices attached to the classroom, which serve as a hiding place in the event of a lockdown. Because the duration of a lockdown cannot be known in advance, consideration must be given to the need for temporary portable toilet facilities, drinking water, snacks and means for constant communications.


Panic button: This sends an immediate signal to the police, alerting them that fast action is needed. This will usually result in a robust response by law enforcement, and therefore, should only be used in the event of imminent danger or a true life or death emergency. These are typically installed and monitored by a district’s security alarm vendor. The panic (9-1-1) button can also be incorporated into some phone systems.

Communications systems to occupants: All school districts should have a way to communicate emergencies to building occupants. Prompt notifications can allow time for occupants to take action to disrupt or foil an intruder. Most buildings already have a public address system. This system should be kept in good operating condition at all times. Obsolete or unreliable systems should be replaced. Newer systems can be equipped with additional audio and visual features to alert occupants to different threat levels. A reasonable budget cost for a replacement public address/intercom system is $2 to $3 per square foot depending on system type and features, as well as existing conditions.

Improve access and information for law enforcement: Real time is the best time. Security management and video systems are equipped with features that can be configured to allow police officers to view video footage directly from the patrol vehicles. This can greatly aid in staging a response and containing an emergency.

Your Security Plan Each school district and building is unique. Before executing security related projects, a school district must develop a physical security plan which sets forth the goals and objectives which are in line with the district’s needs and practices. Consideration must be given to present district policies, perceived threats, staffing capabilities, budget and public perception. A district should draw upon all available resources for advice, including federal, state and local agencies (in particular local police, fire and medical first responders). If needed, districts may also engage the services of an outside security consulting firm. The security plan should be evolutionary and adaptable to constant changes in threat levels. If the plan involves any changes to building elements, you should consult with your design professional to assure that building codes are not overlooked. Most security projects which modify building elements will require approval and inspection by local agencies, including construction and fire safety.

Implementation Schedules Be aware of the time frames associated with the various types of security projects which you may choose to implement. Time must be allowed for design, project approvals (New Jersey Department of Education, construction plan review, permitting) and procurement of materials. Items such as doors and hardware may take 8-12 weeks to receive. Individual vendors should be consulted regarding the scope, cost and lead times for their respective products.

Soft Costs and Recurring Costs When determining the final cost of the project, take into account project ‘soft’ costs such as architect/engineer fees, plan review, contingency, legal fees, advertising and printing costs. Also remember that your selected security projects may create recurring costs such as staff salaries, maintenance, licensing fees, software upgrades and others. These recurring costs must be planned for and included in your annual budget.

While there are numerous architectural and technological solutions available to help make your school building safer, these solutions should only be implemented in response to a well thought-out and vetted school security plan. Consideration must be given to factors such as appropriateness, schedule, upfront and recurring costs, and public and staff perception. School districts should draw upon the wide range of resources available to them when making a decision about security solutions with the understanding that each school is unique and has different requirements and criteria.

George R. Duthie, AIA, PP, is a principal at the architectural and planning firm of Fraytak Veisz Hopkins Duthie .

Related Content

NJSBA’s School Security Resources