Scott Downie
Scott Downie

Scott Downie, principal of Spiezle Architectural Group, which provides a full suite of design, planning and building services, recently participated in a school security roundtable in the latest issue of School Leader magazine.

In this interview, he shares more insights on the topic, including how schools can more effectively navigate school security.

From your vantage point, what have been the biggest changes in school security over the past five years?

The changes are many, but there are some key themes that have emerged. Security design and improvements to ‘harden’ facilities and better manage a wide range of potential situations are now a typical part of any improvement effort. While this includes new schools, it is also a focus in most projects to upgrade existing facilities.

Schools are by nature public facilities and every community is different. Successful enhancement of school security requires an assessment process that reaches out to key stakeholders to better evaluate risks and needs and to prioritize action.

Understanding this, the design process around security has changed and starts with a design exploration that seeks the right balance between security restrictions and accessibility to fit each community and each type of facility. This enables districts to put in place improvements that function more effectively and better prioritize their spending to achieve goals and impact for the least cost.

Recognition that school safety requires more than just physical building upgrades to be effective is taking root and continues to evolve. Attention to the climate/culture within each school is as important to success as constructing secure vestibules or installing camera systems. The interactions between students, teachers, security staff or public safety officers, access to counselors, communications and even consideration of social media can all play a role in building a safe environment and a supportive climate/culture. Improvements in these areas can achieve real impacts and often can be implemented with lower price tags that physical improvements or high-tech systems require.

What are some of the main trends you are seeing?

In addition to undertaking objective audits, soliciting stakeholder input, prioritizing improvements to work with available dollars, and a broader focus on climate/culture as well as physical enhancements, the following are all trends being employed by districts:

Window and door films: Film systems applied to glass are an effective way to make buildings more resistant to damage while maintaining natural light levels that also deliver benefits to building users.

Preparedness and training: Conducting more regular and diverse drills and raising awareness among students and staff at all levels is more common. A well-designed safety plan using the latest technology is entirely dependent on being used correctly to be effective. Camera systems that are not monitored actively or a new secure vestibule where people are admitted without being actively screened will not yield results. All staff and others who interact with these measures must be trained regularly for the systems to function as intended. This training is increasingly being extended beyond core staff to consider substitute staff and others who are regular users of buildings.

Communications: Schools are implementing more reliable communications systems within and outside their buildings using public address systems and walkie-talkies, cell phones and other means.

Technology: If considered carefully, technology can help districts achieve great strides toward security without breaking the bank. Most systems – door hardware, cameras, etc. – are scalable. Districts are starting with base systems in prioritized applications and expanding them as future funding allows.

Design for prevention and response: In addition to designing to mitigate danger, designs now consider how to facilitate response as well. When called upon, first responders need to understand how to access and navigate buildings and locate problems promptly.

What measures should schools take to prevent cybersecurity attacks – and what are the main dangers of such an attack?

Cyberattacks are a challenge facing everyone today – and schools are no exception. Given higher network use and the abundance of cell phones and network-connected devices in schools, like other places in society, risks are higher today than they have ever been. This includes the risk that systems dependent on school networks could be impacted when networks are compromised. Today’s door access and control, camera, communication and other systems are often network based or interact with networks in a way that requires attention. These systems offer an abundance of advantages to schools, but districts need to commit the resources to monitor them and keep their systems secure, up to date and operating with appropriate security protocols to protect against trouble.

What percentage of schools employ retired police officers as school security personnel? What are the pros and cons?

Improving school security successfully depends on maximizing the impact of the steps you take while leveraging all the resources you can toward your goals. Integrating local law enforcement into your planning delivers a perspective that is often different from in-school personnel and can expand the conversation and range of ideas that are explored. It can also assist with coordination when a response to an incident is needed. Different districts approach this differently for many reasons, and each district should seek out the right balance for their community. Retired officers are regularly engaged as school security personnel in some districts while others take different approaches. Whichever approach is considered, a key to success is the role defined for these personnel within the school and how well they connect with students and staff.

Security personnel can be a key awareness resource when it comes to monitoring the climate in a school. When successful, these team members can play a role that is different than teachers and staff and they can deliver far more than just response to incidents – they can be an active part in preventing them.

Districts can consider interactions with law enforcement or security personnel from both prevention and response perspectives. Many districts encourage and coordinate regular visibility on campus, near the entry to the building, periodic presence of a police car, etc. Additionally, the development of scenarios for drills can benefit from the input of security or law enforcement personnel. On the response side, planning and coordination in advance is critical to make sure they can access the school where needed, know the layout and are familiar with the building and any quirks that could impact access or response, and can access camera systems that are present in case of an emergency. Communications systems are also key components of response when an incident occurs and their performance can be impacted by building construction, configuration, types of glass, etc. so all communication systems that may need to be used in an emergency should be fully tested throughout the buildings in advance.

What about the mental health of students and staff? How does that fit into the school security equation?

As schools recognize that building and maintaining a supportive culture and climate within a school is a foundation of a safe environment, attention to any activity that undercuts those efforts is critical. Bullying works against the maintenance of a supportive culture. A poor school climate on the inside counteracts the investment districts make in security systems and building upgrades, compromising the value of those investments. Substantial resources are available for districts related to identifying and managing things that work against school climate, including bullying, and districts should include this as part of their regular training activities.

Are schools engaging in all the necessary drills to bolster school security?

While it is now common that schools run increased and varied drills, schools should keep several things in mind when planning and implementing their drills. This includes working with law enforcement and security personnel to develop appropriate drill scenarios in advance, and then assessing results with once completed. Another consideration to keep in mind is that too much drilling can also be counterproductive. Complacency can grow from too few or too many drills as they can lead to people tuning out their attention and the right balance and right variety needs to be found. Drills should be varied, should involve all staff, should occur at different times of day and should be planned and evaluated afterward thoroughly so the value of each drill can be maximized.

Get more insights from Downie in the school security roundtable in the latest issue of School Leader.