If you’re a member of a local board of education, school administrator, teacher or virtually anyone old enough to be involved in school operations, a school safety drill probably brings back memories of a blaring fire alarm, scuttling down a staircase or hallway and spending 10 or 15 minutes in a parking lot or adjacent field.

But students, staff and visitors have a lot more to worry about these days — and they are as likely to have a drill involving an active shooter as one involving an active fire.

All this poses an array of challenges for schools — and they go beyond simply hiring school security guards. From architecture and design, to setting policies for visitors, to insurance coverage and more, security is top of mind for board members and administrators determined to keep students, school staff and visitors safe.

To help board members and school stakeholders navigate the school security landscape, we reached out to Scott Downie, principal of Spiezle Architectural Group, which provides a full suite of design, planning and building services; and Paul Jenne, sales manager at Eastern Datacomm, which offers data networking, video surveillance, school safety solutions and more.

How did the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School change the landscape of how we think about school security?

DOWNIE: The tragedy at Sandy Hook was a watershed moment in terms of how we think about school design and security, which had been underway since Columbine. Each tragedy has brought new perspectives and impacts on design for safety, as well as rethinking by first responders about how to approach these situations. Design for lockdown and entry screening has changed significantly in response to these tragedies. A broader recognition of how important a supportive school culture and climate is to build a safe school environment has also emerged over recent years. This has led to broader thinking about the types of improvements that might enhance school security more than others and how spending can be prioritized for maximum impact. Along with this expanded awareness is the realization that school security is not a point you achieve but an ongoing process of assessment, improvement and response.

JENNE: I think what made the Sandy Hook shooting so impactful was that it took place at an elementary school, with many first graders losing their lives. I think people weren’t surprised to hear these things happening at a high school or university, but the young age of the victims was shocking. Regarding New Jersey schools, I think it also hit close to home since the shooting occurred in Connecticut — right in our backyard.

Should schools take advantage of a school security audit from the state? How do they go about this and what can they expect to learn from such an audit?

DOWNIE: Every district should undertake a school security audit and once undertaken, embark on an improvement and educational effort around the results of that audit. Whether this is done internally or with the assistance of outside professionals, or with components of both, is a decision to be made based on each district’s situation. Having an independent review by a team outside of the district’s staff can yield a fresh perspective on things that staff accustomed to daily routines may not view objectively. The assessment process should engage a range of school and community stakeholders, including the board, administration, teachers, students, counseling teams, operational staff, community leadership, parents, community members and others to collect input. To gauge the culture/climate in and around your school, the input of parents and community members may be critical to helping you craft responsive solutions. After the study is completed, broad involvement up front can build support for action.

When undertaken, the audit should evaluate your school culture/climate, your facilities (inside, outside and grounds), off-campus operations (transportation, etc.), communications, technology/network systems, school and non-school use and access practices, and other factors depending on your community. It should be undertaken with the input and participation of a range of staff, local law enforcement and stakeholders. Be sure to interact with your local building and fire code officials during the review process as well. The fire code and its requirements are often focused on evacuating people from buildings as quickly as possible whereas security protocols often strive for the reverse with lockdown and similar practices. This contradiction must be navigated to ensure that safety is not compromised in one direction or the other. Once complete, the assessment should yield a range of recommendations and/or goals around which action items can be developed along with prioritized budgets.

Importantly, don’t forget that improving security is a process and the audit is not an end but a beginning. Once completed, action items should be prioritized and assessed annually, and periodic reviews or audits undertaken to evaluate progress and changing situations.

JENNE: Yes. I think the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning does a tremendous job doing a thorough audit of schools and providing practical, best practices to help them prepare. I find that schools themselves don’t have the resources nor the understanding to be prepared for a real emergency event. OSPEP, which is a part of the New Jersey Department of Education, understands the challenges school districts face and the practical solutions they can implement.

If you go on the Department of Education website, look up the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning to obtain contact information. They will make themselves available for a school audit. I can’t speak directly to what the audit looks like since I’ve never been a part of one, but I do know that every school that has gone through the audit found it very eye opening and beneficial.

If you had to pinpoint one or two security issues that schools often overlook, what would they be?

JENNE: One of the most important aspects of security is the ability to communicate the danger quickly and effectively. Using a lockdown as an example, schools in New Jersey usually do a good job of putting procedures in place for students and teachers to follow during an emergency. The area they often struggle with is the ability to notify everyone in a timely fashion, so they know to follow those procedures to get themselves into a safe position until first responders show up. This is where a robust emergency notification solution comes into play. These solutions should play an automated message over the school’s public address system to notify everyone, both inside and outside the building. However, I often find that schools neglect to upgrade these public address systems. They should fix broken speakers and/or add speakers in dead zones.

A second area that’s often overlooked is adding visual cues to the emergency notification system like strobe lights and signboards in loud areas of the building as well as active entranceways. The interior lights are used to inform the occupants of that room to quiet down and listen to the overhead announcement — critical for places like the cafeteria, gymnasium and music room. Additionally, emergency lights outside the building above active entranceways inform people not to enter the building since it’s currently in an emergency state.

Has the charged political climate and pandemic made school security even more challenging — and if so — how?

DOWNIE: Within every community, while there may be agreement on the need for safer schools, there may be differences of opinion as to the priorities that will best contribute to that safe environment. The pandemic has introduced new levels of consideration regarding what a “safe environment” means within a school — and this has led to new types of improvements being part of the picture, such as ventilation systems and the reassessment of practices such as those related to visitor management.

The pandemic has increased remote activity and interconnectivity with school networks. This, in turn, has increased the risks and challenges posed by school networks and technology infrastructure. As school operational and security systems increasingly interact with school networks, this poses risks to not just the network and its connectivity but potentially to other systems within school buildings as well, increasing the technology burden on schools.

What resources, which would help improve school security, are currently missing from many schools?

JENNE: An emergency notification solution that automates the notification process. Many schools still rely on making manual announcements over the public address system and/or calling the police during an emergency event like a lockdown. Although they can perform a successful, manual announcement during a drill, they will most likely perform poorly during a real crisis event. It’s imperative that schools have a system that can easily be activated by a press of a button, a code dialed on a phone, or an app being activated on a smart device. Once activated, the system should play an automated announcement over the school’s public address system, call the police with an automated announcement and use other means of communication like strobe lights, LED signboards, phone calls, emails, text messages and PC screen pops to further notify the people in danger.

How can architecture and master planning be relevant for schools that don’t have the budget to construct buildings from scratch but still want to enhance school security?

DOWNIE: Often, districts may look at the cost of desired improvements, the lack of available funds, and become discouraged or fail to act.

Action is critical to improvement, and the focus should always be on maximizing the impact that can be achieved for the dollars that are available. Success depends on honest assessment and constant improvement — and a great deal can be achieved with limited budgets. Existing buildings can be improved as effectively as new buildings, and with creative planning, can realize impactful improvements at the same level as new construction. Informed, well developed solutions can focus the limited dollars you can spend where they achieve the most impact and help build a long-term plan to gradually do more in the future. For example, improving access control does not require school entries to be torn down and rebuilt. A mixture of security film, improved screening processes and selective door hardware changes may achieve a huge impact for a manageable cost.

Architectural changes shouldn’t always be considered first depending on your goals. Perhaps investing in the training of your front-line staff to understand how to screen visitors more effectively or how to manage situations differently when they arise can create real impact. Review of policies around access, the lockdown process, movement within buildings and other considerations can often be improved to yield results with minimal dollars.

To achieve measurable results with minimized dollars, a critical first step is completion of a comprehensive assessment to fully understand the nature and breadth of issues being faced. Creative solution planning to prioritize results versus expenditures can then be advanced.

What are some best practices when it comes to cameras, etc., on school grounds?

DOWNIE: Technology enhancements, such as cameras, can be costly to implement and should always be considered within the context of an overall list of priorities for improvement following an audit. The systems can be scalable so they can start with key locations and be expanded over time. Entries and areas where observation is difficult should be priorities. When it comes to cameras, districts should always be honest with themselves about how they plan to use them. For example, monitor screens are too often tucked out of sight in a remote location or room. In these cases, the cameras are not providing real-time active monitoring that can catch situations as they occur but will only serve to gather evidence after the fact. Was this the original purpose or understanding of what would be gained from these systems when the money was spent?

When monitoring school grounds and campuses with cameras, don’t plan the installation at a table in a conference room. Walk the grounds so you can understand which views are blocked or impacted by trees and other landscaping when deciding where to locate them. Also, consider that the cameras may not be as effective if the lighting around the building is not adequate, so lighting levels need to be considered along with the cameras themselves. Roof areas should not be forgotten along with any potential access points and exterior cameras may also need to consider neighboring homes carefully, so the installations don’t create unintended privacy issues.

When considering cameras at entries, they should provide a full head-to-toe view of any visitors as they approach and as they stand at the door. Districts should also consider the potential to provide remote access to first responders who may be able to utilize cameras to improve response to incidents when they occur.

JENNE: Some best practices would include working with vendors that have experience working with schools. As a vendor myself, I have walked into schools and recognized that a technology vendor they were using knows nothing about how schools operate. For example, we install phone systems in schools. I worked with a district whose phone system allowed parents to call directly into the classroom in the middle of a school day! That should never happen. This is especially true for school safety solutions.

As an example, it rarely (if ever) makes sense for a school district to install a pan tilt zoom camera. PTZ cameras are only useful if you have someone constantly monitoring them. This is probably not the case for 99.9% of schools out there. What often happens is a PTZ camera is installed, and nobody uses it. Then an incident occurs by it, but the school doesn’t get the shot it needs because the PTZ camera is pointing in the wrong direction. A school would be better off installing two or more fixed cameras for these areas. Even better are multisensor cameras that are essentially four cameras in one. These multisensor cameras cover a very wide area of focus.

What are the benefits of Alyssa’s Law and how could the law be bolstered to be even more effective — or what other laws do you think should be on the books to improve school security?

DOWNIE: As schools have expanded how they view what is necessary to create a secure school environment, district interactions with local law enforcement have become a critical way to augment their strategies. Alyssa’s Law — requiring a panic alarm system connected to the police that can be activated within the school — is a key component of an overall communication system. Districts can expand upon this requirement to make sure their processes allow timely communication from anywhere in the building or on campus to those that can activate this when situations arise.

What happens after this alarm is triggered should also be considered in multiple ways. Response time to alarms can vary substantially depending on the community — urban, rural, geographically small or large, etc. Districts should develop action plans that directly address the expected gap between alarm and arrival and train staff to appropriately take actions according to that plan. Additionally, districts should put measures in place so that first responders know where they need to go when they arrive, know as much as possible about the situation that triggered the alarm and have the information to access and navigate the school in response. This next-level planning is as critical to managing a situation as having access to the actual alarm in the first place but requires planning and coordination with law enforcement in advance.

JENNE: I think the benefit of Alyssa’s Law is that it forced schools to automate an aspect of the emergency notification process. Most schools manually make lockdown announcements and manually make phone calls to the police. While this might work fine during a drill, people have the tendency to panic during a real event, so these actions need to be automated as much as possible.

One aspect of the law that should be revised is removing the part about making a “silent alert.” This makes no sense since you need to alert everyone on school grounds that there is an active shooter. A silent alert makes sense for a bank or a jewelry store because you’re trying to discretely notify the police. In a bank robbery, the robber is threatening to shoot people if they alert the police. However, in an active shooter event at a school, the active shooter’s goal is not to rob the school but to kill as many people as he can. It doesn’t matter if he knows the police and everyone in the building have been notified since he’s planning on shooting them anyway.

What are some best practices on how schools can work with law enforcement personnel to bolster school security?

JENNE: Get law enforcement involved in your school safety solutions, especially if those solutions will be communicating with them. For example, we developed and install a lockdown emergency notification system called LENS to be used during lockdowns and active shooter events. After installing the solution in a school, we do an official training and handoff session with the district before turning it over. We always have them include the local police for these handoffs so A) the police are aware of how they’ll be notified and B) we can test the automated calls out to the police to ensure they are set up properly. This is best practice, so the school and police are on the same page.

Another best practice is to activate the LENS system during a drill the same way it would be activated during a real event. Schools have asked us if we can add a “drill mode” to LENS that doesn’t notify police. We do not have a drill mode because the calls to police need to be tested as well to ensure the police are receiving the calls in a timely fashion with the correct school information. In addition, the police sometimes use these school drills to drill themselves. As an example, we installed LENS at Weehawken Public Schools. Being that it’s in an urban area, the police often need to close nearby streets to set up a perimeter. They would often practice doing this when the school did a lockdown drill.

Do you have advice or recommendations for schools conducting security drills?

DOWNIE: 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.

JENNE: I’ll answer this question a slightly different way. Schools drill in different ways. I think the best practice for school drills is to practice like it’s the real thing and get everyone involved. For example, schools are required to do lockdown drills. Often, it’s the school principal that initiates the lockdown. However, in a real-life event, there’s a good chance that someone else will need to initiate the lockdown. As a best practice, the person who sees the initial danger should be initiating the lockdown. This will most likely be a teacher or someone other than the principal.

One of the schools we work with has made it a practice to have its teachers initiate a lockdown, so they all get used to doing it. The head of the school will walk into a random classroom and ask the teacher to put the school in lockdown. This ensures all the teachers are prepared for this and know what to do if they see a threat.

How would you rank New Jersey’s schools in comparison with other schools when it comes to responding to the challenges posed by keeping students, staff and visitors safe?

JENNE: We have been working with schools in other states and I can confidently say that New Jersey schools are ahead of the curve, especially as it pertains to lockdowns and active shooter events. It seems to me that most states are around five years behind where New Jersey schools are today.

Get additional resources on school security The New Jersey School Boards Association has an entire webpage devoted to school security including a video series, access to an NJSBA School Security Task Force Report and more. Visit the website to access the resources.

Thomas Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.