Access Solutions for Safer Schools: From Simple to Substantial
- By Ron Baer
- December 01, 2022
With school back in full swing, K–12 administrators continue to focus on the critical issue of student, faculty, and staff safety. The goal is creating and securing a positive learning environment where students feel confident enough to fully focus and engage—and at ease enough to enjoy the school experience.
Doing whatever is necessary to prevent another horrendous attack, unfortunately, will remain top of mind for the foreseeable future. But there is hope.
We’ve learned a lot the hard way from these tragedies. What’s become apparent is that there are some very practical and readily available door security solutions that can help. Many are relatively simple and affordable fixes. Others require retrofits for stringent access control and hardened door and glass technologies. In a surprising number of cases, it’s a matter of simply adhering to proper procedures, like making sure perimeter doors are not left unlocked or propped open.
But no one solution fits all or should be considered a panacea. Collaborating with consultants to carefully identify school security needs and gathering expert information from leading sources about product advancements are critical steps toward achieving a higher level of school safety.
Staying Level-Headed in the Midst of Tragedy
Determining the best K–12 door security and access control measures remains a vitally important, evolving, and complex challenge. In the aftermath of an attack at a school, even in a distant city, that challenge quickly ramps up to a heightened sense of urgency. School districts can feel pressure from students, parents, and the community to just “do something.” The push for immediate action is understandable; keeping students safe and secure is among the primary missions of a school. But reacting with haste should not override common sense.
What’s required is a comprehensive security plan produced by a cross-functional team of stakeholders based on a thoughtful, carefully established risk assessment that takes into account the threats and vulnerabilities specific to a school and/or district. The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) offers excellent advice and resources on this critical process. Door security solutions consultants, partners and training professionals can also provide invaluable insights and assistance.
Beware of Quick Fixes
Adding to the complexity in recent years is a market that has become inundated with secondary locking devices that can potentially make things far more dangerous for students, or that don’t provide much in the way of effective security. These devices come in the form of various wedges, bars, or additional latches designed to essentially jam a door in place to keep attackers out. But in doing so, they potentially violate fire and safety codes.
Such barricades can also enable dangerous hostage situations and prevent school staff and first responders from opening a door. Fire marshals generally will not sign off on these types of devices. And if they won’t take on that liability, then neither should a school district.
Another troubling fact is that a 2020 study from the National Center on Education Statistics showed that “1 in 4 U.S. public schools still lack classroom doors that can be locked from the inside.” This reflects a bygone era when schools were primarily concerned about burglaries and vandalism and installed doors that could only be locked from the outside.
After Columbine, schools started switching to locks that could be latched by key from either side of the door. Often referred to as “Columbine” locks, they allow teachers to verify from inside whether a door is securely locked instead of having to risk going into the hallway to test it. While no one can enter from outside when the door is locked, those inside can still use the door lever to exit the room at any time—a fire code requirement. Visual indicators that display “locked” or “unlocked” are also options that can be incorporated.
But as the statistics show, many schools in the country have yet to catch up. While lock conversions can cost several hundred dollars each, they nevertheless provide a basic and very practical line of defense that’s easy to retrofit and well worth implementing as part of a holistic door security and access control plan.
Hardened Specialty Doors
It is a security professional’s job to identify specific school needs and recommend the best solutions to address problems or concerns. A school’s location and vulnerability may make it a good candidate for attack-resistant doors—complete assemblies including the door, frame and door hardware—that comply with the 5-aa10 test standards recommended by the FBI’s Active Shooter Report.
Attack Resistant Openings are made of hollow metal construction and extremely resistant glass inserts and are tested rigorously to ensure that they can withstand an intense four-minute physical attack with the use of hand tools after being shot 60 times with 7.62mm NATO rounds. This extra time helps to keep occupants safe until first responders can neutralize the threat. They’re also designed using lightweight materials so small children can still easily operate them during a normal school day.
Locks and Lockdowns
Another common concern we see during consultation with schools is how to properly conduct lockdown procedures. The issue here is that the narrative on best practices has changed over the past few years.
Exterior and interior door locks that are always in the locked position and require a key or digital credential to open are often a school’s strategy of choice, despite the potential inconvenience. Today’s best practice is to secure perimeter doors from a central location while allowing interior doors to be locked by staff and faculty using their own situational awareness. This requires providing the correct training for staff, along with implementing the correct technologies.
For an urban school, where it’s easier to consolidate ingress and egress to just a few doors, it may be possible to rely on school resource officers or security guards to control access at the perimeter. An urban environment with few entrances can utilize the right blend of staff, video surveillance, and metal detectors to quickly provide the right response during a lockdown.
On the other hand, facilities with multiple entrances and exits need an electronic access control system that can be locked down remotely. Wireless solutions, like Aperio®, are a good example now being used to provide the flexibility of remote or local lockdown without the cost and complexity of hardwired locks. In both scenarios, these access control solutions tie into sophisticated video surveillance and communications systems that can call in first responders.
While suburban and rural schools can also benefit from a technology that offers remote lockdown, they present additional challenges since these locations typically contain multiple perimeter openings across multiple buildings. Suburban and rural campuses tend to build out rather than up, which means a larger footprint encompassing school grounds, sports facilities and parking lots, which also need securing. Regardless of a school’s geographic setting, system redesigns and upgrades can help correct gratuitous master-key distributions and confusing credential policies that have historically cropped up in these locations.
One solution is to implement Intelligent Key Systems with eCylinders. These technological upgrades can be retrofitted into almost any lock—from a traditional school door to a padlock on a chain-link fence. The brass key is replaced by a smart key. This provides the benefit of an audit trail for accountability and easy credentialing that can be added or revoked using software. It also eliminates costly rekeying if a key is lost. Simply put, if key control is a continuing issue, Intelligent Key technologies will likely be the smart way to go.
Electronic Access Control in K–12 Settings
Today’s school designs feature more mixed-use indoor and outdoor environments for project-based experiential learning and greater collaboration. New designs also call for increased daylighting and more fluid movement, while also requiring solutions that protect against attacks and forces of nature. Configuring and specifying security options for more open spaces, more flexible classroom locations, and more glass can be complicated.
Electronic access control (EAC) is an effective way to make the shift more manageable. EAC allows for instant customization depending on the entry or classroom configuration and who needs to be where and when. If a school has the flexibility of onsite control, authorized teachers and staff can nimbly manage access around time of day, facility use, room capacity, and changing situations, including unexpected events.
EAC for office security is another obvious need. It extends beyond staff safety and protecting records and privacy to securing servers; communication equipment; and supplies, including nurse’s cabinets where medications need to be safeguarded and discreetly accessed.
Why Training is Essential
Whether it’s an electromechanical or intelligent lock, electronic access control, or specialty door systems, it’s crucial to get things right, from installation to deployment and beyond. That’s why it’s also critical to include comprehensive training and learning experience resources within a security plan. Locksmiths, integrators, and school staff need to fully understand the many details of how to install doors, frames, and hardware properly and securely, and how to operate them correctly. Lives are depending on it; there’s no room for shortcuts. The training resource also needs to put a strong emphasis on building code knowledge and compliance.
Practice Drills for Door Security
After products are installed, it’s imperative that a school’s entire staff learns the correct way to implement and use these solutions that will yield the best outcomes. Practicing scenarios through drills is important to ensuring everyone executes appropriately when the need occurs. Fully comprehending how these products work helps staff understand why they shouldn’t alter the opening with a door wedge or a secondary locking device. If the correct solutions are integrated, and staff executes a response according to plan, these solutions will help keep our schools safe.
Planning School Security
As emphasized at the outset, the best way to land on the right fit of solutions is to establish a broad, cross-functional team or committee of stakeholders to perform a risk assessment analysis and security plan that identifies the needs of the school. Professional security consultants are also readily available to help guide the planning process and to educate teams on the most practical, innovative, and cost-effective technologies so be sure to tap into that invaluable expertise.
We encourage you to check out Securing Your K–12 School from Curb to Classroom. It’s a valuable resource that offers helpful information and covers a full range of leading door security and access control solutions available today.
Once your security measures are in place, we also urge you to use the School Security Checklist below to maintain compliance, awareness and to identify where improvements may be needed.
This article originally appeared in the November / December 2022 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.