How School Security Continues to Advance

For more than 30 years, I’ve been fully immersed in security operations in K-12 schools, including working in school safety in Littleton, Colorado during the attack at Columbine High School in 1999.

That incident, coupled with those before and since, underscores the critical need for continued improvement in safety and security measures in our schools. Thankfully, ongoing advancements in security technology enable prompt response to critical threats as well as daily operational efficiency.

Implementation of life safety technology in K-12 schools starts with the foundation of sound access control measures. Other security components, including human roles and processes, will not work without appropriate access control components. One such measure is key management. Keys are a fundamental component of access control, and when not managed properly, they can create a vulnerability in facility security.

When I first started in school security in the late 1980s and early 90s, the process of managing keys would seem haphazard in today’s climate. One person would oversee checking keys in and out and record it manually in a logbook. That system was vulnerable to inconsistencies in reporting and ultimately susceptible to lost and stolen keys. Several times, law enforcement and I apprehended burglars who stole keys, including one instance where a set of keys had been stolen three years prior and had been passed to several people until it finally ended up in the burglar’s hands.

Like any organization that invites people onto its property, schools must provide a reasonable level of security, safety, and emergency preparedness to mitigate risks. This is multifaceted, and the leading practice in K-12 is creating district safety teams that should include key stakeholders from within the district and from the community, such as law enforcement, fire, and other partners.

These teams should engage in candid discussions about where a school system’s vulnerabilities are and make sure they’re taking proactive steps to remedy those weaknesses. Here’s a stat that illustrates just one example: only one out of every four classrooms can be locked from the inside. There are myriad reasons why, but ultimately, school security teams are responsible for identifying these issues and developing a plan to address them.

Controlling access to school property, buildings, and classrooms is a foundational component of comprehensive security. Mechanical locks form the base for any access control system, but there are other critical elements to consider. Many schools and districts have invested in electronic access control features that allow for enhanced security. Modern access control systems and procedures offer an effective solution to prevent unauthorized intruders from accessing a building.

Key management is also an important part of these discussions. Critical considerations include how many keys/fobs are needed, what they can access, and how many people should be allowed to check them out. It’s also essential to have keys organized and ready for response during and directly following an emergency. Emergency response plans should always include a plan for how to access the appropriate keys to unlock doors in an emergency.

Electronic key cabinets are a leading practice to help schools to control access to schools. The applications are multi-faceted, starting with internal operations. Cabinets can be accessed through a variety of credentials, including via a mobile device, and users can be assigned access to certain keys, which reduces the chance of a set of keys ending up in the wrong hands. Administrators have an immediate audit trail of who checked out which key and when, plus they can implement a curfew on a key so that when it’s not returned by a certain time, they’re notified immediately. They can also deactivate a user instantly, which can be crucial in isolating a potential internal threat. Cabinets can also be strategically placed throughout a building where a security camera can offer visual corroboration of who is at a cabinet.

Key cabinets are also critical tools for authorized first responders to gain access to a variety of openings inside a school. As mentioned earlier, having first responders on a school’s security team is essential, as they’ll be the first to answer the call during a potentially severe incident. There have been incidents where law enforcement didn’t have access to a key, and it hindered their ability to respond to a situation. Additionally, having to sort through multiple keys to gain access to a certain school or building could delay their reaction time. School districts that effectively utilize emergency key boxes throughout campus with a singular credential empower responders to gain entry quickly. Plus, if those responders are familiar with a school’s layout, they can address threats faster.

For example, in the Arapahoe High School attack in December 2013, we provided several sets of building key sets to the law enforcement rescue teams. During the response, several of those sets of keys were lost. This was not in any way the fault of the brave responders. One must realize that these officers engaged in clearing the school room by room multiple times. They had to remain constantly vigilant for an armed aggressor while being cautious for the safety of the staff and students. We can only imagine this type of pressure, and things like keys may be lost in the “fog” of the situation. Sadly, because of the lost keys, some doors had to be breached. Staff and students who are in lockdown in an active shooter situation can understandably become frightened when responding officers have to breach a door. In the case of Arapahoe, to this day, I can only say that everyone from the staff, students, and responders bravely handled this terrible event.

Much has evolved since this tragic incident, and sadly, many other incidents have happened since. It is always hard for me personally to remember this and other incidents where students, staff, and community members were harmed, whether physically or mentally; however, like any school safety practitioner, we must always be cognitive of the lessons learned and apply them going forward.

It's worth noting that, when considering the broad spectrum of security solutions, there are a lot of flashy, gimmicky products that promise to do something when in actuality, they fall short of having any meaningful impact on operations at all. Administrators need to prioritize solutions that are “future-proof”, not only to align with the most utilized assets they have, but also to maximize the return on investment that they’re asking from the leaders in their district. The reduction in time spent looking for lost keys, plus the potential costs of having to re-key a facility, represents just two reasons key cabinets address this need.

Now, it’s no secret that budgeting can be a tenuous topic in some schools. My advice? When considering a solution, try it out in one part of the school. If it improves efficiency in maintenance, or food service, or another smaller department, gradually expand its adoption to other parts of the school. That piecemeal approach can reduce expenses up front, but more importantly, it can instill a sense of endorsement within staff, which is critically important when considering security. If it works well in one department and those people are in favor of it, the likelihood of another department agreeing to use it will almost always go up.

That final point is an important one to reiterate. School security must be collaborative between all parties, which extends beyond the school walls to parents and first responders. Gone are the days of operating in dangerous silos where one group doesn’t communicate to another what they’re doing. Transparency is vital and the school districts that adopt such an environment are strengthening the collective security ecosystem that everyone operates in.

Couple that with effective security solutions leveraging modern technology, and schools can develop into safer havens in which future generations can learn and thrive.

This article originally appeared in the May / June 2024 issue of Campus Security Today.


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