Lockdown Strategies: Unique for K–12 and Higher Education

Lockdown Strategies: Unique for K–12 and Higher Education

Lockdown strategies play a critical role in ensuring the safety, security, and wellness of students, faculty, and staff in every school setting. But what’s needed for K–12 learning environments is distinct from the world of higher education. Most elementary, middle, and high schools have a much smaller and more contained footprint than expansive, open college campuses. 

K–12 students are still in the process of growing physically and emotionally and need more defined guidelines, drills, and supervision on what to do in the face of danger. Trade-school, community-college, and university students, on the other hand, have typically reached a level of maturity and a greater understanding of protocols to respond more instinctively and confidently to potential threats. 

No matter where they are on the education continuum, all students need reassurance that measures are in place to help protect their safety, security, and wellness. All three are essential and interrelated. Safety focuses on freedom from injury and danger, security helps ensure freedom from a crime or attack, and wellness is about freedom from exposure and fear.

In K–12 settings, security consultants and first responders have frequently recommended evacuating occupants as a top priority during an active assailant event. The belief is that the farther away from danger, the better chance for survival—similar to fire protocols. But events like nearby police activity, hostage situations, riots, or an active shooter somewhere on campus can also be analogous to a hurricane emergency, where it’s safer for students and staff to be locked safely inside and shelter in place.

Opinions about which is more appropriate and inherent conflicts between safety, security, and wellness mean district and school leaders need the broadest integrated solution choices—and the most diverse stakeholder involvement—to make the best decisions about strategies. 

School layout, staffing challenges, and training capabilities vary across the unique characteristics of schools and must all be considered when developing lockdown procedures. Once enacted, they need to be tested through lockdown drills to ensure faculty, staff, and students know exactly what to do in an emergency. From there, protocols and drills will need to be regularly re-evaluated to make sure they address variables that can impact their effectiveness. 

K–12 Lockdown Decisions: Centralized or Decentralized?
Traditionally, there have been two types of lockdowns: Centralized Decision with Universal Application or Decentralized Decision with Local Application. 

The centralized approach occurs when a decision is made from a single location to lock all doors campus-wide instantly with a push of a button that activates electrified locks. This works well for perimeter doors of schools outfitted with electronic access control (EAC) locks that are hard-wired or have been installed using a real-time wireless EAC solution. Most classrooms, however, still rely on mechanical locks that a teacher needs to manually secure with a key.   

The downside of the centralized decision/universal application is it lacks situational awareness in each classroom and corridor. This is why security and law enforcement professionals warn that this approach can actually escalate risks through unintended consequences where students might end up stranded and exposed in a corridor or unable to get back into a classroom or other secure area quickly. Balancing the risks with the benefits is what school leaders and stakeholders need to consider carefully. 

Decentralized Decision with Local Application allows each teacher to decide whether to evacuate or lock their own door based on their situational awareness and options. The main benefit is it allows teachers to make intelligent decisions based on their direct surroundings and circumstances. 

Security professionals most often suggest an application-appropriate solution or hybrid of these two lockdown choices: the centralized route to cover the perimeter of buildings and property combined with the decentralized option for interior doors that gives faculty and staff the added autonomy to respond to events first-hand. 

Fundamental solutions are also important, like newer mechanical locks that allow doors to be locked by key or thumbturn from inside as well as outside the classroom. Thankfully, these are now quickly replacing older hardware that could only be locked from the hall side. The inclusion of visual status indicators goes one step further to make it easy for staff and students to quickly confirm whether a door is locked.

States like Texas are moving toward installing a silent panic alert button in every K–12 classroom that can be activated by a device manually or through a software application when there’s a life-threatening emergency. 

Additional steps to impede an attacker from breaching school entrances is another important component. As part of its School Safety Standards Rules released last November, the Texas Education Agency mandated that “Windowed doors on the ground level or windows adjacent to or near a door and large enough for someone to enter if broken must be reinforced with entry-resistant film unless within a secured area.” It’s not a new solution, but it is one that’s been overlooked in the past. 

Hardening glass on all exterior door vision panels and sidelites with security window film can be extremely effective in delaying a break-in. The goal is to deter the intruder long enough to alert first responders and activate lockdown protocols. The higher-tier the film is, the more resistant it will be. Ballistic security glass is another option. While more practical to install and budget for new construction, it’s also sensible for security measures like visitor screening vestibules at key main entry points. 

Bollards, fences, video surveillance, license plate recognition (LPR), and remote-controlled gates for controlling traffic coming onto K–12 campuses provide another layer of perimeter protection that should be considered when planning school safety and security lockdown protocols.

PASS Guidelines for K–12 Lockdown Strategies
The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) offers excellent safety and security guidelines for K–12 schools and recently released its 6th Edition. Along with a detailed, layered, and tiered approach covering the full gamut of best practices, the guidelines include important recommendations on lockdown strategies and how to design and conduct lockdown drills. 

Information on access control systems equipped with remote lockdown capabilities are also among the PASS Guidelines—as are cross corridor doors that can automatically be activated to confine an emergency to a limited area of the building. 

Lockdown Strategies for Higher Education
Unlike K–12 school campuses, colleges and universities stretch across considerably larger and much more open landscapes. They also often accommodate student bodies in the tens of thousands and require a far greater number of faculty, administrators, and other support staff. Plus, there’s the rich mix of historic and ultramodern buildings, scenic quadrangles, on-campus shops and dining establishments, stadiums, and field houses to take into account that are all part of the college lifestyle experience. 

The wide variety of residence halls, dining halls, halls of education, and other structures means there are equally diverse security needs across campuses. As a result, higher ed was compelled years ago to start adopting smart locks, electronic access control devices, and advanced electro-mechanical door security solutions at a much more accelerated pace compared to K–12 districts. 

Higher ed also has had the benefit of more funding resources to help spur that acceleration. Endowments, foundations, alumni donations, fundraisers, sports, and other funding sources go a long way in supplementing tuition, fees, and government allocations for a variety of priorities—safety and security being high among them. 

Well-formulated security strategies are a chief concern among parents of new students, and the implementation of leading innovations like access control credentials on mobile devices plays a significant marketing role in appealing to candidates. 

Universities are also like small cities. With so many ways to access campuses, it’s impractical to have fences, gates, bollards, or guards at every entrance. That’s partially why most have their own police departments. Patrol cars and officers on campus are accepted and expected by students and provide a strong visible deterrent. It’s one of the reasons why active assailant events at colleges and universities are less common.

Because of the vast size and layout of college campuses, today it seems most practical to have a more targeted lockdown strategy. A mass notification goes out by phone, text, or email as an alert that there’s a dangerous situation underway and advising a building to lock down and occupants to shelter in place. 

A newer approach is to have a panic button in each classroom of a campus building that can immediately activate electrified locks on interior doors when necessary instead of relying on a central command center to take action. Each room with a button includes signage and instructions regarding protocol. Free egress is always still possible from inside if circumstances call for evacuating the building or once there’s an “all-clear” notification verifying it’s safe to exit. 

In locations where electrified locks are not yet part of a classroom door system, mechanical locks that can be secured from inside and that feature a visual lock status indicator should be the minimum requirement. 

Lockdown strategies for K–12 and higher education campuses are vital. Developing the best approach for a school district and university takes a village of dedicated stakeholders, the broadest integrated solution choices, and input from credible expert resources like PASS and university colleagues experienced and well-versed in the process. 

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2023 issue of Campus Security Today.

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