Building Security Into Schools

Facility renovation or design is the ideal time to incorporate a battery of safety hardware into hallways and entrances by JOHN E. KOSAR AND S. FARUQ AHMED

It’s a terrible truism today that children in fear cannot learn, and teachers who are on guard against violence in their classrooms cannot impart a love for the lesson at the same time. But how do we ensure safety without turning schools into virtual prisons in the name of security?

School buildings should provide a warm and inviting environment that stimulates learning and development. However, with school safety concerns intensifying nationwide, architects and school administrators are concluding that while schools should not operate as secure fortresses, school building design must integrate security functions into remodeling and new construction plans.

Designing Safer Sites
Research on school building design and safety has led to the development of security systems and technologies that not only make schools safe and nurturing places, but also reduce operating costs associated with traditional precautions. For example:

  • When planning a school design, exterior doors should be secured with hardware that is unobtrusive and does not affect the aesthetics of the environment. School entrances and doorways must create a positive and welcoming first impression, while at the same time incorporating appropriate and necessary security devices, such as locking mechanisms, intercoms and access-card readers.

  • Areas that house computers, other expensive equipment and important records require special safety planning, and designs must allow for additional security equipment on all doors in these areas. Furthermore, a building designed with a proper air-conditioning system ensures that windows and doors are kept shut, thus minimizing the potential for transferring objects through such openings.

  • Pay phones, restrooms and stairwells all are potential security problems. Pay phones should be installed sparingly in schools, either within the range of a closed-circuit television camera or in a location where faculty and staff easily can observe them.

    No easy answer exists for restroom security, although some school building designers are choosing the more costly approach of small restrooms within each classroom. For traditional restrooms in school hallways, students should be provided with a way to report suspicious activity anonymously. Because stairwells are difficult spaces to observe and can present serious security hazards, we recommend single-floor school buildings where possible.

  • Security Technology
    According to the 1996-97 National Center for Education Statistics report, "Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools," 4 percent of schools perform random metal detector checks on students. While the use of metal detectors may help calm public concerns, a few pieces of security equipment alone will not solve the problem. This equipment is most effective as one element of a broad-based safety and security plan, which would include some or all of the following:


  • Closed-circuit television cameras are the most cost-effective form of surveillance for educational facilities. Costs have decreased rapidly in recent years, while capabilities have increased. Although some areas are difficult to monitor, every attempt should be made to use cameras to observe all public corridors, stairwells and exterior doors as well as the cafeteria and gymnasium during school hours and public use in the evening or on weekends.


    These cameras are an important addition to security for playgrounds, school bus dropoff areas, parking lots and school grounds. The perimeter of the school property, including the playground, should be posted for no trespassing, and students on the playground should be supervised carefully.


  • Door security hardware in school buildings with generators allows doors to be fastened with electromagnetic locks, which require minimal maintenance and hold doors closed with a force of either 600 lbs. or 1,200 lbs.


    Schools that do not use emergency generators may want to consider electric strike mechanisms. In the event of a power outage that shuts down an electric door entry system, electric strike mechanisms allow people to exit the building freely, but only permit entrance with a key, thus keeping intruders out even when the electric-door system is not functioning properly.


  • Electronic security panels should be installed to monitor doorways. Door hardware is connected to these panels, which are networked and connected to a security control console that records all alarms and is monitored by in-house security personnel or transferred to an off-site monitoring facility after hours.



  • ID cards should be issued to all teachers and staff, and access cards should be issued to faculty and staff who require after-hours entrance to certain parts of the building. Access cards, frequently used in hotels and office buildings, are electronically or magnetically encoded to open doors for designated users and can monitor and track who entered which rooms and when the entry took place.


    Though inexpensive magnetic-stripe cards are most common, they are easy to duplicate and, therefore, not secure. Weigand Technology cards, however, use fixed-foil patterns in their construction, are inexpensive and are virtually impossible to duplicate.


  • Metal detectors, when used in conjunction with a carefully thought-out security plan, can prevent contraband materials from being brought into the building, but each fixed metal detector costs about $4,000 and requires three people to operate it. Detectors at only one entrance are ineffective when there are many other areas where metallic material may pass through. Hand-held metal detectors for case-by-case usage often are a better investment.



  • Panic buttons, telephones and intercoms are contingents of many school security systems. Schools have installed inconspicuous panic buttons in teachers' desks and use two-way intercoms connected to the school office.


    Panic buttons can be wired into either the security or the phone system. Some schools also provide teachers with an internal "911-only" telephone. Doors equipped with card readers also may include intercoms and video cameras.

  • Monitoring Equipment
    Security centers should be installed to allow all closed-circuit TV cameras, access systems and door intercoms to terminate in one centralized place. The security center should be a comfortable, adequately staffed room near the school office. Since the purpose of an on-site security center is to investigate all suspicious activities, security personnel must not be responsible for any other duties in the school.

    In smaller school buildings, one trained security guard must monitor video cameras and alarms while two more provide routine patrol and incident followup. However, larger schools with many cameras may require a larger monitoring staff.

    According to "Indicators of School Crime and Safety," a 1998 study published by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, students in the 12-14 age group are most likely to experience violent crime at school. In addition, a report issued by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in 1998 indicated that disproportionately more violent incidents are reported at the state’s largest schools, regardless of grade level, and that the incidence was greatest at high schools of 1,500 students or more.

    A single person can be expected to effectively monitor no more than eight pictures from closed-circuit cameras at one time on a continuous basis. During after-school hours, the monitoring of building security functions may be transferred to an outside security company.

    Video monitoring systems can display camera pictures and record them on a time-lapse recorder. After hours, the system can be programmed to check for changes in the picture. If more than a certain number of pixels change in a picture, an alarm sounds, and the picture can be remotely transmitted to the off-site monitoring facility that dispatches response teams.

    Educating Students
    Ideally, students and staff should fully understand the security functions that are in place. It’s also important to establish penalties for tampering with security equipment, setting off false alarms and making security threats.

    According to the NCES, most schools have zero-tolerance policies toward such serious student offenses. Many also mandate predetermined consequences and penalties against students who make threats or tamper with security equipment.

    School districts also are forming security committees of parents, teachers, students and volunteers to discuss security challenges and develop plans of action. Some have established telephone hotlines through which students, parents and faculty can report threats and concerns anonymously.

    Teachers and administrators also must be made aware of their legal obligations and liabilities. False security equipment never should be used as a deterrent because it does not deter incidents and is a major liability if something does occur.

    Cost Effectiveness
    School security has suffered in the past from lack of adequate staffing and inadequate monitoring, lack of oversight, poorly trained security staff, under-reporting of incidents and several other problems. However, incidents can be minimized through the adoption of measures that are part of a comprehensive security plan. Ideally, careful planning for security should start with the school building design/ renovation, when the security considerations can be most cost-effectively incorporated into the buildings.

    But the basic point of all this planning is simple yet critical: One student injured or killed in a school is one too many.

    John Kosar is president of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, 400 Morgan Center, Butler, PA 16001. E-mail: john.kosar@burthill.com. Faruq Ahmed is a principal with the architectural and design firm.