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Preventing School Shootings:  A Layered Approach

by Morgan Sears / June 14, 2024

As a security assessor, I observe security measures in place at schools and provide recommendations for comprehensive security plans. Multilayered security measures are the best method of protecting students and staff from various types of school threats, ranging from an angry parent to a school shooter trying to gain access inside the building. In this blog, we will explore five levels of school security and their individual roles in preventing a school shooting.

Multilayered Security Measures and How They Protect Schools

Let’s look at some examples of the five levels of security—electronic, physical interior, physical exterior, policy/procedures, and communication strategies—that combine to form a layered approach to protect against a school shooting. 

Electronic Security

Electronic security is a key component of a multilayered security approach. Many school administrators I work with are eager to upgrade existing systems or add new technologies. Cameras, monitors, and digital video recording (DVR) are critical electronic security components. Cameras should be placed in the parking lot, at the main entrance, vestibule, front office, and hallways. Staff can use monitors to observe suspicious behaviors in real time or retrieve and review recorded footage from the DVR after a situation has occurred.

Two-way radios are another critical component of electronic security within schools. Two-way radios enable instant communication to multiple individuals at once. Cell phone communication is often isolated to an individual person, and service can be extremely limited in an emergency. Testing radios daily is a best practice within schools to ensure functionality and efficiency.

Key cards are becoming a more standard way for staff to gain entrance to the school. Each exterior door should be secured with an electronic card reader that allows staff access when their badge is scanned. 

The school should have an audiovisual intercom in the vestibule at the main entrance. This enables office personnel to verify visitors or vendors and the reason for their visit. A suspicious person can be denied entry.

Physical Interior Security

A vestibule is a crucial security barrier at the school's front entrance to prevent the admittance of a shooter. Its role in security is to provide zero access to the school's interior until a visitor is seen and vetted by office staff. Electronic access to the main office allows staff to control who enters the school if they are not equipped with an access card. All doors separating the main office and the school interior should be locked, with access allowed after visitor verification and ID scanning.

It is a best practice to adjust furniture layouts in the main office and other administrative offices to facilitate views outside the school. Desks in the office should be equipped with duress alarms that alert local law enforcement in an emergency. 

Interior security should extend beyond the main entrance to the classrooms and hallways. Classroom doors should remain closed and locked throughout the school day. It is a best practice for teachers to allow students to exit the classroom, but anyone entering the room must knock and be given access. 

Teachers also benefit from furniture layouts that provide maximum sightlines from classroom windows. If a teacher or student observes suspicious activity outside, an intercom would be used to alert the main office.

Teachers and administrators should monitor student behaviors in the hallways to ensure security within the school during class changes. If the school has a campus layout, it is important to have an administrator in each building, preferably on each floor. When teachers and administrators develop routines for monitoring, they can more quickly identify inconsistencies in student behaviors and help thwart a school shooting.

Physical Exterior Security

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a highly effective practice for ensuring school safety and security. CPTED is a multidisciplinary approach to crime prevention that deters crime by changing the design of buildings, public spaces, and surrounding areas.

CPTED methods encourage routine maintenance of a school’s exterior. Trimming shrubs and trees allow for thorough visibility of school parking lots, the building exterior, and athletic fields. As a best practice, schools should ensure that climbing facilitators, such as ladders and dumpsters, are secured to prevent unauthorized access to the school by someone attempting to enter through a window or roof access.

It’s also important to secure the school’s entryway. School doors should be constructed of steel, aluminum alloy, or solid-core hardwood. This prevents a person from prying open or breaking down the door to gain entry. 

If the school has exterior glass doors, they should be framed and made of tempered glass, and windows on lower floors should be coated with Lexan, polycarbonate, or other scratch-proof, break-resistant material. These best practices can prevent shooting out a glass door or window to gain entry.

Policies and Procedures

School districts should develop detailed lockdown and lockout policies. Properly executing a lockdown is vital to protecting staff and students if a shooter is attempting to or has gained entry to the school. A lockout ensures everyone's safety if a threat has been identified in an area near the school but not directed toward it.

It’s important to ensure everyone knows their role during emergency training, including school resource and security officers. Regular training should be conducted throughout the school year (at least once per semester), and additional training should be incorporated into staff meetings. School districts should provide all first responders, including dispatch centers, with complete floor plans and exterior mapping of the school's parking lots and grounds. Any time building layouts change, updated floor plans should be reissued immediately.

Have a strict key control policy, including substitute teachers and vendors, with clear rules for when keys will be returned. If temporary access cards are issued instead of physical keys, ensure that access is cut off once the purpose of the visit has ended. This helps to ensure that former employees or vendors who could be disgruntled don’t have access to the school, even if they leave school grounds with a key card. Maintain an inventory of all keys. Recordkeeping should be done for permanent teachers and school personnel at the beginning and end of each school year.

Communication Strategies

There is a critical need to develop clear communication strategies as part of the layered approach to school security, including communications between staff and students, staff and administration, administration and parents, and parents and students. A communication gap can lead to distrust and sometimes a security breach. 

Encourage students to report safety threats at school and at home. Instilling “see something, say something” with students and providing anonymous mechanisms for reporting suspicious behaviors can ease the concern that a student will get in trouble with friends by “tattling.” Teachers building rapport with students and encouraging open dialogue is an effective communication strategy that is essential to school safety.

Promoting effective communication with students starts at home. Parents should listen to their children and instill in them the importance of reporting threatening behavior.

Final Thoughts

Developing a multilayered security plan for your school can seem daunting. Understandably, many school districts may not have the budget to implement wholesale changes all at once. Many school grants allow security measures to be implemented incrementally. School administrators can also consider implementing low-cost security measures or low-hanging fruit while they await funding for larger security projects.

Let's continue to promote a multifaceted approach to school security. By working together, we can strive for a safer future for our children in every school.

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Morgan Sears

Morgan Sears

Morgan is a planner and data analyst with Fentress, Inc. She has a Master’s Degree in Sociology with a concentration in Criminal Justice. She enjoys baseball, running and spending time with her husband and son.