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School Resource Officers and Natural Surveillance

by Morgan Sears / November 19, 2021

When you ask a child about his or her knowledge of police officers and their duties, chances are you will get a response along the lines of “they put bad people in jail” or “they write tickets.” These replies are based on what children hear from society as to who the police are and what they do. However, if you talk to a student about who a school resource officer is, you might be surprised at how uplifting their replies are. Students look up to their SRO as a role model, friend, and peacekeeper. This is a refreshing view of law enforcement and those behind the badge keeping everyone safe.

An SRO’s work is never done

What students may not know, however, is that the safety responsibilities of an SRO go far beyond the badge and gun, and far beyond walking the school perimeter and hallways. Most are unaware of the knowledge, training, and daily observation an SRO undertakes on the principles of CPTED (pronounced sep-ted) to help keep students and all building occupants safe. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a multi-disciplinary approach of crime prevention that uses urban and architectural design and the management of built and natural environments. CPTED strategies are put in place by design to provide a variety of security functions, such as reducing victimization and deterring offenders from committing an offense. Natural surveillance is one of the four prime areas of focus of CPTED.

One of the first impressions of a school’s exterior is the landscaping. Not only should landscaping be aesthetically pleasing, but it should enhance security and help prevent criminal activity. As one of the primary principles of CPTED, natural surveillance aims to increase visibility through landscaping design and keep any activity in the area under observation. Increased visibility keeps students, faculty, and staff safer by reducing potential places for criminals to hide or escape detection. Here are a few ways a school resource officer can utilize his or her natural instincts in coordination with natural surveillance to protect schools and those inside them.

Landscaping and its place for natural surveillance

  • Landscaping around the building perimeter should be well trimmed and maintained to allow views to the exterior and to reduce hiding places. School resource officers tend to have a natural sense of suspicious behavior, especially when students are acting differently. Improving sightlines allows for greater observation and visibility of anyone on the property. This type of design also allows better views for staff and security if someone leaves the building without authorization.
  • Trees and shrubbery should not obstruct lighting in the area. Large branches should not block overhead lights for sidewalks. Shrubs and bushes should also not block lower-level lights intended to illuminate the pathways to school entrances and parking lots.
  • School parking lots are high risk areas for theft. When lighting is obstructed by branches or any other type of overgrowth, the risk increases. This is increasingly true during winter sports season when night falls at a much earlier time. A potential criminal is less likely to attempt a crime if he or she is at risk of being observed. Appropriately placed, unobstructed lighting can assist SROs and staff members who are responsible for observation during these times.
  • Unnecessary pedestrian traffic directly adjacent to the school can be deterred with proper placement of landscaping. The school property should be clearly defined and properly maintained to allow clear sightlines. Landscaping can contribute to defining public, semi-public, and private spaces. This clear delineation discourages people from entering restricted areas resulting in trespassing or other criminal behavior on the grounds.

Now you see me…visual aids and practices for CPTED

  • CCTV cameras should be installed around the building and in the parking lot, especially in areas where personal surveillance is limited. Proper camera angles with audio and visual recording deter individuals from criminal behavior, such as trespassing, vandalism, and theft. An SRO is only one person, and is in charge of safeguarding a building that houses hundreds. CCTV camera coverage with proper connection to the officer’s computer can act as multiple eyes and ears during live moments and can provide recordings of activity when investigation is needed.
  • Windows should not be obstructed from the inside of the building or the outside. Interior windows and doors should provide visibility into hallways. Exterior windows low to the ground should remain closed and locked. Shrubbery surrounding windows should be well-trimmed so that individuals cannot be concealed by the shrubbery, and the shrubbery should be thorny to discourage intrusion. Windows higher on the building should be free of limb obstruction. These types of visibility practices allow for staff and administrators to see clearly to the outside of the building so they can report any suspicious behavior on the property.
  • Lighting that is “too bright” should be avoided. As counterintuitive as that sounds, lighting that is too bright can create glare, which can be blinding for someone investigating suspicious activity. Bright lighting can also create shadows that provide a place for a criminal to hide.

Additional CPTED practices

Natural surveillance is only one of the ways that SROs, faculty, and staff members can utilize CPTED practices to improve safety and security in the school. There are many practices that can be undertaken at little to no cost to the school district. Landscaping improvements such as the removal of large objects from the grounds (thus preventing property damage to the building exterior), hedge trimming, and raking or clearing of designated sidewalks are a few ways to exert minimal effort and expenses for maximum results towards improvement.

Territorial reinforcement, which uses physical attributes to create a strong sense of ownership and community, is another alternative CPTED practice. Using fencing, signage, and pavement treatments, these practices work hand in hand with landscaping and other methods of natural surveillance to deter deviant behavior on the property. Bollards and high curbs are an example of territorial reinforcement as they help ensure that the building perimeter is inaccessible by vehicles. These features also assist an SRO who directs traffic before or after school in ensuring the safety of children entering or leaving school grounds.

Natural access control is another practice that can be easily implemented. Natural access control limits access by decreasing the number of entrances. This principle not only helps keep intruders out but directs the flow of people in a more organized manner. A school should have one main entrance with clear, concise signage and sidewalk access directing foot traffic only to that entrance. This reduces the area an SRO needs to oversee during peak volume times, such as the start of the school day or during an assembly. During these times of increased foot traffic, it could be easier for an individual who doesn’t belong in the school to enter if there are alternative ways to get inside, especially when an administrator or SRO is busy focusing on other areas.

Maintenance is a principle of CPTED that closely relates to “The Broken Windows Theory.” Poorly maintained properties are at a higher risk of attracting criminal activity. School buildings with large exterior walls can sometimes fall victim to graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Ensuring that graffiti tags are removed within a 24-hour period promotes intolerance to such acts and prevents other individuals from thinking that behavior in the area is either acceptable or ignored by authorities.

Get involved: CPTED can be for everyone

 Whether or not you are an SRO, a teacher, or a parent trying to make sure your child stays safe, the most important beginning to any act of crime prevention is education. Be engaged and build trust with the child so they are comfortable sharing information about threats and other suspicious behaviors. It should be clear to students what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t, and students should know that a person of authority can be trusted with information.

While environmental design cannot stop every safety issue from happening, it is a practice that reduces the likelihood that certain issues will occur. Any SRO will tell you that a good day at their job is when only learning happens in school. It takes a village, and it takes effort. But with small acts of prevention over extended periods of time, each CPTED principle applied is a step towards creating a safe learning environment. Everyone can play a part in making sure each child is safe in school, every day.

Tags: School Security

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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.