By Mike Jones (Major Consulting and Design, LLC) and Keith Fentress
We recently performed a school security assessment at a high school, arriving at the school about two hours after the start of classes. Although school was in full session, a quick drive through the student parking lot revealed several small clusters of students milling around. These were not students who had arrived late and were working their way to the front entrance. These were students lingering behind open trunks and car doors in small groups. There were no security personnel with any of the students, despite the school’s policy stating that all students must be escorted by security if they need to visit their cars during school hours.
Of course we did not know exactly what these students were doing. But numerous news reports have shown that high school parking lots are often the scene for trouble. Such trouble could include weapons, drugs, vandalism, and bullying. Though there are often cameras that monitor school parking lots, many are mounted on exterior walls and lack the zoom resolution to be effective. Such cameras are rarely used for anything other than helping to determine what happened after an incident has occurred.
It concerned us that there were no sightlines from the building to the student parking area. Other than the cameras, the only way of observing activity was for a staff member to patrol the area.
So what can be done to improve security in school parking lots? Security is a mix of physical security, technology, and policies and procedures. Below, we offer suggestions in each of these areas on ways schools can keep parking lots safe and trouble-free.
The school we visited has a vestibule with a security station and access control point at the front entrance. The security station is staffed by a school security officer (SSO), whose job it is to monitor the approach to the school, check the identification of visitors, run RAPTOR checks, provide approved visitors with badges, and buzz visitors into the school. While the station is very nicely set up to monitor the approach to the building and to screen visitors, the station faces a major roadway, not the main parking lot where students park. Only 20 or so visitor spots are available in the lot that is visible to the security station, and these spots are largely used by parents and delivery vehicles. The security station has no views to the rest of the school’s parking. A student parking lot should be designed with an accessible view from the school and main office so that it can be monitored by security personnel and school administrators.
Most schools do not have a nicely appointed security screening station like the one we visited. However, many schools do have windows in the main office and the administrator offices that provide views of the parking areas. These parking spaces should be aligned perpendicular to the school so that personnel can see the front or backs of parked cars, not side views. This allows the observer to see more vehicles at a glance and to obtain a better view between cars.
Signage is another important physical security feature. Signage orients drivers to the layout of the site and also provides directions to safely manage the flow of traffic via roadway signs, such as stop signs, one-way signs, and yield signs. Clear signage is especially important given the number of relatively new and inexperienced drivers using a school parking lot.
Crosswalks should be provided and should be painted with reflective paint. Also, there should be a fire lane that is reserved solely for this purpose and is not used for bus or student drop-off and pick-up.
Bollards – or security barriers – should also be present between the parking lot and school entrances. In our view, planters are much more attractive than standard bollards. Regardless of the type, the objective of the bollard is to provide a safe perimeter and to prevent the school from vehicle intrusions.
Parking lot technology primarily includes cameras and lighting. Unless the camera has an effective zoom with very high resolution, it is unlikely that faces or objects can be identified in the parking lot from cameras mounted on the exterior walls of the school. For this reason, we recommend placing cameras in the parking lot, typically mounted on poles and/or light fixtures.
We recommend aligning the focal points of the cameras so that there are no “dead spots” in the parking lot where camera coverage is lacking. Using 360° cameras provides the greatest coverage per camera. Though there will be some dead spots for individual cameras when mounted on poles, other cameras can be aligned to ensure full coverage of the lot. Additionally, we recommend analytic cameras in school parking lots. Though these cameras are more expensive, they can be programmed to alert personnel when there is motion. Such alerts can be set up after school is in session so that anyone walking or driving through the parking lot will proactively pop up on the monitoring screen. Security personnel can then determine whether the motion represents any sort of threat.
Lighting is another safety and security issue, especially during after-school events and winter mornings and evenings. Ample lighting should be provided so that individuals can effectively see and be seen in the parking lot (here is an energy guide from the US Department of Energy). Ideally, the parking lot should be lit with LED lights that have a LER (luminaire efficiency rating) factor of at least 65. Attention should also be paid to “light trespassing,” when school lighting produces unwanted glare for neighbors (see Dark Sky Society lighting guidelines). Consider the height of light poles, as county ordinances may apply. Taller poles can be effective but can also produce unwanted glare in more populated areas. Light shields can keep the light angled at the parking lot, instead of being more visible to neighbors. Parking lot lighting should turn on and off automatically with ambient lighting conditions, but also have the ability to be controlled manually.
Policies and Procedures
In addition to monitoring the parking lot cameras, security personnel should patrol the parking lot several times a day. This is especially important when security personnel arrive in the morning well before school opens. At this time, personnel should perform an exterior walk around the facility, including the parking lot. Items found in the parking lot, on playgrounds, and around the school exterior can shed light on harmful activities that are happening after school hours. Weapons have been found in parking lots before school opens. Having security personnel “sweep” the area before school starts prevents students from picking up a weapon, which would be an automatic cause for lockdown. Other times to monitor the parking lot include after classes start, during lunch, upon student arrival and departure, and at the end of the workday.
It is also a good policy to have security or other personnel escort students to their cars if they need to go to their vehicles during the school day. Security procedures should be in place where students sign out and are escorted back in. Having these procedures in place should help reduce the number of random visits to cars by students during the school day.
Finally, all vehicles in the parking lot should be required to have permits. The permit should be visible and should only be provided to vehicles that meet applicable laws for maintenance and operation. If a student needs to drive a different vehicle to the school, he or she should obtain a proper day pass from the school administration. Security personnel should scan for parking permits as they routinely inspect the parking lot.
Keep Trouble at Bay
Parking lots have been the entry point for trouble in many schools. Following the guidelines presented above, it is our hope that school administrators will become more aware of potential issues that could occur in the parking lot. If trouble does drive to school and park in the lot, we would like for the school to be aware and to take the steps to prevent further trouble from happening.