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Unveiling Vulnerabilities: Assessing School Security Risks

by Morgan Sears / May 19, 2024

As a security assessor, I visit various facilities, including government offices, courthouses, public safety buildings, and schools. It has always been said that the safest place our children can be is inside their school building. To ensure this, an essential part of my job is educating school staff and teachers on safety and security.

The complex nature of school security often requires more than a one-size-fits-all solution. It demands a comprehensive and adaptable approach that can respond to school environments' ever-evolving needs and challenges. Threats to a school can often be prevented by intervention. So, what do these threats to schools look like, and how can we work to prevent them? This question underscores the importance of readiness and flexibility in addressing these challenges.

Threats and Vulnerabilities to Schools

There are many types of security risks that our schools are exposed to daily. Due to the changing nature of risks, threats, and vulnerabilities, schools continuously strive to improve their safety and mitigate these potential threats. Below, we will review a few of the most common threats and challenges schools face and later discuss ways to mitigate these threats.

Targeted Violence

Targeted violence refers to a violent incident in which a person selects a specific target with nefarious intentions to harm. This is most commonly associated with school shootings. It is a parent’s worst nightmare and almost always a primary concern when school safety and security are brought up. Educators and parents should remember that targeted violence is not limited to firearms; there are other weapons, such as vehicles, knives, and explosives, that could pose a threat to staff and students.

Targeted violence is different from impulsive, random, or spontaneous violence and is often characterized by warning signs that indicate a potential for violence. A perpetrator will have a target they hyper-fixate on, either one individual for personal retaliation or a larger target, such as the entire school building. We will later discuss some warning signs or pre-attack indicators. If identified promptly, addressing those behaviors can reduce the likelihood of a targeted violence incident at your school. 

Open Access Areas

An example of a challenging open-access area would be the school parking lot. This area can host several threats to a school’s students and employees. A best practice would be assigning a school resource officer or security officer to monitor the parking lot, especially during high traffic (e.g., arrival and dismissal). However, funding for such personnel may be limited. 

A lack of security coverage can allow students to linger in groups, trespassers to loiter in areas concealed by parked vehicles, and criminal activity, from car break-ins to school vandalism. Potential intruders and violent individuals will also often enter the parking lot, remove weapons from their vehicle, and proceed towards the school before being seen and reported. 

Safety measures surrounding open access areas of schools should also consider the school’s surroundings, including nearby homes, businesses, and busy roads. Criminal activity and traffic patterns in the immediate area can impact the school. Schools can install CCTV and fencing or other landscaping features to augment security staffing. 

While CCTV coverage can deter criminal or unwanted behavior in the parking lot, schools often don’t have dedicated personnel to monitor CCTV in real-time. Appropriate fence lines and landscaping can prevent others from trespassing onto school property, but they must be maintained.

Online Threats and Bullying

In the changing world of technology happening right under adults' noses, children seem to be born knowing how to operate social media and other smartphone apps. Unfortunately, with all the negativity in the news, it can seem like everyone’s exposure to social media is a negative experience. When it comes to our children using apps, bullies behind a screen can come across more cruelly than in person. With no realistic grasp of how words and actions can affect others, children are utilizing social media and communication apps to threaten, harass, and abuse their peers. 

A child is supposed to be in a safe space in their home; not being able to escape constant bullying through the use of technology can lead students to social isolation, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, and even suicide. Children's online activity should be continuously monitored by parents at home and teachers/administrators during school hours.

Hazards and Accidents

It's important to recognize and assess all potential threats, including natural hazards like weather emergencies and accidents, even though some hazards and accidents may be unpredictable. School districts across the country encounter various challenging weather conditions, and having an emergency plan for storms such as hurricanes or tornadoes can help ensure the safety of students.

An example of an unpredictable accident could include a school with student drivers and high-traffic drop-off/pick-up lanes. Inexperienced drivers and crowded parking lots could result in car accidents on the property. These issues can be mitigated by separating buses and cars and having speed bumps throughout the driving lanes. Traffic flow can be improved with policies ensuring parents stay inside their vehicles and small children are helped to their cars by a teacher. 

Indicators of Risk

Identify, prevent, and protect. All those processes could look different depending on the type of threat or risk.  One of the most vital elements of adequate school security is understanding and maintaining situational awareness of your school environment, inside and outside. 

An example of situational awareness can include employees and school resource officers getting to know who is supposed to be on campus, including regular vendors and visitors. This allows for recognizing suspicious behaviors before escalating into a potential incident. Below, we discuss how school administration and even parents can take steps to identify issues, prevent tragedy, and protect assets.

Pre-Attack Indicators

Indicators are behaviors or observations others make that precede a harmful event. Historically, attacks like school shootings are rarely impulsive. The FBI Reference Guide on school shootings shows that these events are thought out by the attacker and planned in advance. 

Indicators can vary from threatening statements made by a student, disturbing artwork, threats written down on a student's worksheet, or suggestive photos posted on a student's social media account that portray weapons or threatening language. Monitoring students' online activity at school and home is crucial. 

Suppose something suspicious arises on a child’s social media thread. If it is an imminent threat of self-harm or harm to others, it should be reported to authorities so that it can be quickly investigated. If the content is less threatening, it should be reported to the school administration to promote monitoring and awareness.

Individual Behavior Indicators

Mental illness is a prevalent topic today, and educators should continue to learn when to identify negative indicators of student behavior. These indicators may be much less evident than pre-attack indicators posted online. These particular behaviors include social isolation, a focus on dangerous weapons, withdrawal from activities, and increased anger or outbursts. Historically, negative life impacts can cause behavioral indicators in students, such as significant family life changes, public humiliation, or rejection in school.

Reporting Procedures 

One of a school's biggest challenges is convincing students to report problematic behavior. In schools, the “snitches get stitches” mantra resonates with students more than “see something, say something.” Students often do not understand the importance of their information and may feel uncomfortable coming to an unfamiliar adult in their school. Using technologies that students are familiar with, such as apps, websites, or text messages, can promote anonymous reporting that will help ease a student’s fear of being singled out by peers.

School Security Assessments

A school security assessment evaluates a school’s security deficiencies. Not everything about an assessment is negative. An assessment can identify everything a school already does correctly to promote safety and mitigate threats and risks. An assessment can provide recommendations for improving safety that school districts can use to justify funding for additional security measures. An assessment will identify problems, provide direction, and guide the way to improving safety. This will bring peace of mind to employees and students, allowing them to work and learn more effectively.

Additional Mitigation Techniques

There are also several ways policies and procedures can help mitigate risk within schools. When practiced consistently, school district policies and procedures can ensure swift and effective responses to emergencies. Below, I will discuss a few of the most common policy and procedure mitigation strategies.

Threat Assessment Teams

A behavioral threat assessment team is a multi-level group of educational professionals who work together to determine the credibility of a threat made towards a student’s self, another student, or the school. Having a policy will allow staff members to identify when a team should come together to review a concern, who the team members will be, and how to run the assessment meeting effectively. 

Typically, these teams are comprised of a staff member, such as a teacher or teacher’s assistant (sometimes known as a paraprofessional) who works with the student in a classroom, an administrator or guidance counselor, a mental health professional, such as a school psychologist, and a school resource officer if one is available to the school. Depending on the threat's severity and credibility, the team can determine the appropriate action to protect the student and anyone a threat is directed toward.

Emergency Operations Plans (EOP)

When an emergency occurs, having an operations plan in place can mean the difference between life and death. Administrators and staff should understand and practice EOP drills quarterly to help maintain effective procedures and build muscle memory. These plans should include staging areas, alternative areas for evacuation, and reunification locations. EOPs should be provided to local first responders, along with floor plans of the school’s layout inside and aerial visuals of the surrounding property, including all parking lots. EOPs should be reviewed and updated yearly as necessary, and any updated plans should be redistributed accordingly.

Lockdown and Lockout

Like EOPs, staff and students should practice lockdown drills quarterly. A lockdown drill will help staff and students build muscle memory for what to do in an emergency. This involves locking the door to the classroom, covering the door panes, and quietly sitting in an unobservable classroom area. Practicing these drills consistently will ensure muscle memory and skill retention if needed in a real-time emergency.

While lockout procedures are not practiced in real time, schools should still establish policies and procedures regarding what actions to take and what kind of situation would warrant a lockout. Lockouts are different from lockdowns in the sense that only the exterior of the school is locked. This is usually in response to a situation in the surrounding area that is not necessarily related to the school itself. Normal classroom activities continue within the school, but building changes should not occur if the school has a campus layout.

Final Thoughts

No one-size-fits-all answer exists to prevent risks to schools, employees, and students completely. Safety in our schools is a constantly changing facet of our world, and knowledge truly is power. All parents, students, and school employees should work together to make our schools the safest place for our children. Together, we can identify, prevent, and protect.

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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.