School Security

Two years ago, Lynn (Mass.) School District had many problems in the Thurgood Marshall Middle School. Students were fighting in the public areas. The building was being vandalized. There were several arson attempts, and one teacher was suspected of being poisoned. Although district administrators knew they needed to make changes, according to Lynn school deputy superintendent Cathie Latham, “We didn’t know where to begin.”

Since then, the district has installed a security system with closed-circuit television (CCTV) and controlled door access and has made other improvements, which have changed the school setting in just two years. There had been trees blocking cameras outside the school, overgrown foliage at the entrance and broken doors.

GE Security, Bradenton, Fla., brought a team of experts to the school and reviewed that facility and others in the district. Since then, the district has a full camera installation that covers public areas in all its secondary and most primary schools and a card access system that controls entrances. However, some security problems can be too extreme for these measures.

Until recently, the main concern at schools was vandalism and theft. While those problems may still exist, they have been overshadowed by the threats of intruders, fights and gang-related violence and crime, said Tim Hickey, marketing communications and product manager at Sonitrol, which makes access control, intrusion, video and fire solutions for more than 12,000 schools in North America.

“Facility managers are still concerned about vandalism,” Hickey said, “but at a district level, the primary concern is about safety. No one wants to be the next school in the news.”

Emergency notification has been at the forefront for college campuses. It has been a concern for some Kindergarten through 12th grade schools, as well. With a notification system, messages can be sent to an unlimited number of recipients about everything from a crime on campus to bad weather closures.

At K–12 public schools, more districts are spending their security budgets on analog or IP cameras that can be managed over a network. Smartcards and photo IDs, while commonplace on college campuses, are entering into public schools for faculty and staff. And while biometrics is still too expensive for most districts, they are beginning to draw interest, Hickey said.

“Schools always have a challenge with funding,” Hickey said, “They need to identify what their needs are, work out a strategy that suits them and that can grow with their needs.”

And keeping the openness of the school is even more challenging.

“Schools aren’t just schools anymore,” Hickey said, “They are multiuse facilities with lots of people in and out for many hours.” Keeping multiuse facilities safe yet open can be a balancing act.

“You don’t want to feel like you are walking into a prison. You want a safe atmosphere but not to be overzealous,” he said.

Fostering team work

In 2006, GE Security, created a new kind of team approach, preparing a group of experts in security to meet with schools and do a full evaluation before making any recommendations. That means identifying both the needs of the community and the safety concerns.

According to GE Security team member Ray Lauk, education solutions manager, “[Upfront,] every district has to have a discussion of the philosophy of security in order to have a system they demand and can also tolerate. Every community has to make that balance for themselves.”

The team also works with teachers and students, parents, custodians and police officers, said Paul Baratta, solutions manager. Team members look at the school environment and scan for easy fixes—cutting back shrubs that create a shelter for potential criminals or a place to hide drugs or weapons, or cutting back trees that make video surveillance too dark or obscured.

“And you have to look at what’s going to be tolerated in the community,” Lauk said, “You have to ensure that the security philosophy matches the mission of the school.”

The first thing the team members look at is what they have; they must determine if it is sustainable. And they also evaluate how realistic the goals are. Many schools want to know the identity of everyone who enters between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day, but to accomplish that, they may need to make more changes than they realize.

Baratta said the team gets calls from contractors who provide the integration on a regular basis, and they help guide the contractors through the process.

“Our goal is to work with the integrators. As much time as we spend face to face with superintendents, we also talk to integrators,” Baratta said.

Ultimately, Baratta said, every district is spending money on security, some on planning and others on technology, and others on simply keeping up with the effects of the crime they were unable to deter, such as painting over graffiti.

Visitor management

According to Paul Terschuren, vice president of sales and marketing for visitor-management software company STOPware, knowing and keeping track of who is on campus and where they are going drives school districts in their search for technology.

But can school districts accomplish everything on their wish list and stay within budget? And can they do it while maintaining an open environment that makes students, parents and members of the community feel welcome? Probably not, according to security experts, which is why each school district needs its own approach that achieves a system that meets the needs and desires of its users.

“Overall, schools are becoming more savvy and looking to employ visitor-management solutions that can be integrated with other functions and resources, such as the Internet,” Terschuren said. Many schools are becoming closed campuses to help manage security. Of these, several are starting to integrate access control systems. To complement access control, they are choosing to add visitor-management software and using badges to identify their visitors.

STOPware has a new version of its PassagePoint visitor-management software solution tailored for schools, known as “PassagePoint EDU.” In EDU, STOPware has incorporated features, such as automatic sex offender searching based on a person’s name, preregistration for visitors, badge printing based on category of people, student tracking and management of custodial rights of students.

Patrick Fiel, public safety adviser, education, for ADT Security Services, Boca Raton, Fla., agreed that visitor control is one of the most prominent school concerns. As executive director for school security in Washington, D.C., from 1997 to 2002, Fiel was tasked with making the city’s schools more secure, and access control was one of his first steps.

However, ADT and Fiel take what they call a holistic approach to school campus security—putting measures in place that are most applicable to a district’s specific problems.

“We try to become a partner,” Fiel said.

Visitor-management systems eliminate many of the hazards other schools face since they keep the source of a problem from getting into the school in the first place. If the district can afford to take it to another level, access control systems can allow schools to scan visitors’ driver’s licenses, other government identification and passport information before they are granted a temporary visitor badge.

“Every school in every district needs to have a security plan,” Fiel said. “If they don’t have one, they need to create one.”

New construction facilities often offer the best opportunities to install a comprehensive security plan. However, all too often, Fiel said, the budget for security isn’t considered until the school is already close to completion.

Video surveillance on the rise

Panasonic has seen growing sales of IP-based systems, such as its i-Pro network-based video surveillance solutions that allow school administrators and security personnel to access live video images over their networks, according to Frank DeFina, president, Panasonic System Solutions Co., Secaucus, N.J.

Networked video surveillance systems allow for integration with related security systems, such as access control and visitor management, where specific sequences of events can automatically trigger alarms and notifications.

“There has definitely been a rise in awareness for tighter security at educational facilities across the nation as a result of the increased media coverage of unfortunate events that have taken place at schools,” DeFina said. This, combined with the overall trend for networked integrated security systems, has broadened the scope of responsibility into the IT domain.

DeFina noted that more manufacturers are entering into partnerships in an effort to achieve greater interoperability among formerly disparate security systems, such as video surveillance, access control and intrusion systems.

“At Panasonic, we launched a business initiative aimed at improving open infrastructure so that our systems can be seamlessly integrated with other systems on a network platform or in a hybrid configuration consisting of some combination of traditional analog and networked devices,” he said.

Sanyo also has recognized a need to migrate security systems in schools to an IP-based platform.

“This was the impetus behind our ‘IP-ready when you are’ engineering strategy and product roadmap,” said Frank Abram, vice president and general manager, Sanyo Security Systems, Chatsworth, Calif. Every Sanyo pan-focus or pan-tilt-zoom camera is now designed to be IP-ready with the addition of a network board. The conversion can be made quickly and right in the field.

“This will help accelerate schools’ abilities to upgrade their systems to network-based operation and apply the latest advancements in PC-driven control solutions that are scalable for future growth and can be upgraded much more efficiently than conventional analog solutions,” Abram said.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at


About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.