Family Matters

School Security: Why It’s So Hard to Keep Kids Safe

In the wake of the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, parents, administrators and legislators debate whether lockdowns are enough to protect students

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BOB O'CONNOR / Gallery Stock

As children across the country returned to their first day back in the classroom since 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., parents probably took a second look at the doors and fences that are supposed to keep their kids safe. If they hadn’t thought much about school security before the Sandy Hook tragedy, they are certainly thinking about it now.

I know I was. My youngest daughter typically files into school with her kindergarten classmates, her big backpack overwhelming her little body. On Monday, I walked her in. I hugged her, whispered “stay safe,” then continued on to the office. After Sandy Hook, I asked the secretary, are we rethinking school security?

At my daughters’ public school in Washington state, there is next to none. The front door remains unlocked throughout the day; visitors are supposed to sign in at the office but no one enforces that. (I know; I’ve skirted the policy myself many times when I’ve been in a hurry to drop off something they have forgotten.) The situation is even worse at my son’s school, where visitors enter without being seen by anyone in the office, which is tucked away from the entrance. His former public school in North Carolina swung to the opposite extreme: all guests were met at the entrance by a security guard, who photographed them and required an ID before printing out a badge that had to be worn while in the school. Meanwhile, in the New York school system, my aunt has to pass by surveillance cameras to reach the classroom where she teaches.

The Sandy Hook massacre has exposed security gaps and widely disparate safety procedures in public school systems across the country, highlighting a lack of across-the-board guidelines. Federal efforts to develop stronger emergency response plans, such as the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grants that cover security, have been financially curtailed in recent years, the Christian Science Monitor reports. To fill the void, National PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are eager to issue guidance. It’s a matter that has long been open for debate: school security isn’t set by any one governing body; it’s decided upon by individual school districts. In the U.S., there are more than 13,000 so it stands to reason that policies vary widely, even within states. Some states, such as Florida, check visitors’ IDs against a national database of sex offenders; others also confirm that a court order hasn’t barred a parent from seeing a child. Many districts, including Seattle, don’t check IDs at all.

(MORE: Trying to Make Sense of Tragedy: Why the Sandy Hook Shooting Is So Painful for All of Us)

Ultimately, however, security often comes down to funding. “A lot of states were pushing for funding for school security and equipment and security audits, but when the economic bottom fell out in 2008, it all got put on the back burner,” says security consultant Steve Wilder.

Now, Friday’s unthinkable tragedy may have shifted priorities back to finding strategies for keeping kids safe. “It’s unthinkable that we have rules and regulations in all sorts of places but we can’t seem to find the money to protect our kids in their schools,” says Dr. Bob Block, immediate past president of the AAP. “What we want is for students in their schools to know they’re secure so they can focus their attention on lessons rather than looking over their shoulder to check out everyone who comes into their school.”

What could make that happen? Ideally, security experts say, schools should have a “man-trap,” a set of outer doors that leads to a vestibule with a screening point and a set of inner doors beyond which visitors can’t go unless they are vetted. Doors should remain locked, safety drills should take place without warning and parents should be informed of where they should collect their kids in an emergency.

(PHOTOS: Connecticut Community Copes After School Shooting)

All schools should have reinforced plate glass and “access control,” a term experts use to refer to limited entry. That means schoolyards should be completely fenced, as they are in the U.K., with visitors buzzed in through a central gate. That’s a particular challenge, say some administrators, since many schools are designed with an open-access philosophy to encourage learning and foster a welcoming atmosphere for students.

Such technology, along with reinforced ground-floor windows and doors is only a first step, however; staff training maybe be even more important. “We see some schools spending thousands of dollars on systems that ‘read’ access cards, but in the end the users are the breakdown,” says Wilder, who has performed security audits on more than 100 schools. “Inevitably someone props open the door to the kitchen or the gym.”

Drills are also a critical part of security preparation, but too many schools announce them ahead of time, giving teachers and students time to prepare. “Realistic drills are unannounced,” says Wilder.

Meanwhile, National PTA leaders are combing through various resolutions the organization has issued on school violence, mental health and gun control to decide which issues to prioritize: should they lobby for security guards in every school? Tougher gun-control laws? Adequate mental-health treatment for all students? “We’re trying to wrap our head around everything that’s happened, pull together our positions and figure out what we can do to move this conversation forward,” says spokesman James Martinez.

Three days after the Conn. shooting, the organization sent an email to its state offices alerting them of an upcoming advocacy plan: “Rest assured, we fully plan to engage our powerful network of nearly 5 million dedicated members to make a difference on this issue.”

(MOREAm I Safe? Talking to Your Kids About the Sandy Hook School Shooting)

Students may also play an integral role in ensuring their own security. Programs such as A.L.I.C.E. — Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Escape — encourage teachers and children to do more than lock the door and sit quietly if an armed intruder enters their school. Developed by a former SWAT officer, A.L.I.C.E. teaches students to fight back by throwing things at an attacker. About 300 schools and universities have adopted the program, its founder told ABC News, but it remains controversial.

Still, the AAP believes that students can serve as the first line of defense, much as schools have taught students to pay close attention when friends threaten suicide. Last week, for example, a student alerted authorities about a Bartlesville, Okla., high schooler who had researched the Columbine High School shootings and apparently planned to slaughter students in his school’s auditorium. That information led to the arrest of Sammie Eaglebear Chavez; he was charged with conspiring to perform an act of violence on Friday, the same day that alleged Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza charged into two classrooms. “The boy who turned him in had the courage and good sense to report that,” says Block. “Even in elementary school, older students should know that if they hear someone talking about having a gun in their locker, they need to tell a teacher. It’s not tattle-taling.”

No security measure is perfect; Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung — one of the first victims — had recently introduced a new system to lock the school’s doors at 9:30 a.m. and require office sign-in. That didn’t deter Lanza, who reportedly shot his way into the school. But some experts say that the additional time it took him to break past the locked door may have given teachers and students inside time to take cover. “There are no absolutes,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, which develops school-safety plans. “But you can significantly reduce risk.”

Even if school officials find a security strategy they feel is effective, they face one remaining hurdle — parents.  In one rural county, a superintendent has been trying for more than a year to get approval for every visitor to be individually buzzed in. “Parents haven’t wanted it because they say it’s creating a prison-like environment,” says Dorn, who declines to name the superintendent with whom he has been working. “But that was prior to Friday. That discussion will look very different now that we’re suddenly shocked to the core.”

(MORE‘I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother’: When Parents Are Afraid of Their Children)

77 comments
bruna.lake
bruna.lake

Unfortunately, today we can not trust the safety in schools.
Concerns about the vulnerability of children and young people in school, always took the sleep of parents and managers. Current schools seem more like prisons, where children are in a big part of the day. The violence seems to increase every day. Since the beginning of the human race, wars and fightings incite violence. I stared a research last days about it in http://portalpesquisa.com What appeared to be yesterday's problem, is more and more present today in our lives. We need to unite to really get some positive action to improve this situation.

alangregg48
alangregg48

Security at schools should be a national concern and funding should come from weapons and ammunition profits. The companies profiting from proliferation of weapons should pay to keep our children safe.

Surfboat
Surfboat

"Throw things"!  How 'bout a few teachers with semi-auto pneumatic pellet guns.  No fire power needed and the ammo can be had for a song.  Couple of pellet shots to the body and Rambo himself could'nt hold on to a gun.  Now imagine two or three teachers getting in some target practice on the perpetrator, intruder, etc.  No fire power needed.

Gtown2013
Gtown2013

I wonder how well having ammo sniffing dogs would work as school security guards?  Might be an inexpensive alternative and could be nice school mascot images.

StephanieLynnZink
StephanieLynnZink

I think everyone needs to keep some perspective here.  What happened in CT is an unthinkable tragedy, for sure.  People are shaken up, and that's understandable.  But short of building steel walls around schools, what can we really do?  Ridiculous security measures like shotguns in classrooms, armed police at every corner, or perma-locked doors make us feel safe, but it's an illusion.  Bad things can still happen, and we have to decide where to draw the line and say enough is enough.  The costs are not just monetary.  I never remember being afraid to go to school as a kid (and I'm a post-columbine kid), but with all the fear-mongering and heightened security, it wouldn't surprise me if kids genuinely feel like they aren't safe anywhere.  I'll be damned if I let anyone instill that kind of fear in my kids.  Incessant worrying is my job, not theirs.  I'm not saying school safety isn't important, or that we shouldn't do everything reasonable to keep kids safe, but to me, locked down schools are not reasonable.  I say that school districts should evaluate the safety measures they already have in place, see what can be practically improved, and then move on.  Lets not be reactionary here.

MichaelBusby
MichaelBusby

It is said (in another article) "The 20-year-old gunman carried hundreds of rounds of ammunition in extra clips." Why isn't someone asking how a socially ostracized, mentally challenged individual could get his hands of "hundreds of rounds of ammunition" and "extra clips?" If the gun shops were doing their duty under the law, Adam Lanza would not have been able to purchase these items. So, that leaves his mother. Why doesn't the investigators answer who bought the ammunition and clips and where were they bought? I am guessing mother bought all the ammunition and clips thereby circumventing good gun laws already on the books.

KendraJames14
KendraJames14

So why don't we take the initiative to put a plan in place to change gun laws? Lets act instead of talking about it. This should never happen again http://bit.ly/12whLqT  Devastating

LokHupBaFa
LokHupBaFa

My daughters school is  very secure.  So secure, that the only entrance a person in a wheelchair can get in (old school lots of stairs) is always locked, no matter how many times we remind them that my husband is in a wheelchair.  He has to wait in the rain, while I go in the other entrance and hunt down some one with a key....and she has been going their for five years, we are at the point of suing the school, if they can't figure out a way for him to get into the school without needing a second health person to hunt down the principle and janitor to yell at them yet again.   So keep in mind a lot of the security, makes it really , really had for handicap folks.  Some of the older schools are impossible, and if the kid has a cast , the extra hard doors, or going around to the only doors that are unlocked are a real pain. Multiple schools (multiple kids) and none of them are easy to access, and I worry - about the students who might have mobility access?  what is my daughters school going to do, if one of the students was in a wheel chair?  The only main entrance regularly left unlocked, is at the top of a flight of 20 stairs.   The gym door is not connected to the main school building except by a hall with 6 stairs..... and it is the only other door left open because it is on the parking lot side.  

Increasing security , can decrease quality of life for handicap students, if you are talking about locked doors or heavier doors.

spot60spot
spot60spot

@TIME @timehealthland School would then be just like home.

spot60spot
spot60spot

@TIME @timehealthland They should all be issued with their own assault rifle but made to promise not to use it on the teachers or each other

spot60spot
spot60spot

@TIME @timehealthland Each student is issued with a bullet proof vest to wear while they are at school, bullet proof bunkers as classrooms.

GrantMacDonald
GrantMacDonald

Sounds like a typical gay boy who was harassed by the church and a lunatic mother who abused this kid until his shame was perceived as autism! She was going to have him committed to an asylum – according to the son of the local pastor. America is becoming the dark side of the planet – allowing the religious extremists to trample on the gay community! Alan Turing who discovered the key to the enigma machine was harassed after WWII and committed suicide. Seems this kid was brilliant – but cast out by his father and now his mother.Being black, left-handed or being gay is just as natural. It is a sometimes rare occurrence to fall in Love and to hold that person in your heart and be loved in return ... it is something that should be celebrated! If it’s between two guys or two girls -- all the better. It takes even more courage to defend that LOVE!The evil writings in Leviticus 18:22 … against gays – depict: “P” … “priestly rules” & expanded by the pope; homophobes and religious frauds … to attack the gay community and never meant to apply to the public -- but to priests.There is no scientific evidence to prove any of the cross related bogus elements of christianity and other religions. Our early human ancestors; on this earth … go back more than 6 million years … 5,996,000 years before the Greeks, Romans and the Jews. Christianity is basically a 2012 year old fictional cult.In the year 300 AD when Emperor Constantine, who to some was the first pope; went on to fabricate & market Christianity!Christianity is a fantasy; which turned out to be one of the most hateful & evil concoctions ever perpetrated on the world.

MichaelBusby
MichaelBusby

There is a simple solution regarding school security.  Install inexpensive chemical gunpowder sniffers at doors and/or windows. If the alarm goes off, police are immediately notified, and the school goes into lock-down mode. 

MaryMaryQuiteContrary
MaryMaryQuiteContrary

Interesting article, however we need to remember that in the Newtown case, what appears to have happened is:  it was a school with a good degree of security-- locked exterior doors, a camera for visitors to show ID and wait to be 'buzzed' in through the doors.  Lanza apparently shot out an entire window and climbed through.  Why do we want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to make schools a security fortress that only serves to inconvenience everyone else except for the person who intends to do evil?  Someone intent on hurting/killing will circumvent even what the "good level of security" schools have to offer.  Spend the dollars on mental health outreach treatments.  Build new schools with good security mechanisms in place, such as the obvious things of locking doors and an office that is located in plain view of the front door so that people cannot bypass the main office, fenced playgrounds and so forth.  Take reasonable and sensible measures because again, someone who intends to do harm, will just take their plan to the next level. 

glennra3
glennra3

No, no, no.

I have been teaching for nearly 25 years and, in my opinion, schools have come to resemble prisons far too much, as it is.  This was a terrible, horrific, almost unimaginable tragedy, but Americans have just got to get used to the fact that bad things happen in life.  You cannot account for every disaster, every crazy person, every chance misfortune.  

There is cost for everything.  Steel doors, escape routes, teacher access to guns (please!) all come with a significant price tag.  However, the real cost is not in dollars, but in lost quality of learning.  We cannot allow our fears to drive our common sense.  Mass killings happen, have always happened, and are not happening today with any greater frequency today than in the past (although the body count is higher because of the types of guns being used).

We have become a nation that cowers with every tragedy.  We must bury our dead, right whatever wrongs in the system that can be, and move on with life.  The alternative is to live in a permanently locked down society.  It may be safe, but is it life?

SrynapticCleft
SrynapticCleft

@TIMEHealthland the better question... "is it going to be easier to get help for the mentally ill?"

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

There are many things that can be done to increase security. Among them: 1) Each classroom should be able to be locked down (think steel door). 2) All classrooms need an escape plan that doesn't include the regular door. Teachers need to make a judgment call about whether it's better to stay in place or evacuate the classroom. 3) A.L.I.C.E. training should be provided to all students and staff, and unannounced drills should be common enough to keep skills sharp. 4) In addition to locking down classrooms, sections of schools should be able to be locked down to prevent freedom of movement. 5) The security camera feeds should be automatically to be sent to the police so they can instantly see what is going on and where a gunman is as they arrive on scene. And 6) In case all else fails, teachers need access to a 12-guage, semiautomatic shotgun to shoot anyone who makes it inside a classroom. As we saw on Friday, many teachers have the courage to rush an attacker. We need to give them to tools to win.

MichaelBusby
MichaelBusby

Now, we need to ask the question, who bought all the magazines and bullets for the weapons Adam Lanza had with him? Did his mother buy all that ammunition? If his mother bought all the magazines and ammunition, then she (her estate) should be held responsible for what happened. If Adam Lanza bought the magazines and ammunition, then the gun shop who sold him those items should be held at least partially accountable for selling to a mentally challenged individual.  

I do not blame guns for what happened, I blame first and foremost Nancy Lanza, then the school district, then Adam Lanza in that order. I think all three share equal responsibility for what happened. Let me say, before the trolls begin their shouting, I am a father of five sons, I do NOT own any guns, and I believe people kill, not guns. Having raised five sons, I can imagine the rage a socially ostracized young man can feel and I can imagine the consequences of giving such a man access to weapons and ammunition. 

Finally, I have to say Adam Lanza's mother was not the wonderful woman and mother people are trying to make her out to be. Training a socially ostracized, mentally challenged individual how to use weapons then giving them access is the height of stupidity.

MichaelBusby
MichaelBusby

 The gunman broke some glass to unlock a schoolhouse door...where is security in this scenario? You would think after Columbine schools would get the message. Certainly, we hope they finally get it now. You can have windows that are bullet-proof and Sandy Hook school district had over ten years notice to install either unbreakable/bullet-proof glass, or remove the glass entirely and install cameras in order to identify who wanted into the building. Also, it is unimaginable Nancy Lanza would train a mentally challenged and socially ostracized son to shoot and allow him access to pistols and rifles. I guess she reaped the harvest she sowed.

PaulMShen
PaulMShen

Actually it can be done, in Cleveland area public school everyone needs to buzz in and only after they face a camera that this will allow them in. Also one wonders if metal detectors at entrances would help, if the stores can impose scanners coming out of stores for theft how hard is it to place metal detectors on school entrances and have them on especially when school is ongoing.

SeanGenung
SeanGenung

Because you are not allowed to take anything into a school to defend kids with.

JodiPaulLeben
JodiPaulLeben

It is a sad world when our schools have to by necessity become more like prisons in order to keep them safe.   I can't help but wonder if our reactions are treating a symptom of a sick society rather than trying to understand what causes such behaviors in the first place and weather or not they can be caught in time.  You can ban guns, but then the only ones who will have them are criminals and the government, which oddly enough are very similar in structure, but I digress.  Of course if only the government is armed and you happen to need to overthrow or get rid of corrupt leaders then you are out of luck or dead as the case may be.   We can lock up our kids to keep them safe, but in doing so make them prisoners.  If we do that then will they grow up with a different mentality? One that acts out, fights to be free or is more violent in some way?   I could run from my fear and homeschool my kids, but I don't think that is the answer either.   There has to be a fix for this, but we all need to think on it and come up with solutions to the cause of the problem.   Treating the symptoms doesn't make the problem go away, it just masks it until the symptoms get bigger, worse, and stronger.  I also heard that the way media glamorizes the actual killer and how much they tell of who this person was is somewhat of a motivation for a very down and sick person to take others out instead of just killing themselves.   If someone felt invisible and was wanting to end things, they might be more likely to seek out a way to leave with a bang so to speak.  If they take more out than themselves then suddenly they are not invisible anymore, at least someone knew who they were, ect..    Are we not paying enough attention to our kids? I don't mean that in the happy fluffy make kids feel good bs sorta way either.  I mean do we know when they are upset, do we help them through it, do we watch their moods, their behaviors, ect.. Do we brush too much of their attitudes off because we assume kids/teens/young adults/ect.. are moody? Are we unaware of the important behaviors that if we addressed them much sooner that we could help to ensure they never go off the deep end?   We are too caught up in trying to find a blame, find a quick fix, ect.. but it is time to look at the cause and figure out what we can do to prevent things from ever getting to this point to begin with. 

AaronLlauryPuyo
AaronLlauryPuyo

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Weapon manufacture would prefer to sell guns to teachers. We must see bowling for columbine film .. again

KaffeeklatchAth
KaffeeklatchAth

@TIME @TIMEHealthland I don't think schools being safer is the problem. I think assault weapons being bandied about by psych patients is,

alienza
alienza

@TIME y everybody keep asking silly useless question?? The answer is very clear,control those weapons of mass destruction.

ChristinaMohabb
ChristinaMohabb

@TIME @TIMEHealthland they never will. In the past 25 - 30yrs Pandora's Box has been opened in our society. Sad, but I think its too late.

stardancer60
stardancer60

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Schools don't need to be safer the kids need to be taught better morals. A 1 parent family is destroying our culture.

cyndistark
cyndistark

@time @timehealthland @cyndistark background check all involved with gun ownership and check mental health status of family members as well

artbyyou
artbyyou

@TIME @TIMEHealthland If a teacher or guard had a gun this would not have resulted in the tragedy it did.

artbyyou
artbyyou

@TIME @TIMEHealthland full time armed guard (s)

rvargas64
rvargas64

@TIME @TIMEHealthland Idk there is a police presence,at my sons high school and at my daughters elementary..but can u stop it in time

SaneMommy
SaneMommy

@HasbroChildrens Thanks for the RT

cyun84
cyun84

The U.S. has to put an end to private ownership of guns.  Only members of the police and the military should be allowed to own firearms, and even ownership of those should be strictly monitored.  Wish all the shooting reports would come to an end...

litermaton
litermaton

Guns shoot through walls, windows and human bodies.

XiraArien
XiraArien

Security Theater.

The gunman must have broken over a thousand laws(don't get me started on our million-laws police state) to commit that crime.

Passing 1 more law wouldn't have made a difference. Having a guard there would have just upped the body count by one.