School security has been in the headlines in recent years due to incidents of high-profile school gun violence and bullying. The news has also reported a resurgence of drug activity on campus especially with new designer drugs. This wave of drugs and violence has brought our school system under intense scrutiny. Critics have found many of our nation’s schools to have abysmal security systems in place to protect our children from harm. Like any other enterprise, it is easy to criticize a system after being viewed under a microscope and when reviewing facts in hindsight.
I sometimes survey elementary, middle, and high schools that have a reputation for security problems. I have done it often enough where I have developed a routine for how to conduct a thorough school security survey. The most common school security complaints are non-students on campus, fights, drugs, vandalism, and truancy. After many inspections and interviews with school administrators, teachers, staff, and students, I have come up with the following conclusion: School security is easy.
School Security is Easy
Aside from prison or mental health facilities, a school campus is unlike any other public institution in terms of control. Administrators have so much control over the campus environment that providing security is relatively easy compared to most other commercial properties. A school has control over who accesses the campus and when. A school controls the timing of class periods and which students attend each class. A school controls the level of supervision throughout the day. A school establishes strict rules of conduct and for attendance. A school can mandate the use of metal detectors and can conduct bag, backpack, and locker searches at will. A school can control vehicle access and in some cases search vehicles parked on campus. A school can administer discipline for misconduct including temporary suspension and permanent expulsion from campus.
Practically speaking, once the first period bell rings no student should be outside of the class roaming the hallways without authorization. Since class attendance is required to be taken each period, it is a simple matter to detect and eliminate the non-students outside. If a student is truant, acts up, or violates a school rule the prescribed amount of discipline should be swiftly, fairly, and evenly applied. The majority of my school surveys concluded that poor campus security is affected most by administrators failing to consistently enforce school rules with the tools already available to them.
Schools are a Unique Challenge
As an outside consultant I can say school security is easy. However, I am aware that the day-to-day experiences of teachers and staff are a challenge. If you think about it, elementary and high schools contain mostly children under the age of 18 years. As children grow so do their behavioral and emotional problems and schools often become a dumping ground for undiagnosed and untreated students. These problems can manifest itself as depression, lack of social skills, mischief or serious violence at school. As children enter their teens, behavior problems seem to either subside or intensify. Some teachers have actually told me that they are afraid of some of their students. Teachers and administrators must have extreme amounts of patience and understanding to deal with daily misconduct especially with morally bankrupt students and uncaring parents. Some schools are further challenged by meager budgets and conflicting district discipline enforcement policies.
A Matter of Priority
The excuse most often used to explain why security problems exist has been that it is a matter of priority. Unfortunately, schools are often overwhelmed with conflicting priorities and security gets pushed to the bottom of the list. To administrators, schools short on teachers and staff or are without books or proper facilities seem to be a higher priority than solving a few security problems. The crime and discipline data indicates that 90% of the security problems are caused by 10% of the student population and non-students. More than one administrator has commented that school districts won’t expend vast personnel and financial resources for additional security because of only a few troublemakers? Despite this philosophy, when a serious incident does occur, money is usually thrown at the problem hoping for a quick fix to make the problem go away.
Security Not a Quick Fix
Quick fixes are like Band-Aids that don’t last long and need to be reapplied often. Besides, school security is not something that should be 'applied' to solve a particular problem. If it is…you’re doing it wrong. A school security plan needs to be totally integrated into the daily routine of all staff so that it is not recognizable as a separate measure. Security and student safety is everyone’s job and not solely delegated to campus supervisors, vice principles or security officers. With a little training and a lot of commitment even the toughest schools can be transformed back into a once-safe education facility.
In my experience, most schools already have all the authority they need in the education code and in district policy manuals to make any campus reasonably safe. The solution to school security problems is in the application and execution of existing rules and having a system in place to periodically audit each school for compliance. When schools consistently conform to clearly defined and articulated rules, the majority of students benefit from the reduced number of distracting bad influences. When this occurs, the focus returns to educating the majority of the students and not on disciplining the remaining few.