Setting Priorities

A site survey is a vehicle for finding out what is right and what is wrong with a school's perimeter security, its internal access controls and the safety of its doors and hardware.

With security demands increasing, school administrators may be hard-pressed to meet security requirements. One tool that can help is a comprehensive site survey. A survey can make it easier for school officials to see exactly what needs to be done to control access to and movement within a facility.

When questions arise about school building safety and security, a survey is one way to obtain answers and plan a course of action. Often, by focusing on the right actions, a school can make major improvements at a cost lower than expected.

Why a site survey?

A site survey is a vehicle for finding out what is right and what is wrong with a school's perimeter security, its internal access controls and the safety of its doors and hardware. Other systems such as fire alarms and sprinklers also affect these concerns. To achieve the most effective results, a program to improve safety and security should consider the interaction of all building systems, procedures and policies.

One of the most valuable benefits of conducting a site survey is clearly identifying security gaps. Without looking at the overall picture, administrators can get caught up in short-term fixes — repairing an individual door that doesn't close properly or replacing one kind of lock with another. Such solutions seldom do much to improve overall school security.

Before beginning a site survey, school administrators should gain an overview of the situation and the expectations for the review process. One tactic is to discuss basic principles of security and the specific level of security the school is trying to achieve. This generally includes an overview of what makes a school environment secure. It also may review security as it relates to a school's doors and other architectural openings.

Part of the process also may include a review of the district's operating procedures, including key control, access points and school practices. Key control is the first line of defense, and without it there is no real security. Unauthorized duplication may be a problem, but it can be corrected by using a patented or restricted keyway. A discussion of access points will help determine whether enough doors are equipped with access control, as well as whether a school is handling main entry security properly.

With this perspective, those performing the survey can tour the site more effectively. Equipped with a digital camera, they may first follow the site-evacuation plan to get a better understanding of how the school is laid out. This also provides a logical sequence for numbering doors, which is useful in developing later recommendations.

Upon reviewing each opening, the surveyors note any problems with the doors, including improper latching or closing functions, uncontrolled access, security breaches such as wedges or other means of propping doors open, or code violations such as chained exit devices. Normally, digital photos will be taken only of a representative door, if several share the same shortcomings. The surveyors may note these problems on a copy of the photo in the final report.

A five-level grading system to evaluate each door can be helpful. Grade A is for doors that function properly. Grade B doors function properly, but have cosmetic issues. Grade C is for doors that require maintenance. Grade D indicates that a defective item needs to be replaced or upgraded. Grade F indicates a code violation, which in most cases will require a product replacement.

The idea of trying to review all the doors in a school district may seem overwhelming. But the recommendations often involve solutions with little or no cost, such as adjusting a door closer so it allows a door lock to latch properly. School administrators who have participated in surveys often are surprised that the anticipated cost of repairs and upgrades are less than what they expected. An added benefit of participating in a survey conducted by an outside source is the potential transfer of effective security ideas from one district to another.

Where a workable program exists, a district can get the answers it needs with minimal direct involvement. Although many excellent guides to self-conducted school surveys are available, few school districts have the staffing and time available to conduct them.

A few possibilities

One major strategy that can enhance security throughout a school is to control the building's perimeter and force people to come to the front office. Standalone electronic access controls or restricted key systems will allow entry by authorized individuals while preventing others from entering.

With the proper hardware, a door can be configured so it allows access selectively and maintains the integrity of the perimeter. Easy-to-use electronic access-control systems allow administrators to control the times and days that various individuals can use a door. This helps accommodate extracurricular activities or community use of school facilities. At the same time, these systems provide an audit trail, recording who went through a particular door and when, as well as who may have tried to enter unsuccessfully.

In a growing number of school districts, non-custodial parents are a major security issue. Children often are caught up in court custody battles; an effective access-control system can help prevent an unauthorized person from taking a child out of class.

To increase classroom safety, a survey may recommend locks that allow a teacher to lock the classroom from the inside when a lockdown is necessary, without having to go into the hall to lock the door. A school survey also may address accessibility issues. For example, the report may cite the need to convert door knobs to lever handles, which are easier to use for persons with disabilities.

At times, a survey may be performed in conjunction with a planned school expansion. This presents an excellent opportunity to upgrade security in an entire building, and eliminates the confusion and possible security lapses that could result from conflicting access-control systems.

A new view

Atlanta Public Schools took a proactive approach to school safety by having a site survey conducted. As a result, the school system gained a comprehensive view of security conditions in its 93 schools, and established an action plan.

“It really goes beyond the products (the company is) selling and covers school security in depth,” says Valerie D. Thomas, executive director of Atlanta Public Schools Facilities Services. “The survey allowed us to recognize where we had potential problems, both on the doors themselves and the hardware that was on them.”

The survey of all 93 properties was completed in 30 days. Normally, a job that size could be expected to take closer to three months.

“The survey helped us to pinpoint what we had to take care of to secure each location,” says Thomas. “This might include improving the hardware or making a door operable only from the inside. It might even include a tougher door at some locations. It has allowed us a significant amount of flexibility in how we manage our program.”

A survey works just as well in a smaller school district. East Granby (Conn.) Public Schools, near the Hartford airport, has just three schools.

“The consultant found deficiencies in the physical plant environment at the three schools with respect to communications, alarm and hardware applications, as well as unchallenged access by the general public,” says David J. McNally, assistant principal at East Granby's Allgrove and Seymour schools. “He gave us a report with recommendations on what had to happen at all the schools to achieve and maintain an appropriate and balanced sense of security.

“One of the most important things in the report was to upgrade and secure all the doors, so that's where we started,” says McNally.

Among the consultant's recommendations were standardizing door-hardware products, upgrading inferior or defective hardware, and enhancing electronic access controls. In some ways, the timing of the initiative couldn't have been better; the district was starting a $9 million renovation at the high school and incorporated electronic locks into the plans so the locks would be consistent throughout the district.

QUOTABLE

Valerie D. Thomas, Executive Director of Atlanta Public Schools Facilities Services

“The survey allowed us to recognize where we had potential problems, both on the doors themselves and the hardware that was on them.

“We were under a time crunch, because we wanted the access-control project to go out for bids at the same time as the door-replacement project.”

David J. McNally, Assistant Principal at Allgrove and Seymour Schools, East Granby Public Schools, Hartford, Ct.

“The consultant found deficiencies in the physical plant environment at the three schools with respect to communications, alarm and hardware applications, as well as unchallenged access by the general public.

“One of the most important things in the report was to upgrade and secure all the doors, so that's where we started.”

SIDEBAR: Notes from the field

One surveyor notes that, in examining more than 15,000 school doors, he has found safety and security problems with 11 percent of all doors. Mechanical problems contributed to the problem in 6 percent of these cases, while the other 5 percent were caused by policy issues.

“These were issues that would take little or no money to correct, such as doors held open by wooden wedges, rocks or doormats,” he says.

Simple alarmed door-position monitors would eliminate most of these incidents.

Even a lot of the mechanical problems were caused by easy-to-fix problems such as improperly adjusted door closers or bad weatherstripping that prevented latching. A poorly functioning door closer can cause more problems than just improper latching. A closer that fails to control the door throughout its swing could allow the door to open too quickly and might cause injury, especially on a solid door that doesn't allow a view of who is on the other side. Schools can remedy this by adjusting or replacing the closer and adding windows to the door.

Vigue is AHC/CDC Manager, Special Projects, for IR Security & Safety, Indianapolis. IR conducted security site surveys on Atlanta Public Schools and the East Granby Public Schools.

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