Security Solutions: Assessing Security

April 1, 2002
Is your campus as safe as you think?

Shortly after being hired by a school district in New Jersey to conduct security assessments, I arrived unannounced at a middle school. I parked in an area designated for visitors and approached the closest set of doors. A notice on the door told visitors to report to the main office, but gave no other information, such as where the main office might be.

The door was propped open by a stone, and I was able to enter the school. Well-dressed and carrying a notepad, I entered the building and was greeted by a teacher with a polite smile. I wandered around and came upon the cafeteria, where students were eating lunch.

I entered the room, sat at a table and talked with a group of 13- and 14-year-old students. I asked them about their perceptions of security in the school, where students went to smoke cigarettes and what types of drugs were readily available on campus. After several minutes, I stood up, waved to the three monitors gathered in one of the corners of the room and left.

After passing other teachers and a security monitor patrolling the hallway, I entered an unoccupied classroom. I sat down at one of the computer workstations and left a note announcing my unsupervised presence.

Occasionally during my travels through the school, I stopped to wave at the surveillance cameras posted in the building. Eventually, I found my way to the principal's office.

This is not a rare scenario. I have made similar observations at several schools.

Schools with surveillance cameras often lack the staffing needed to monitor them. Schools with high-tech door locks and alarm systems fail to establish policies and training programs to elicit cooperation from staff.

Unfortunately, most older schools were not designed with security in mind. Even recently I reviewed blueprints for a school to be built and found little attention given to security issues.

Common sense will encourage a person to approach the closest door of a building they want to enter, especially in inclement weather. It is counterproductive to have a school's designated entrance on the side of the building opposite the parking lot.

Another common security mistake relates to the “halo effect,” or the reverse of negative profiling. Instead of suspecting wrongdoing from a person who looks or dresses a certain way, the halo effect causes an observer to assume a person is not a threat because he or she dresses or looks a certain way.

In my example, I was dressed neatly and appeared to belong. In fact, when I asked a security monitor why she did not challenge me at one of the schools I visited, she told me I looked important because I had a pager on my belt. This response is very common, but it can be very dangerous.

School officials wanting to improve the security conditions on their campuses should conduct a security assessment.

It should be performed by an experienced and trained school security professional. Often the people working at the school overlook security breaches because they have become too accustomed to their surroundings.

Dunn is a career police officer who worked several years as police chief for a large high school district. He has conducted site assessments and training programs with dozens of school districts. He can be reached at [email protected].

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