Pathways to Safety

June 1, 2006
To be most effective, a school's security plan should encompass many techniques and strategies.

Education administrators have many tools available to them as they strive to establish a safe climate for learning, but no one strategy or piece of equipment is a magic solution that keeps potential trouble beyond the campus boundaries.

Creating and maintaining a safe and secure school environment requires a balance of many strategies: campuses and facilities that are designed to maximize the safety of students, staff and visitors; police officers or other security personnel that can deter crime and violence, as well as build bonds with students and staff to establish an atmosphere of safety; equipment that can help administrators monitor campus activity and student behavior; programs that help create a better environment for learning and prevent violence or inappropriate behavior; and crisis plans that give administrators a clear roadmap of what to do when an emergency occurs.

Every education institution should have a well-thought-out crisis response plan (see sidebar at right) that is reviewed and updated regularly. But, with other security strategies in place to deter and prevent trouble, a school or university may be able to defuse potential problems before they lead to tragedy.

Designed to protect

One of the most effective ways to provide a secure campus is to design it that way. Design choices can affect the degree to which a campus or a building enhances or detracts from security. This approach is known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED).

“Applying CPTED techniques can help your school be a safer place,” says the San Diego County Office of Education.

CPTED encompasses four strategies: natural surveillance, territorial reinforcement, natural access control and maintenance.

Natural surveillance involves the placement of physical features and activities in a way that maximizes visibility. Examples include unobstructed doors and windows, appropriate levels of nighttime lighting and low shrubbery to eliminate hiding places. Territorial reinforcement, through landscape plantings, signage or fences, helps define property lines and distinguishes private and public spaces.

Natural access control uses streets, sidewalks, building entrances and landscaping to clearly indicate public routes and discourage access to private areas. Maintenance helps ensure that a space is used for its intended purpose, and sends a message that students and staff care about their school and take pride in its appearance.

Police presence

At one time, school security was left to administrators and staff members monitoring hallways and surrounding grounds as students made their way through a campus. But the idea that school grounds were somehow immune from the crime and violence that occurs throughout society has long been discarded, and most education institutions recognize that the presence of security personnel is vital to keeping its students and staff safe and its grounds protected.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' “Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2005,” 70 percent of students aged 12 to 18 said their schools had security officers or police present on campus.

Some school systems have their own police force; others rely on security officers or local police to provide security. Many districts have used federal grants to provide school resource officers (SROs) at some of their schools. SROs are local law-enforcement officials who not only provide security in a school, but also strive to get to know students and learn a school's culture to help address potential problems before they lead to serious incidents.

Geared up

Technology enables schools to provide a level of security that can cover some of the areas that staff members and security officers cannot. Schools can create photo identification for students and staff quickly and inexpensively so that people who don't belong on campus can be spotted easily. Surveillance cameras can monitor activities and spaces that security personnel can't cover constantly; metal detectors find weapons or other contraband that the naked eye can't uncover; drug-sniffing dogs dig out illicit materials that would otherwise remain hidden.

The NCES “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” found that 48 percent of students aged 12 to 18 said their schools used security cameras in 2003 to monitor the facility. As technology improves and costs drop for such systems, surveillance cameras are becoming even more commonplace on campuses.

In the same survey, 10 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds said their schools used metal detectors; 23 percent said that the students in their schools were required to wear photo identification.

Identifying solutions

What schools do best is teach, so it shouldn't be surprising that schools rely on educational programs to help prevent violence and give students the tools to recognize and resolve troublesome situations. Programs that enable teachers and other staff members to establish a level of trust with students can create an atmosphere in which troubled students are provided with help and problems are addressed before they escalate into violence or tragedy.

Programs that combat bullying, violence and substance abuse reinforce to students what kind of behavior is expected at school and let them know that teachers, counselors and other staff members are prepared to help them if they have a problem.

“Prevention, intervention and crisis response are key in creating a comprehensive response to preventing school violence,” says the Center for Prevention of School Violence, based in North Carolina.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

In the box

Though incidents are rare, administrators must be prepared to deal with events that could disrupt their campuses and put students and staff members in danger.

The state of California has assembled The Crisis Response Box, an 18-page guide to help schools prepare for an emergency. “The Crisis Response Box has one simple goal,” the guide says. “School administrators will immediately have the information essential for effective management of a major critical incident.”

The guide states that these elements should be part of a crisis response box: an aerial photo of the school campus; a map that identifies streets, intersections and vacant lots near a school and includes planned emergency routes; an up-to-date layout of classrooms and other campus facilities; architectural blueprints of school buildings; a list of teachers and other employees; master keys for all the rooms in a facility; turn-off procedures for fire alarms, sprinklers, utilities and cable television service; photos of all students; phone numbers for all key staff members, including those involved in coordinating with local emergency responders; identification of three separate staging areas for law enforcement and emergency personnel, for the news media, and for parents; an emergency resource list of people or groups that can assist in an emergency; identification of evacuation routes; student disposition forms so administrators can keep track of which students have been released and to whom; a list of which students are present at school that day; a list of students with special needs; and first-aid supplies, as well as a listing of where additional first-aid supplies can be found.

“Comprehensive school crisis-prevention planning includes assembling the box, coordinating with all those who will be involved if a crisis occurs, conducting practice drills and identifying security needs,” the guide says.

The guide is online at



Percentage of students 12 to 18 years old who reported being victims of crime at school, 1995.


Percentage of students 12 to 18 years old who reported being victims of crime at school, 2003.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2005”

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