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Safe Entry, Easy Exit

Safe Entry, Easy Exit

Bolstering security at campus doors is critical for schools and universities.

After violent episodes too numerous to list and too terrible to forget, schools and universities have been focused for several years on enhancing security in their facilities.

Doors are among the most critical points of concern for school personnel responsible for keeping buildings safe. Education institutions want doors that let the right people in and keep the wrong people out. Well-designed, properly secured doors supplemented by equipment that wards off intruders, controls access and prevents damage can help educators provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning.

Ins and outs

The paradox of door safety for schools and universities is that the doors should be designed and built so that it's hard for people to get in, yet easy for them to get out.

In a publication released earlier this year, “Door Locking Options in Schools,” the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities spells out the characteristics that ensure a door will control who and what gets into a school building. Administrators should consider “the strength, durability and composition of a door, its hinges and frames, and the effectiveness of its latching and locking hardware.”

From a fire-safety perspective, doors are for getting out. “In occupied buildings, egress doors can prevent entry, but they can never prevent exit,” the NCEF says. “This iron-clad rule is the product of over a century of fire-safety regulation, molded by numerous tragic and sometimes horrendous building fires, and refined by decades of research and experience.”

That means, according to the International Building Code, that “egress doors shall be readily openable from the egress side without the use of a key or special knowledge or effort.”

Having doors that are easy to open from the inside of a school makes it simple for students to defeat carefully designed exterior door security — on a whim or in a moment of inattention they may let in someone who doesn't belong.

To help prevent such security breaches, many schools and universities choose to enhance the security features of their exterior doors by installing the latest technology and equipment, and incorporating crime-prevention strategies.

Enhancing access control

The security industry has devised many systems and strategies that help schools overcome the breaches that can occur when a door system by itself is not sufficient to deter unwanted visitors. Among those:

  • Fewer doors

    The more exterior doors, the harder it is for a school's staff to monitor traffic in and out of a facility. Security experts recommend that schools limit entry to one main entrance, especially after classes are in session. Other doors should be locked so that outsiders can't enter. Some schools and universities, in a misguided effort to discourage intruders from entering through a door, especially one with a faulty locking mechanism, have used chains and padlocks to block access by outsiders. That violates the fire-code provision calling for readily openable egress doors.

  • Card systems

    A reader outside a door detects information held on a swipe card or proximity card and can unlock an entry door for those authorized to come into a building. The computerized systems can quickly update or delete a user's access privileges so that schools and universities can immediately deactivate a lost or stolen card. Cancelling a lost access card is less costly than having to re-key one or more locks in the event of a lost key.

    Many card systems also enable school administration to establish different levels of access depending on the person, the time of day, or the area of the building. Still, card systems can be defeated. A card reader recognizes only the information on the card; it can't tell whether the appropriate person is using the card.

  • Keypads

    At some doors, a keypad system controls access. Employees and others authorized to enter are given a passcode that they enter on the keypad; the correct code unlocks the door. Like card systems, keypads eliminate problems associated with lost or stolen keys. Schools using a keypad system don't have to worry about lost cards, but the systems can be compromised if employees provide their code numbers to unauthorized users.

  • Biometrics

    Biometric systems use measurements of people's unique body characteristics to determine their identity and grant them access into a facility. The most common biometric system used is the scanning of hands or fingers. A scanner records an image of the hand or finger of someone seeking entry, and the system determines if the scan matches any of the people in its database of those allowed entry. This summer, the University of Florida in Gainesville switched from card access to hand scanners at its recreation center to cut down on unauthorized people using student IDs to enter the center.

    Biometric systems solve the problem of users sharing their cards or passcodes, but some have raised privacy concerns about whether schools and universities should be collecting personal identifying information from employees, students, parents, vendors and other campus visitors.

  • Lighting

    Providing plenty of light to the area around an exterior entrance can deter someone trying to break into a facility or vandalize a door.

  • Video surveillance

    The increasing affordability of digital video systems has enabled schools and universities to install many surveillance cameras on their campuses. Video monitoring of doors, especially in remote areas of a building, help discourage intruders from entering a facility, and provide evidence of unauthorized entry when it does occur.

  • Alarms

    To combat unauthorized door-propping or detect a faulty door system that fails to close correctly, schools can outfit doors with alarms that notify the central office or security personnel when the door remains open too long.

  • Intercoms

    An intercom system can be used at a school entrance so that administrative employees can determine who is seeking entry before unlocking a door. A video camera that provides visual confirmation of the person's identity enhances the effectiveness of the intercom.

  • Crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED)

    Strategies such as making sure an entrance can be easily observed can discourage unwanted visitors from trying to enter a building. A school should situate its administrative office so that workers have a clear view of the main entrance; the entrance should be free of obstructions from bushes or other landscaping.

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

Break the chain

After taking control of Washington, D.C., schools last year, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty learned that the city's fire marshal had found nearly 2,500 code violations at schools, including the use of chains and padlocks to secure many of the exterior doors at Ballou High School.

That prompted the mayor to form an interagency task force to address security and life-safety needs in school facilities. The result is a $5 million plan to replace doors at several campuses and provide security more sophisticated — and safer — than chains and padlocks. Eight high schools — Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn, Roosevelt, Dunbar, Wilson, Coolidge and Cardozo — and Johnson Middle School have been outfitted with doors that have a delayed-egress locking system that will alert school officials when a door remains open for more than 15 seconds.

The district also has installed automated recording cameras at all of the nine schools' door locations, and card-reader systems that will facilitate access to the school by district administrators and maintenance staff.

Percentage of public schools that controlled access to school buildings by locking or monitoring doors during school hours, 2005-06.

Percentage of public schools that controlled access to school grounds with locked or monitored gates, 2005-06.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2007”

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