School safety experts weigh-in on lockdown solutions

Barbara Johansson

Increasingly, schools world-wide are “locking down” in response to personal safety threats. Threats ranging from medical emergencies, irate parents, and gangs in the community, to more serious active assailant threats. Threats from individuals who use weapons – guns, knives, explosives, acids, and even vehicles – to inflict deadly physical force on others. Sadly, their targets are all too often children. There are a wide variety of “lockdown solutions” available on the market, which can be overwhelming for schools trying to create safer learning environments. We asked a panel of school safety experts to share their insights on best practices and technology for school lockdown.

What’s the best lockdown solution?

While some may view lockdown solutions in terms of hardware and technology, our experts advocate a more comprehensive approach – viewing lockdown as a combination of people, processes and technology.

It is important to note that technology alone offers little or no value if people don’t know how to use it, or it’s not integrated into a broader plan. As one of our experts points out, even the best door lock is useless if someone props open the door.

Our experts share the following advice on developing an effective lockdown strategy to minimize personal safety threats in school.

Get a qualified vulnerability assessment

Considering no two schools are the same, a physical security professional certified in vulnerability assessment can help identify specific safety risks that may expose students and staff to an active assailant threat. Risks that include:

  • Vulnerabilities in the design of the school’s physical environment – such as a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window next to the locked entrance door.
  • “Human error” risks from inadequate training – like a custodian politely holding open a door for an unknown visitor.
  • Risks from outdated or non-functional technology – like the forgotten classroom intercom that’s hidden behind a large stack of books.

Identifying safety vulnerabilities will help schools better prioritize their budgets and technology procurement. But more than that, it will highlight where additional safety protocols or training may be needed.

Develop an emergency preparedness plan

While they may not be standardized (even in the US where active assailant lockdown drills are common), most schools are required to have a documented emergency preparedness plan. Ideally, this plan addresses any number of emergencies. But specifically for a lockdown situation, the plan should include protocols to address all phases of a threat – from the moment it begins, until after it is neutralized, people are evacuated, and children are safely reunited with their families.

Our experts recommend developing this plan jointly with local law enforcement, first responders and community leaders to ensure that in the event of a crisis, ALL relevant stakeholders have a common understanding and can work together in an organized and efficient manner.

Educate and train all stakeholders

Ensuring the best possible outcome in the event of an actual threat requires education and training. Lots of it.

For those inside the school facing a threat – students, teachers, administrators and staff – it’s important to know where to seek shelter… how to secure the area… how to respond when danger is imminent… when it is/isn’t okay to unlock doors… how to stay informed… where to escape… how to behave when meeting armed law enforcement… evacuation and reunification procedures…

It’s a lot to remember, so training is an integral and vital part of the process. As previous tragedies have shown, in an emergency, even the youngest of children do what they are trained to do.

Outside of school, law enforcement and first responders must also practice rapid response and crisis management. Parents need to be familiar with reunification protocols. Even those in the surrounding community play a role – making sure they take personal safety precautions and helping rather than hindering first responders.

It’s a long chain of events. There are a lot of people involved, and always a new face. With so much at stake, regular training can be lifesaving.

Restrict access to unwanted visitors

Restricting access to unwanted visitors can prevent a threat from ever entering the school.

A secure vestibule is the first line of defense. Defined as a secured space with two of more sets of locked doors and an office sign-in area, the secure vestibule should be the single point of entry for any visitors or late arriving students. Installing automatic locks on all exterior doors helps ensure that the secure vestibule is the only point of access.

At the office sign-in area, visitors should be registered using a school visitor management system which enables schools to match children with custodial parents and check sex offender databases, as well as create visitor badges, reports and instant notifications.

However, securing only exterior doors is not enough if the threat comes from within the school.  For this reason, it is also important that schools have interior locking capability of interior doors. Sadly, many schools still have classroom doors that require staff to step out into the hallway to lock the doors – posing an obvious safety threat in an active assailant situation. We examine the pros and cons of automatic locks on interior doors in a separate article.

Communicate with all stakeholders

Sharing important information with the people who need it – students, staff, first responders, parents & media – can be key in a lockdown situation. Our experts recommend an integrated communication system – one that includes a public address solution for school-wide communication – accessible both from the front office as well as from a SIP enabled phone or device. They also recommend supplementing traditional public address with electronic signage & strobe lights (both inside and outside the school), as well as two-way communication between classrooms and the front office via radio or intercom systems.

Communicating with stakeholders outside of school is equally important. A duress button (in Germany, an “Amok alarm”) can immediately notify law enforcement of an imminent threat and further trigger standardized protocols or pre-recorded messages. A parent notification system alerts parents to a lockdown situation and provides them with reunification information, thus keeping them away from a locked down school where they could potentially hinder first responders. Additional integration with EMS notification systems helps spread reliable information throughout the community and to media.

Visualize threats

Our experts also recommend video surveillance to monitor threats – and that video be accessible by law enforcement in a lockdown situation.  Understandably, video surveillance of children is a sensitive issue, but with safety being paramount, our experts advocate video monitoring in key locations – such as school entrances and hallways.  In a lockdown situation, video monitoring activated by an emergency call or duress alarm, can provide law enforcement vital real-time images, revealing the nature of the threat, the number and description of any perpetrators, their location in the school, and information about any weapons that may be involved.

If the cameras are also equipped with audio capability, police can hear what is happening even beyond the camera’s field of view. A variety of audio and video analytics are available to help create early threat awareness. For example, in a related blog, we detail how a sound detection analytic can generate an immediate alert if it detects breaking glass, aggression, or a gunshot – giving security officers and law enforcement as much time as possible to respond to the threat.

Make sure everyone is accounted for

Schools are responsible for the children in their care. And in a lockdown situation, teachers need to account for the whereabouts of their students. When lockdown is used in response to an active assailant threat, the schools’ liability for student whereabouts extends beyond lockdown to evacuation and final reunification with parents. With a cloud-based student accountability app, teachers can access class lists and update student locations directly from a smart phone or tablet. They can also check to see if any missing students are accounted for by a teacher in a different classroom.

It is important to note that these are a few suggestions for creating safer learning environments and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for comprehensive school security. To find the best solution for your school, please consult a physical security expert, and regularly test and review your security protocol.

Our school safety experts

Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe & Sound Schools, is all too familiar with how school safety vulnerabilities can be exploited, having lost her daughter Josephine in the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Subsequently, Michelle has become a passionate advocate for school safety, speaking frequently with law enforcement, educators, parents and communities.

Paul Timm, a board certified Physical Security Professional (PSP), is an active member of the ASIS School Safety & Security Council and author of the book “School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program”. He is also certified in Vulnerability Assessment Methodology and has helped numerous schools with safety planning and crisis assistance support.

Kevin Wren, Director of Risk, Security, and Emergency Management at Rock Hill School District, has a long history in law enforcement and school security.  Named by Campus Safety Magazine as K-12 Director of the Year in 2016, Kevin uses technology to improve school safety and extend the effectiveness of a lean security team.

For more insight from Michele, Paul and Kevin, watch highlights from the 2018 Axis School Safety Summit: