Scared or Prepared? Reducing Risks with School Security Assessments

Reprinted with the permission of
The National Association of Secondary School Principals

The High School Magazine, Vol. 6 No. 7, May/June 1999

Scared or Prepared? Reducing Risks with School Security Assessments

Pre-packaged programs look good on paper, but the most effective safety measures are the ones tailored to your school–and a comprehensive assessment will bear out your school’s needs.

By Kenneth S. Trump

You probably remember beginning your first day as a school administrator with excitement, enthusiasm, and a long list of projects to undertake as a leader of your school’s curriculum and educational support programs. But you quickly learned that your new job required much more attention than you ever imagined to discipline, the spillover of community concerns into your school, and battling the negative influences of societal ills. Then, in recent years, you have had to also become increasingly skilled as a technology guru, construction supervisor, political analyst, and financial genius.

Now, you’re discovering, it helps to be a security professional, police officer, and lawyer, as well. In fact, the safety of your students and staff members might very well depend upon your ability to evaluate, plan, and implement a comprehensive school safety program. As many school administrators struggle to learn about drug trafficking trends, gang identification, stranger danger, and the prevention of aggressive and violent behavior, even newer challenges have arrived at the schoolhouse doorway.

Homemade bombs, anthrax scares, concealed weapons, and other “new crimes for new times” now present school administrators with the formidable task of developing security and crisis preparedness guidelines at both building and district levels. Along with the “traditional” security threats, recent shifts in school violence are driving administrators in even the safest of schools and communities to realize that “it could happen here.” And staff members, students, parents, politicians, lawyers, and the media want to know what you, as a school administrator, have done to prevent these things from happening.

The sad reality is that nobody can offer a 100 percent guarantee that a violent or serious security-related incident will not occur in their school. But you can and should be prepared to identify specific steps you have taken to reduce the risks of such an incident and to prepare for managing a crisis should one occur. One of the first and most often overlooked steps in this process is assessing the security of your school.

Why Assess Security?

Imagine yourself in a room in front of several hundred parents, a dozen reporters with television cameras and lights in your face, and a person asking you, “What have you done to improve security in my child’s school?” Could you answer that question with confidence and sincerity? Could you list specific measures you have taken or would you stumble, mumble, and pray for the crowd to disappear?

Although even the most veteran administrator would understandably prefer to have the crowd simply disappear, more progressive administrators are now recognizing the need to take risk-reduction measures. Most steps taken to prevent school violence have historically focused on prevention-oriented measures like violence-prevention curriculum, or intervention-oriented approaches like conflict resolution. While these strategies are very important steps in a comprehensive safety plan, too little effort has been focused on implementing balanced, rational security measures geared to the safety of the immediate environment.

Too often, administrators fail to recognize that their 9:00 violence prevention curriculum and their 10:00 peer mediation program are likely to have minimal success if an 8:00 shooting occurs which could have been prevented by having better security measures in place. The three major reasons for conducting school security assessments include to:

  1. Prevent and, if necessary, to prepare for effectively managing violence
  2. Reduce risks and liability
  3. Improve public relations by communicating your commitment to school safety prior to a crisis.

Cost of school safety programs is often a concern, but it is important to realize that good security does not always require additional manpower and equipment. School security is much more encompassing than these components alone. When dollars are an issue, we must also examine the cost of doing nothing. Increased lawsuit and insurance claim losses due to inadequate security are the two most obvious costs. But difficulties in teacher recruitment, low staff retention, and lower student test scores top the list of the hidden costs associated with operating unsafe schools.

Schools are often the safest places in the entire community–but safer than what? If 20 kids are killed in the community and 5 kids are killed in your school, is that an acceptable level of violence? Most members of your school community will clearly say no. Surveys increasingly identify security as a major concern of students, parents, and staff. And the buck stops at the school administrator’s door in terms of leading the fight to create a secure environment.

What to Expect from an Assessment

Security assessments provide educational leaders with an audit of existing security conditions and recommendations for improving them at the building and district levels. Assessments also represent a balanced way of looking at school security, without the denial often present before a serious incident or the overreaction which typically follows a crisis. They also offer administrators a guide for both short and long-term security enhancements as a part of their strategic planning process for improving the school climate.

Too often, self-proclaimed school security experts will focus a security assessment as either a nuts-and-bolts review of physical security or as a critique of violence prevention curriculum. Some assessments, particularly those conducted by product-affiliated individuals, may be less impartial and unbiased. Security assessments should be independently conducted and process-driven, not product-oriented.

A professional school security assessment is more comprehensive than an audit focused on one particular school safety component. It should also be building and/or district-specific, reflecting an understanding that security needs and strategies often vary by community, district, and school. Checklists, templates, and “cut and paste” evaluation instruments might save an administrator time and money in the short run, but one size does not fit all and, in the end, such haste can be costly.

One superintendent best summed up the benefit of an assessment by noting that it provides “professional validation of your existing security program while offering thoughtful recommendations for ways to provide a more safe and protective environment.”

What Not To Expect

School security assessments do not, however, provide a guarantee that a security-related incident or crisis will never occur. Assessments also do not provide a panacea to prevent violence. Like any strategy, assessments are one piece of a multi-pronged approach to improving school safety.

While professional assessments identify existing practices that are on-target and should continue, as well as recommendations for procedural changes and new practices to reduce risks, they will not actually do the work for you. Implementing school security measures begins with the leadership of the board, superintendent, and principal, but also requires the full commitment and participation of all staff members (including support personnel), students, parents, emergency service personnel, and members of the broader school community. Security and crisis plans can provide the map, but the route must be followed by everyone.

Who Should Assess?

Ultimately, who is the school safety expert? The principal? A psychologist? A school security professional? A police officer?

Assessments ideally should be performed by individuals with experience in professional school security, but in cooperation with administrators, staff, and other key constituents in the school community. It is important that those conducting assessments be trained and experienced with professional security standards and in the dynamics of school operating environments. Such individuals might include in-house security staff, trained school resource officers from a local or county police agency, or an independent professional school security consultant with school-specific security experience.

Can a school administrator conduct a “self-assessment” of his or her school? Absolutely! Some aspects of good security are common sense and with an appropriate understanding of basic security principles, improvements can be made with a self-assessment. However, administrators must recognize that the outcome from a self-assessment will likely be much more limited than if the assessment were conducted by a trained school security specialist. Many checklists used in self-assessments are prepared by individuals with little to no professional school security experience, or by individuals with security experience who are unfamiliar with the unique nature of K-12 schools. Using checklists or piecemeal information will likely produce a piecemeal assessment.

Administrators’ efforts to improve school safety are more likely to be better viewed by staff members, parents, the media, and a judge or jury if they worked with a credible, trained, and experienced security professional. In our time of increased calls for accountability in education, an administrator’s willingness to open the school door to specialists will typically provide enhanced credibility and, potentially, reduced liability. If you choose to “do it yourself,” be prepared to defend your security-specific education, training, and experience as they relate to your assessment findings and recommendations.

Also, keep in mind that former educators, administrators, retired federal agents and police officers, and others with peripheral affiliations (at best) with schools are now eager to sell you their security “expertise,” regardless of whether they have any true expertise in this area. Likewise, keep in mind that vendors selling security products are, by nature, likely to have their company and product interests in the forefront when performing “assessments” on your behalf. Administrators should do their homework when selecting school security consultants to avoid potential embarrassment.

Funding Issues

Security assessments can actually help administrators receive grants and other funding for other school violence prevention initiatives. Funding sources are increasingly requiring documented evidence of a thorough assessment of violence, drug, and related concerns in schools and communities to obtain grant awards for school safety programs. A school security assessment provides concrete evidence that school officials are taking thorough, comprehensive, and sincere steps to identify potential problems and to take action to prevent school violence.

Grant funding can also be used to pay for security assessments. Some districts have used funds from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and similar programs to pay for security assessments and related training. Others collaborate with criminal justice agencies, community-based organizations, or business partners to identify funding resources.

The Assessment Process

The ideal time to conduct a security assessment is prior to a crisis or serious incident. High profile incidents tend to cloud the real issues with emotions, false perceptions, and political agendas. These obstacles can best be avoided by assessing security during the regular school year as a management function.

Assessments should be more than a mere walk-through, but less than “paralysis by analysis.” Assessment methods should include structured interviews with members of the school staff and community, analysis of policies and procedures, review of crime and discipline trends, examination of physical facilities, and an analysis of other school and community information sources. To save time and money, some consultants use a pre-assessment checklist for off-site analysis and preparation for the on-site assessment.

A decent high school assessment can typically be completed within one day on-site, plus related off-site work, the scope of which is determined in advance with the building administrator. Depending upon the size and issues involved, the actual time may be slightly more or slightly less. Middle schools can typically be done in roughly a half day and elementary schools within a couple of hours, both again depending upon the size, issues, and scope of the assessment.

Assessment Components

Professional school security assessments will cover components and questions such as:

  • Security and police staffing. Is your present staffing adequate in terms of form, organization, policies and procedures, training, etc.? Do you need more personnel or fewer, but more professional, staff members?
  • Security-related policies and procedures. Do you have policies covering the latest security threat issues? Are they adequate and practical?
  • Crisis preparedness. Do you have crisis preparedness guidelines? Are they up-to-date with current threats? Do they cover the appropriate criminal and non-criminal “what if?” situations? Does your crisis planning process cover the right steps and include the proper players?
  • Education and training. Do your administrators, staff members, and other stakeholders have adequate security and crisis preparedness training? Has the training provided been adequate or are additional sessions needed?
  • Physical security. Can improvements be made in access control procedures, intrusion detection systems, inventory and key control, perimeter security, after-hours security, physical design, etc.?
  • Personnel security. Are there adequate security measures in place addressing hiring and internal security concerns, information security, and related issues?
  • Internal and community linkages. Do security and crisis preparedness guidelines link internally with other prevention and intervention programs? Can collaboration with police, emergency service providers, social service agencies, city and regional officials, parents and residents, and other youth-service providers be improved?

Other areas examined will depend upon specific concerns and issues unique to the school and community, and the scope of the assessment agreed upon by those involved in the process.

Using the Final Product

The final security assessment report should provide findings and recommendations that can be used in both short and long-term planning. Most assessments find positive things already in place which contribute to safe schools and should not be changed. They also typically provide guidelines for improving school security, some of which are procedural and low-cost that can be done immediately, and others that may require additional time and funds to implement.

Besides serving as a strategic planning guide, assessments should be used as a risk management tool for reducing potential lawsuits, insurance claims, and similar losses. They also provide a strong public relations tool when properly used by community and media-savvy administrators. Assessments clearly demonstrate to the school community that their school administrators are genuinely concerned about school safety, accountable, and have the best interests of the students, staff members, and community at heart in managing their buildings.

Assessments should be one of four security risk-reduction areas addressed by administrators. The other three are consistent enforcement of all disciplinary policies and procedures, training and staff development on security and crisis preparedness for all staff (including support personnel), and development of crisis preparedness guidelines and teams. These four security-related areas, combined with traditional safe schools prevention and intervention programming, will provide administrators with a balanced, rational, and comprehensive safe schools plan.

Kenneth S. Trump is president and CEO of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland, Ohio-based national consulting firm specializing in school security and crisis preparedness training, assessments, and related services. He has trained and consulted for schools, law enforcement, and youth service providers in 30 states, and is author of Practical School Security: Basic Guidelines for Safe and Secure Schools (Corwin Press, 1998).

Tips for Picking a School Security Consultant

Unfortunately, recent school violence tragedies hitting the national headlines have triggered an onslaught of overnight experts and charlatans who want to conduct business with your school. When selecting a consultant to help you with school security and crisis preparedness issues you should look for:

School-specific security experience. An individual may have had an outstanding career in law enforcement or security in private industry, but that does not automatically make him or her a school security specialist. There are differences between security in K-12 schools and security in other environments. School officials should not let impressive titles and careers in other fields alone command their respect as a school security specialist. Look for school-specific security education, training, and firsthand experience. Also make sure that the school security specialist has an understanding of urban, suburban, and rural school security needs, not simply a generic “one size fits all” approach that he or she tries to force fit to your school.

Independent, non-product affiliation. Remember that equipment and product vendors have a job to do: to sell their product. Obtain an evaluation of your security needs first by an independent school security specialist not affiliated with selling a specific product, then confer with multiple vendors to see how their products, if required, meet the needs you independently identified.

Knowledge of the real world. Research, theories, and in-depth studies contribute to our knowledge of school security and related issues, but experience in these areas alone does not necessarily equate to school security expertise. Simply because someone claims to have “studied it” or “written about it” does not necessarily make them school security experts. Check to make sure that your consultants have “real world” knowledge of school issues.

Verifiable credentials, qualifications, references, and company credibility. The blurb, “attended XYZ university” does not necessarily mean that the person graduated or has a degree. General comments such as, “has more than 12 years experience in prevention,” tells little about what type of prevention, positions, or work done. Seek copies of reference letters and contact previous clients, if appropriate, rather than simply relying on a partial brochure quote. Be sure to scrutinize organizational titles such as “non-profits” and “research centers.” Are these titles simply a cover for a consulting business or being misused to enhance their credibility for convincing potential clients that they are something more than consultants? Quality consultants and firms can produce specific credentials and references, and are up-front that they are consultants who provide services to schools.

Cutting-edge knowledge and experience. Investigate consultants to make sure that they invest their time and energy full-time into their business. Is this their part-time job or hobby? Do they stay current or do they offer canned packages to all schools with only a few changes? Do they present generic, basic information (i.e., how to write an incident report) or the latest trends and strategies (how to prevent kids from misusing school technology for counterfeiting and homemade bombs)? Are they experts in everything, i.e., from curriculum to equipment, or do they identify the limits of their specialty areas ? (Hint: Few consultants are experts in everything.)


Practical Results from Security Assessments

What practical use can an administrator get out of a school security assessment? The following highlights a few real-life examples of assessment benefits:

New Information. “We think that we have a good feel for our security needs, but you might find something new that we’ve missed,” noted an administrator of one vocational school who asked us to perform an independent security assessment. One assessment finding definitely provided the principal with some new information: His concern about the thefts of supplies from his shop classes, which he had attributed to suspected use outside of the school at the homes or side jobs of students, was actually related to a drug problem. Student, staff members, and police interviews helped determine that there was a growing inhalant abuse problem in the community which had spilled into the school. Students were reportedly stealing glue and other shop supplies not for theft and outside work use, but for getting high, as one student noted. The assessment recommended that the principal not only tighten the supply security, but also create a substance abuse program geared to prevent and intervene with student inhalant abuse.

Professional Focus and Validation. “I’m think that we are too close to see the forest for the trees. I might be missing something that will come back to haunt me,” an administrator noted at the time he requested an assessment. The assessment results actually found that school officials were right on target with their balanced security, prevention, and intervention efforts, and identified additional future steps which could be taken to solidify their program. The assessment put everyone at ease by providing specific observations and recommendations from an independent, professional source, while validating that they were, indeed, on target with their current efforts.

Community Education and Public Relations Resource. In two unrelated districts, the superintendents and principals had experienced a great deal of pressure after their schools came under community and media scrutiny for increased discipline statistics, a couple of higher-profile violence incidents, and related local and national attention to school safety in general. Both districts called for an independent consultant to assess their security and to provide training programs to staff members, parents, and the community. The consultant’s assessment findings, combined with a balanced education presentation for members of the school community, helped administrators put the issues into perspective, calm unnecessary panic and alarm, and identify specific steps that school officials, law enforcement, parents, and the community could take to address school and community safety in a balanced manner. These efforts restored public confidence, took some steam out of the media, and got the schools back in focus and on track.


© 1999 National Association of Secondary School Principals