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
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:
- Prevent and, if necessary, to prepare for effectively managing violence
- Reduce risks and liability
- 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. (Click here
for further benefits and
results of school security assessments.)
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
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. (Click here
for tips on selecting
a school security consultant.)
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.
Professional school security assessments will cover components and questions
- 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,
- Security-related policies and procedures. Do you
have policies covering the latest security threat issues? Are they adequate
- 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
- 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
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
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