The Three 'R's Now Include an 'S' for Security
Times have changed, and life has changed in schools throughout the world since April 20, 1999, the day of the fatal attacks at Columbine High School in unincorporated Jefferson County, Colorado. Concerns over student safety and security have risen perceptibly, bolstered further by more recent examples of school violence around the United States and abroad.
These incidents have led to a broader awareness among school and district personnel, as well as parents and students, about the need for a well thought out emergency response program—not just for the unpredictable incidents that occasionally make the national news, but also for the more mundane potentialities that can threaten student safety.
But what are the ingredients of a good crisis response plan? Obviously there's no way to tell how effective a plan is until it's put to the test. But if you ask those who are involved with emergency response in the districts that have been through the worst-possible-case scenario, the plan must combine deterrence with human response, technology with law enforcement--all balanced with a view toward preserving the comfort and privacy of the students themselves.
"Columbine High School was the catalyst for improving and focusing on school security throughout the world," said Gregg Bramblett, executive director of safety, security, and emergency planning for Jefferson County Schools, the largest school district in Colorado. Previously, law enforcement utilized a "time, talk, and tactic" approach when responding to crisis management issues. Today, they use a rapid deployment tactic.
Today, said Bramblett, we have increased vigilance when protecting children from Kindergarten through 12th grade. We have learned a lot and have incorporated an intensified level of security measures while enhancing regular dialogue between law enforcement, "first responders," principals, school staffs ,and security.
Large and small school districts alike have extensively prepared comprehensive crisis management plans. "Crisis Response Teams" at the respective schools regularly participate in "table top exercises" and engage in ongoing mandatory drills with law enforcement and other "first responders" to increase their familiarity with the facility and communications skills and address numerous scenarios and how the staff would respond.
The lessons of Columbine and other school tragedies have initiated development of highly sophisticated communications and surveillance technology. However, this surveillance technology is limited by the human element and interaction.
Many private schools, along with school districts, have installed state of the art technology that employs digital audio and video recording units. Many systems feature surveillance cameras, including dome units, "dime-sized microphones," and remote monitoring capabilities from multi-fixed monitoring stations. Only computers with authorized software and select key personnel can access and view the real-time audio and video streaming.
"High tech security and surveillance can assist to a degree in prevention of incidents. However the most integral element in security is that students and staff be aware and ‘challenge' any individuals who do not belong on school grounds," said Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener, who handled the Platte Canyon High School tragedy. The elementary school is seven miles from the middle and high school.
Incorporating Common Sense with Technology
Everyone needs to be "situationally aware" of individuals and things out of the ordinary and immediately notify the school staff. "This three-school campus has initiated a new, successful program, ‘Parents at the Door.' This program has volunteers located at the doors, freeing up staff resources to monitor other activities," said Wegener, who encourages everyone to use common sense assessment when they see strangers.
The lack of staff resources and budgetary issues often provide hurdles to obtaining security technology. This stumbling block can be addressed by "partnering" amongst colleagues in security and law enforcement and customizing a system addressing the most essential technological needs that are affordable, said Bramblett.
The Park County School District in the mountains of Colorado has an extremely limited budget for security. In response to events in that district, American Video Electronics Inc. (AVEI) of Denver offered to provide security technology and installation of a comprehensive and pricey system.
This gratis gesture will provide top of the line surveillance cameras and monitoring stations for the three-school K-12 campus. This spring it should be operational, and the fixed monitoring stations will include each school, the district security office, and the Park County Sheriff's Office.
This new system will enable select law enforcement officials, including the Sheriff, real-time audio and video monitoring capabilities. The Sheriff will now have the ability to monitor events from his laptop as they unfold while enroute to the scene. This technology will aid the Sheriff and his deputies in a implementing a timely and professional response, said Pil Yoo, vice president of AVEI.
Parents Have the Expectation of Safe Schools
One issue that arises frequently is the right of privacy and video and audio surveillance in schools. In Jefferson County this issue was addressed by the security staff that researched, drafted, and adopted a district-wide policy on security surveillance, said Bramblett. The policy clearly noted what areas would areas be included and excluded for surveillance, security measures, storage, and the limited personnel who had access to the monitoring.
Additionally, Jefferson County has installed "red phones" that operate on a dedicated phone line connected with the district's superintendent and the security dispatch center. They have also installed phone systems that are "outside the major trunk lines" to enhance security, said Bramblett. Other districts require students and staff to openly display ID badges while also utilizing card access and metal detectors.
It is essential for school security and law enforcement officials to "get into the loop," said Bramblett. There is a wealth of current information on the Web and from the U.S. Department of Education.
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