School Climate & Safety

Districts Invest in New Measures to Boost Security

By Michele Molnar — September 24, 2013 9 min read
Brian Reale picks up his daughter Catherine at Huckleberry Hill Elementary School in Brookfield, Conn., last week. Mr. Reale waited in a double-entryway, which is part of a security measure put in place by the Brookfield public schools. The district is just 11 miles from Newtown, where 26 people were shot and killed last December.
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Schools across the United States have invested millions of dollars in heightened security measures for this school year, prompted in part by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that took the lives of 20 children and six adults last December.

A flurry of back-to-school media reports indicate that districts are making significant security system purchases—from adding high-tech “visitor management” systems that use Web-based screening to check identification cards for registered sex offenders and custody issues, to the latest video surveillance and communication systems. They are fortifying entrances with bullet-resistant film on glass, and adding panic buttons, door locks, and keyless entry systems. Plus, they are budgeting money to hire personnel—from specially trained school police officers to security guards—to try to keep staff members and students safe.

Bulletproof Whiteboards

And recently, new entrants into the “school safety” market are selling bulletproof whiteboards, ranging in size from 18-inch-by-20-inch handheld versions to panels large enough that they could be used to cover doors.

HABCO Industries, a company in Glastonbury, Conn., is offering a briefcase with an 800,000-volt stun gun, pepper spray, a smoke grenade, and a 13-foot window ladder for escapes, among other items. Still other companies are marketing bulletproof student backpacks to parents.

“After any high-profile shooting, we typically see a flurry of vendors trying to take existing products they sell in other industries and apply them to schools, opening a new market within their business specifically targeting the pre-K through 12 environment,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “They see dollars. What they don’t understand is that school districts, by and large, don’t have dollars.”

Yet even for those districts that have money, deciding how to spend it can be a trade-off. Two mothers who lost their children in the Sandy Hook shootings have taken on the issue of school security with Safe and Sound, a Newtown, Conn.-based nonprofit they launched last spring to inform and inspire communities to boost school security.

“Too often, people say, ‘We just spent half a million dollars on an ID scanner, so we’re OK now.’ They need to be thinking much more holistically” about layers of security, versus one-off solutions, said Michele Gay, a co-founder of Safe and Sound, whose daughter Josephine Grace was killed in the Sandy Hook shootings.

Asked what might have made a difference on Dec. 14 when a 20-year-old assailant stormed the school, Ms. Gay said, “I would have liked to see reinforced glass at the front entrance. We had a wonderful single-point of entry building. All visitors had to come in the front door. It was locked and you had to be buzzed in,” she said. Still, the gunman was able to gain access by shooting out the windows, which were not reinforced.

Adding so-called “prop and lock” doors that could have been shut and locked immediately in an emergency also would have bought time for children to hide, said Alissa Parker, a co-founder of Safe and Sound whose daughter Emilie died in the rampage. “What we found in looking at other instances of school shootings is that a locked door is a deterrent,” she added. “It’s not about finding the most expensive gadget out there. It’s about having simple, good, safety practices and making them a habit.”

In nearby Brookfield, Conn., the Sandy Hook rampage reverberated for its horror and its proximity. Since then, $350,000 has been approved to buttress security at the community’s four schools.

“At every school, we ‘hardened’ our entrances, adding a double-level buzzer system, so only the staff lets you in after you show a set of ID in the vestibule,” said Arthur W. Colley, the district’s director of finance, technology, and operations. Adding reinforcing products, they made the glass on the school windows blast-resistant. “We walked a fine line to strike a balance between good security, and keeping the schools open and welcoming.”

The district made one other investment related to security: It hired another social worker. “I really believe this isn’t just about making your building more secure,” said superintendent Anthony J. Bivona. “I can’t reiterate enough the importance of mental-health services.”

Tracking Spending

Tracking school expenditures on security nationally is difficult, because most districts do not assign budget codes associated with it, according to Karen J. DeAngelis, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester who co-authored “The Hidden Cost of School Security,” a research study published in the Journal of Education Finance in 2011. She and her fellow researchers examined Texas school-security spending, because it was the only state that requires districts to assign a separate budget code for such costs.

“In Texas, as of 2008-09, schools were spending a relatively small percentage of their operating budgets on school-security measures—about one-third of 1 percent overall,” she said. While that cost might sound insignificant, Ms. DeAngelis said it represents about “three times what was spent on social-work services” for students.

On average, Texas districts spent $28.49 per pupil on security measures. Disparities were found, however, with urban districts spending nearly 0.83 percent of their operating budget on security, compared with the 0.31 percent state average.

Their analysis also looked at the use of full-time security personnel: In Texas, one full-time school security person was hired for every 700 students, compared with the U.S. average of one for every 1,000 students.

While it is too soon to say precisely how schools are allocating security funds in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, there are some indications of increased activity—if not dramatically different spending.

Kevin Quinn, the president of the Association of School Resource Officers in Hoover, Ala., reports an increase in demand for the basic and advanced training police officers receive to focus on policing in a school setting. “Historically, we don’t do a whole lot of classes this time of year. Right now, we have 15 courses on the calendar between now and January,” he said.

At the Texas School Safety Center—one of 26 such statewide centers in the country—Director Victoria L. Calder reports hearing from districts that they are spending more in this area, largely because of what happened at Sandy Hook. “Some are increasing school resource officers. Others are adding solutions like apps, access control, metal detectors, as well as taking ‘target hardening’ measures to make schools less of a soft target,” she said. Simply adding lights to a dark parking lot would be one way to improve security, for instance, she said.

The Association of School Business Officials International, a Reston, Va.-based organization for school business managers, posted an inquiry to its listserv on Sept. 13, asking “Are you spending more on security this year or seeing a greater emphasis on implementing (or strict adherence to) policies and procedures related to school security?”, and eight respondents indicated that their districts are working on improved security, although most indicated they had already started putting measures in place before the Sandy Hook shootings.

The Montana legislature passed a law in the 2013 legislative session requiring districts to adopt a school-safety plan on or before July 1, 2014, with revenue transfer permission to pay for planned improvements so taxes would not be increased. Alaska is making $21 million worth of capital grants available to schools for safety and security after the need for enhancements was identified through a superintendents’ survey. Beaverton, Ore., meanwhile, is seeking a security expert, through a request for proposal, who can help prepare safety and security standards and advise about expenditures from upcoming bond issues in 2014 and 2018.

Sometimes, school districts have been prompted to invest in more security after incidents.

In the Baltimore County public schools in Maryland, for instance, a 15-year-old student brought in a shotgun to Perry Hall High School on the first day of school in 2012. As a teacher attempted to wrestle it away, the gun discharged, injuring another student, who recovered and is now back in school, according to Richard L. Gay, the purchasing manager for the district. (He is not related to Michele Gay.)

Video Surveillance

The incident prompted the superintendent of the 108,000-student system to create a new school safety and security department, which launched an assessment of security needs. This summer, a $3 million integrated, Internet protocol-based video surveillance system was installed to enhance existing video capabilities at 109 elementary schools and special education facilities, and to integrate the video system into 26 middle schools and 26 high schools. Beyond those measures, the district has invested in a Raptor visitor-management system, which is the system screening identification cards for known sex offenders and custody orders, costing $280,000 the first year, then an $83,500 per year annual fee for the next four years. And, the district plans to put out an RFP for a single-identity card system for students, staff, contractors, and volunteers.

More than half of the country’s schools used security cameras and two-way radios, as of 2008-09, according to the study co-authored by Ms. DeAngelis.

The market for security systems integration in educational institutions is predicted to expand to $4.9 billion in 2017, an 81.5 percent increase from $2.7 billion last year, according to “Vertical Insights: Video Surveillance & Security in Education,” a report issued this summer by IHS, an Englewood, Colo.-based information and analytics firm. The growth is a combined projection for both K-12 and higher education purchases.

Mr. Colley from Brookfield, Conn., said video cameras are often discussed, but they are a lower priority for his district. “Video doesn’t stop anybody from doing anything,” he said.

But that perspective varies from district to district. In New York, voters in the 3,300-student South Orangetown Central school district approved a $1 million capital expenditure in May that includes enhanced closed-circuit monitors as one of several security upgrades.

Superintendent Ken Mitchell said communicating with the community is important, including sharing statistics about the likelihood of a violent incident.

“We upgrade our facilities on a regular basis. We’re getting more sophisticated in terms of providing keying systems,” said Mr. Mitchell, who in 2009 was taken hostage by a parent with a gun who was upset about a flu memo.

After about a half hour locked in a room, the irate father put his gun down, Mr. Mitchell knocked it away, then tackled and subdued the intruder until the police arrived.

“It’s difficult to guarantee [safety] 100 percent,” observed Mr. Mitchell. But, he added, “you have to do what you can to reduce the percentage” of exposure to potential harm.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as Districts Invest in New Measures to Boost Security


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