The Evolution of Educational Safety

Gaining Unauthorized Access

Despite pressure on school security improvements by the public and manufacturers, recent surveys of school resource officers suggest there is still immense room for improvement. According to a National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) study, 83 percent of school resource officers believe it is very easy or somewhat easy to gain unauthorized access to the inside of schools during school hours.

Recognizing the potential impact of security technology on our nation’s schools, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) published a research report in 1999 on The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools: This comprehensive guide includes an overview of security technology applications in educational settings and provides detailed information on several technologies for video surveillance, metal detection, entry control, and duress alarms.

The guide’s primary limitation is the same one inherent in any state-of-the-art-technology-it rapidly becomes outdated. The past four years have seen the development of some new technologies and the maturing of other technologies that were in their infancy when the NIJ guide was published.

Additionally, some technologies-such as the smart card with on-board memory and virtually unlimited applications-showed great promise but have not penetrated the school security market to the extent predicted. This article reviews some newer technologies and products that have found successful applications in institutional projects.

Keep in mind the caveat in the NIJ guide: "Security technologies are not the answer to all school security problems."

Video Surveillance

A combination of video technology and market forces combined to reduce the cost of color cameras, so that should now be considered the standard for indoor surveillance. Improved color camera resolution has virtually eliminated the resolution advantage of black and white cameras.

For exterior surveillance, color cameras still lack the ability to compensate for expected variations in illumination, but the recent advent of the day-night switching camera provides the best of both worlds. This camera transmits full color images in favorable lighting conditions, and automatically switches to black and white mode for improved performance when illumination is below a threshold.

Personal computer technology and digital signal processing advances have completely changed the face of video recording. Digital video recording is cost effective and provides significant operational benefits compared to traditional video recording on magnetic videotape.

Because of the low cost and high capacity of hard drive storage, a system administrator can archive a month’s worth of recorded video on recordable digital audio tape (DAT) or DVD, a vast improvement over the daily changeover of videotapes that is often necessary with traditional videocassette recorders. In addition, the maintenance burden for digital video recorders is much less than for videocassette recorders, and digital recordings do not degrade over time. However, one aspect of digital video recording that should be kept in mind is its susceptibility to alteration. If a situation arises where evidence must be submitted to a court for legal proceedings, its susceptibility to alteration can affect legal standing.

One final video technology deserves mention: the Internet Protocol (IP) video surveillance camera. An IP video camera delivers a digitized video signal directly to a LAN, WAN, or the Internet, allowing placement of a camera anywhere with network connectivity (which is most everywhere in the modern educational setting). This technology has been boosted by the proliferation of higher speed networks, and it will continue to grow in functionality.

Entry Control

Exit doors are designed to facilitate safe egress of building occupants under any number of emergency situations. This situation is especially problematic in urban settings where the exit door may be near public areas and outsiders might approach without seeming out of place. An appropriate technology to address this situation is delayed egress hardware.

Several hardware manufacturers offer panic bars with integrated electronics. When the bar is pushed for three or more seconds an alarm sounds to begin an irreversible process to unlock the door in 15 seconds. Alarm contacts can be connected to a central security monitoring system for remote alarming or interfaced to a video surveillance system for camera call-up or to initiate higher frame speed on a video recording system.

Delayed egress locking arrangements are designed to comply with National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code as well as many local building codes, but requirements vary between jurisdictions so it is essential to confirm local requirements. Some important considerations in the application of delayed egress locks include:

  • Typically not permitted in assembly occupancies such as an auditorium.
  • Must be connected to the building fire alarm system.
  • Must "fail safe" – unlock on loss of power or fire. The door can still be locked from the exterior, but it must unlock in the egress direction. In other words, only the delay feature must be disabled on loss of power or fire alarm.
  • Only one delayed egress door permitted in any path of exit.
  • Must have specific signage posted at the delayed egress door.

What is the cost-benefit of this type of special locking arrangement? According to the Security Industry Association, security officers in educational institutions were among the highest paid, with annual salary close to $30,000. The payback can be substantial if delayed egress locks are implemented as an alternative to increased security staffing.

Duress Alarms

Duress alarms of various types can be very effective emergency communication tools. One of the current applications not covered by the NIJ guide is the use of emergency call boxes (ECBs), which can be exceptionally effective especially in parking areas and other remote campus areas. Several manufacturers offer ECBs with pushbutton duress alarms coupled with voice communication to a call center or dispatch center.

The ECB may be mounted to a building or other structure, or may be provided as a freestanding element. Rotating beacon lights activated by the duress button are available and help response personnel identify the correct location without delay. While ECBs are normally hard wired for power and signals, solar-powered versions with digital cellular communication are available for truly remote locations. Interior applications should be considered where the voice communication capability of an ECB would be beneficial compared to a standard duress pushbutton.

James R. Lindquist, PE, is a principal and director of electrical services at Kling, a firm providing architecture, engineering, interiors, and planning services.