Q&A: Back to School

Security Expert Encourages Officials to Take Initiative
FielPatrick Fiel, public safety advisor at ADT Security Systems, has more than 30 years of experience with security and law enforcement, including six years as executive director of school security for the Washington, D.C., public school system.

In Washington, Fiel managed 163 campuses with more than 70,000 students and a staff of 365 security officers. He implemented a comprehensive safety and security program that helped to reduce incidents by 31 percent and served as a coordinator between the school district and city government.

Fiel recently spoke at the annual School Facilities Forum, hosted by Network Forums. He sat down with School Construction News after his presentation to discuss current trends in school security.

Q: Have you seen an increase in school violence?

A: We have more than 1,300 colleges that we work with on a daily basis and we work with more than 15,000 schools. There are a lot of school out there that still need security solutions that don’t know what direction to work in.

Security is still a concern. There are so many ills of the community that affect schools nowadays. If someone can walk into a school without access control, theoretically, it is unsafe.

In the last couple of weeks, we have had more than 50 lockdowns because of suspected criminals in the area of a school. School officials need to ask themselves if they can truly go into a lockdown with secured doors.

Q: You advise that school officials should think outside the box. How should they do that?

A: You have to be the one to step up to the plate and take responsibility. You have to take control and set standards, and your friends and peers will follow. You also have to have accountability.

You can take small steps to reduce incidents. You can make partnerships with manufactures; you don’t need a $1 million system. Find the right application and solution, get parents and students involved and make a decision.

The problem that often occurs with new security applications is we don’t tell anybody about them, and then people are left wondering what it’s all about. That creates miscommunication.

I go out and have a town hall meeting or have a school presentation to explain that we are protecting the assets of the kids and teachers. You have to have a buy in and the stakeholders have to be part of it. If not, it will be your worst nightmare.

Q: What are some no-cost solutions?

A: A no-cost solution is crime prevention through environmental design. You can look at landscaping. Look at high-brush areas and areas with a lot of foliage and clean them up immediately.

If you trim brush areas up three feet from the ground, you can see someone’s feet and body. Vegetation should also not reach rooflines to prevent people from climbing on top of buildings.

There are a lot of open campuses still. School officials should look at ways to funnel pedestrian traffic to one specific location.

Stop having the mentality that an emergency is not going to happen; start thinking that it might happen and how are you prepared.

The worst thing that can happen right now on a campus is an active shooter — when there is an active shooter on campus and that shooter has not been located. You have to make decisions and put a plan in place.

We are learning that a lot of campuses rely on police to do all of the work. The police are going to do their part, but that whole campus does not belong to the police.

A lot of schools already have plans to keep people off campus while attending major sporting events. Officials can redefine those plans and apply them to a potential crisis. Ideally, you would like to push a button and all of the gates around a campus would close, but that is not realistic. Using available resources and manpower is realistic.

Q: Communication is also an important component.

A: I believe in speaking verbatim English during a crisis to tell you exactly what is happening. I don’t have a code red or code blue. You need to have a clear, defined message that is passed along in a variety of ways.

Mass-notification solutions to notify everybody — via PDA, cell phone and everything of that nature — are inexpensive.
Q: Are you finding more interest in that area?

A: Everywhere we go, people are interested in that aspect. People just need to understand that as a resource, and they have to understand that technology is a resource. Technology can support you and meet your needs.

How do you communicate to a 100 people within a minute? Are you going to pick up a telephone and dial 100 lines? No. That is impractical nowadays, so you have to have solutions that are available that allow you to press one or two buttons to get everybody on a conference call.
Time is critical during a crisis, and it’s critical to get a response and control of a situation.
Q: What are the best methods to get grants for schools security?

A: Several federal departments have grants continuously throughout the year. Schools have to be prepared for when they become available because everyone is going to compete for the funds. We recommend doing an evaluation and assessment so you can meet the grant requirements.

Q: Is the trend toward community-based schools a catalyst for re-evaluating security?

A: The key word is “community.” Schools have always been in the community; now they are just open longer since the community is invited on campus to participate in activities.
You have to create some new measures since security needs are extended from eight hours to 24 hours, but you can get support from the community through building-use agreements that cover utility and security costs. It’s all part of the process and very effective.
Schools should use their own security for after-hours events, not the visitor’s security. Personnel will put in overtime, as needed, because this is your campus and who knows the campus better than you?
Q: You mentioned the violent street gang MS-13 in your presentation. Is that gang particularly prevalent at schools?

A: Gangs nowadays are younger than ever before and if they are ages six to 18, they are supposed to be in school. School officials should makes sure they understand gangs and they should go to local law enforcement agencies to find out what gangs are active near their campus.

You have to put measures toward that because students are sometimes also gangbangers. You have to have a good plan in reference to policies and procedures: no tagging, no colors and no markings on their body.

Sporting events are very critical because you have athletes and parents going to sporting events, along with gang members who are looking for trouble. Gangs don’t just pop up overnight, they are embedded in the school system and you need to know who they are.

Q: You recommend that schools get into the heads of gang members. How should they do that?

A: You have to understand where they are coming from and their culture. They don’t have the parenting that people you used to have, and the gang is like a family for them. You have to understand how they were raised and what their culture is about before you can really go after them.

But, the bottom line is, I think the majority of kids that are in gangs in schools today could be salvageable. In D.C., we monitored and made sure they weren’t doing gang activities while on school grounds and if they did, they were suspended or expelled. Unfortunately, that is the critical component of it.

Q: So if they are still in school, you think there is a chance for them to get out of that lifestyle?

A: All kids are salvageable; you have to give them a chance. You can build a relationship with a child and be a mentor. We had some kids that could go in either direction and we got them involved in sports or something they like. You have to be very careful with the kids that you don’t monitor.