By: William Chatfield, CFD, MSBO Board Member, Director of Operations, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools
How safe is safe? When it comes to school safety, we are about to find out. Ten years ago, consideration of secure entrances, card access, video surveillance, emergency alert notifications, bulletproof glass and a host of other safety and security systems, devices, and components were not on the radar of many districts. However, if constructing or renovating a school building today, these are some of the primary considerations when discussing building needs. In fact, legislation approved in the last lame duck session now requires a district intending to construct or renovate a school or athletic field to have their plans reviewed by the local law enforcement agency for appropriate school safety issues (SB 990 – P.A. 437 of 2018). Related lame duck legislation (SB 982 – P.A. 435 of 2018) establishes an Office of School Safety (OSS) and (HB 5828 – P.A. 548 of 2018) enacts the Comprehensive School Safety Plan Act which, in part, requires a Commission to review and make recommendations to OSS, including model practices, for determining school safety measures. Hang on folks – this promises to be as bumpy a ride as navigating Michigan potholes.
The reality is that no standards currently exist for what constitutes a safe and secure building so the idea of having documented standards has an appeal. As it stands, every district that undertakes safety improvements are essentially designing their safety and security systems from scratch. With no adopted standards, many schools end up with differing safety and security designs. Granted, there are generally accepted practices in place, but even these are under development as the industry continues to evolve with a combination of physical and technological enhancements seemingly introduced daily.
In my district, we have schools in six different municipalities, each with their own public safety department. While we greatly appreciate all of our local public safety departments and are grateful for the support they provide all of our schools, I remain concerned that we will have conflicts between safety and security designs in differing jurisdictions without accepted standards. As written, this legislation creates confusion as to whom will have jurisdiction over the final aspect of school security. If a State Commission is going to establish model practices, what level of review responsibility will the local jurisdiction have? Will the local law enforcement have approval or veto authority? We saw a similar situation occur a decade ago when the Bureau of Construction Codes attempted to divest themselves of school construction oversight by acquiescing this oversight to local municipal code enforcers. The results were problematic, with each municipality enforcing their own ordinances and code requirements that were not always consistent from one municipality to the next. This transfer of authority never fully occurred and BCC eventually resumed all school construction oversight, with a few exceptions. Could the same thing happen with security improvements? I’m sure these questions will sort themselves out over time but some of us will undoubtedly live through the growing pains of this new process.
It remains to be seen what types of safety and security measures will be reviewed and/or recommended, but the list of options are numerous. Video surveillance, card access, metal detectors, bullet proof glass, biometric scanners, door boot locks, and audio shot detection are just some of the physical systems that can be installed. Personnel enhancements could be School Resource Officers, private security, police dogs, or armed staff members (that’s a different article for another time). Soft measures could include vegetation in front of schools, lights on at night, instant background record check of visitors, ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training, and therapy dogs (or cats, bunnies, or pet de jour).
These are extensive and expensive options that districts will need to consider and no district will have the same needs when it comes to safety measures. Regardless of what measures are taken, future security breaches are inevitable. Unfortunately, many, if not most, shootings have been perpetrated by students or other recognizable associates of the school whom were granted access into the school under normal protocol only to unleash their rage. In some of these situations, enhanced safety procedures designed to keep outsiders from entering the building were already in place, yet the assailant was a trusted member of the school community who was not deterred by these physical measures.
So how safe is safe? Realistically, we’re still trying to figure that out. When I say we, I refer to school administrators, law enforcement, security industry professionals, design professionals and more. The State is poised to establish model practices for school safety (physical and social) but districts will have to decide if they want to take their security measures further. It will be a decision that must be made in concert with district officials, staff members, parents, law enforcement and security industry professionals. Ultimately, you will have to determine what makes the most sense for your district and recognize that any decisions you make today will ultimately require review as advancements in the safety and security industry continue. School safety considerations are here to stay and we are in the early stages of establishing accepted school safety practices. Embrace it and be safe.