School Safety: America Has a Long Way to Go

The Department of Homeland Security stated in January: ‘Our schools and campuses are highly vulnerable to attacks.’ Will school safety ever improve?

school safety
Twenty-seven wooden angels were placed beside a road near Sandy Hook Elementary School in memory of the school shooting victims in Newtown, Connecticut. A sign school safety in America has a long way to go. (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

From coast to coast, school administrators are checking security systems, enacting new policies, and wondering how they can improve school safety and prevent a horrific tragedy like the one last week in Newtown, Conn.

In Little Rock, Ark., the school district’s security team met on Sunday to create a new proactive strategy to improve school safety. The team told principals to monitor all school entrances and bathrooms and be on heightened alert.

Chicago school administrators said uniformed police officers would stand guard at many of the city’s schools and answer any concerns students or parents had. Even military bases in the United States, which are restricted to outsiders, are doubling their efforts on security measures, citing the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, as an example of vulnerabilities. Small private schools were also evaluating plans and adding extra security—anything to make students and parents feel safer.

More: Newtown, Connecticut’s School Shooting—and the Lesson We May Never Learn

Often schools don’t have to figure out security measures alone. According to the Department of Homeland Security website, it “offers funding, training, and resources for efforts such as providing money for emergency preparedness, training school bus drivers in security and hardening school buildings’ vulnerability.”

Although, there is increased public­ity of the dangers of school shootings, very little has been done to reduce the risks from similar incidents.

The website also provides a primer (published in January 2012) about school safety in case of a terrorist attack or a shooting. It notes, “The manual is intended for use by schools who feel they are at risk of attack and is designed to meet the needs of all schools, including those with serious security concerns.”

The manual makes quite a depressing observation, however. “Although, there is increased public­ity of the dangers of school shootings, very little has been done to reduce the risks from similar incidents to our schools and universities,” it states.

“Currently our schools and campuses are highly vulnerable to attacks that may produce unacceptable levels of casualties. These institutions lack the capability and resources necessary to prevent a hostile intruder from entering and at the same time do not have the capability to intervene be­fore any injuries occur. A targeted shooting incident typically evolves so rapidly that by the time emergency responders arrive, it is either too late or too dangerous to intervene. It is a painful, but nonetheless true fact, that once an attacker has entered a targeted school building with the in­tention of shooting someone, there is practically nothing, or very little, that can be done to avert the attack.”

According to DHS, schools should be secure enough that a shooter cannot enter the building. But often, as in the case of Newtown, they find a way to get in. The agency suggests that “systems should include the ability to close and secure doors remotely, and thereby limit access to vulnerable targets.” By doing so, it forces a shooter “to spend more time searching for targets, giving the building occupants more time to evacuate to a safe area or seek cover in safe rooms.”

One DHS recommendation is to create more safe rooms. Many schools in the Midwest and South have been investing in safe rooms for protection against tornadoes. But they can also be a refuge against a shooting.

“Such a room may also deter active shoot­ers, because they do not usually exert great effort if there are other available and unprotected targets,” DHS states in its manual.

Investing in technology is also key for school safety, many security analysts say.

David Antar, president of A+ Security and Technology Solutions, says technology will allow for greater monitoring and control. He recommends HD video to identify people before they enter a building, access control systems that limit access to rooms as well as the school building and hidden metal detectors. He notes that many schools lack one major component – direct electronic connections between schools and law enforcement and fire.

Most American schools are not electronically connected to law enforcement and someone still has to make a 911 call, which could significantly delay a timely response. But costs are always an issue with improving school safety.

"There are a growing number of schools that do have comprehensive security programs and systems in place; however in an era when budgets are tight all expenditures are examined closely," Antar says. "Schools are looking for options to brige the gap, but there must be a committment to security."

He suggests that state and federal government step in to improve school safety.

"A state level or national standard must be adopted to provide at least a minimal level of security," Antar says.

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