School Safety Audit questions & answers
Auditing Schools for Safety
The following information is provided by A. K. (Vijay) Ramnarain, an architectural consultant with the Virginia Department of Education.
What site characteristics do safety audits address?
Starting from the property boundary to the building, signs should be clearly written and prominently placed to reinforce to visitors that they are now on school property. There should be signs for visitors' parking and entrance doors. A visitor should know that he or she is entering school property and that their behavior has to change to follow school guidelines and what is expected of them, such as no guns, no alcohol, etc. School principals should also be aware of school property boundaries so that they may enforce school policies. All schools should have "no trespassing" signs referring to the appropriate zoning ordinance.
What safety practices are recommended in the schools? With all the awful things that have happened recently, a lot of people are thinking more about surveillance cameras and ID cards.
Once the students are inside the building, there should be "designated points of entry" to maintain control who is getting into the building. All of the doors should be locked from the outside and visitors, vendors or repairmen should be required to enter from specified locations.
Visitors should be greeted by a receptionist in the office or a volunteer parent at a desk where the sign-in sheets are located, identification is checked and visitors' badges are issued. The visitors should be engaged in casual conversation before badges are issued so that the admitting staff will know whether the visitor is irate or upset, etc.
In regard to lighting, are wall-mounted fixtures considered better than pole-mounted fixtures?
On the building exterior, wall mounted fixtures with vandal-resistant lens covers work better. Lamp poles close to the building wall are not desirable as they may provide a means to access the roof or upper windows. Lamp poles are more suitable for parking areas, play areas and driveways. Light fixtures, whether wall-mounted or pole-mounted, should be designed and spaced to provide uniform lighting at all times.
On the building exterior, what kind of walls and windows are recommended?
Some of the synthetic materials that look like stucco may not be the best material for the lower parts of walls in a school environment, because they can be damaged easily. Synthetic stucco can be used higher on the wall where students cannot reach it. Typically, brick and mortar or concrete blocks have stood the test of time well, but that's not the only material that can be used.
In terms of windows, issues such as maintenance, energy savings and life of the windows should be considered. In certain locations, a vandal-resistant glazing may be necessary. Windows that have vinyl-covered or aluminum extruded frames are currently popular in school buildings. The type of window and the hardware used should be considered carefully. Questions that should be asked include:
- If there are operable windows, are they kept open when the weather is warm?
- Is the hardware operational or damaged?
- Can these windows be locked afterwards?
- Are these operable windows checked every evening to see that no one has placed a piece of wood or something that will prevent the window from closing and provide access at night?
How about different door types and the accompanying hardware?
Windows on exterior doors of the gymnasium and cafeteria should be avoided for security reasons. Entrance doors typically have a lot of windows so approaching visitors can be seen. All required exit doors should have panic hardware. All exterior doors need not provide access into the building. Doors that are not designated points of entry into the building should not have operable hardware on the exterior. Hinges on all exterior doors should have hidden pins that cannot be removed from the outside. Double doors should be the type where one door closes before the other and the second door has a metal plate that covers the space between the two doors, preventing vandals from tampering with the locking mechanism. Similarly, in the case of single leaf exterior doors, there should be a metal plate that covers the space between the door and the jamb. Before hardware on a door is modified or changed, it is recommended that the local fire marshal and building code officials be contacted.
What are the issues regarding doors operated by card?
Doors with card access will allow only permitted personnel to enter the area, but that does not necessarily prevent someone from tampering with the door to get in. Far-away exterior doors should be tied into the central alarm system so that if anyone pries it open, there is a break in contact that will set off an alarm.
Can an audit evaluate a building's entrance system?
Entry systems are not compared between schools nor are they evaluated. Most schools in Virginia are on a keyed entry system, which is recommended, rather than a card entry system. There should be a master key and a system of key categories in place. For example, a teacher who is in a science lab does not necessarily need access to the vocational wing. But the custodian or the principal should have a key that opens every door in the building. It is also critical to keep track of who has been assigned keys and make sure that all keys are returned at the end of the school year.
What is a good location for alarm system controls?
Burglar alarm systems should be located in the main office areas, libraries, computer labs, science labs, vocational shops, cafeteria and other areas that may be a burglar's target.
All classrooms should have a two-way communication system between the main office and the classrooms. Some older buildings have a one-way buzzer into the main office but most have installed telephones in classrooms.
Another system is a hand-held device with a pin in it that the teacher can pull out.
Alarm controls should be located in accessible areas that are easy to supervise so students do not tamper with the system.
The weather alarm system will, in the future, supply all-weather radios in all schools. The radios would be kept in the principal's or the secretary's office and would go off only when an alarm is issued for the school's surrounding location.
Where do security monitors need to be placed to be most effective?
In the past, monitors were placed in the assistant principal's office or near the secretary. In new schools with security personnel, monitors are placed in a console arrangement where the security personnel are seated, close to the main entrance. Ideally, as a preventive measure, monitors should be located at entrances and in different locations throughout the school, in public places where the students could see what's going on in different parts of the building.
Should doors have vision panels?
Classroom doors are fire-rated, and the fire code establishes a maximum opening in the door for a vision panel. In schools that have sprinkler systems, larger vision panels may be possible on the doors, or side view panels may be used. The use of side panels, a good safety measure, allows people walking down the hallways to see what's going on in the classroom, but also allows the classroom teachers to watch what's going on in the hallways.
Can an audit uncover an ineffective security system configuration?
If security monitors are, for example, in the assistant principal's office, they may not be monitored when the assistant principal is outside the office. Someone else should be designated as backup to keep an eye on the screens.
If cameras are on the exterior of the building, they should be powerful enough to be zoomed in so they can pick up details, such as the license plate number of a parked car in the student so authorization can be verified. Another example: a Virginia high school used an external camera to monitor whether students were violating school code by leaving school grounds to go to a nearby store. Local police also used the camera to see what was going on at that store and were able to dismantle gang activity that was gearing up in that area.
Can an audit also evaluate lockers and locker placement?
The push for improvements in locker design and placement has to come from school administrators. The traditional arrangement has lockers on one or both sides of the hallways which can cause a chaotic situation that inevitably results in some pushing and shoving. One alternative is to place lockers in designated locker bay areas, or open locker alcoves off the hallways. The lockers should not be more than maybe 4 feet to a maximum of 5 feet in height so that teachers on hall duty can look across the locker bay and see what's going on. Traditionally lockers in gymnasium locker rooms have perforated doors for ventilation and hallway lockers have solid doors. What would be ideal is to have see-through or perforated locker doors in the hallway as well. This would permit staff to see what is stored inside the lockers and deter storing of illegal material such as tobacco, guns, knives, etc.
What are some safety issues in cafeterias?
Typically, the traditional cafeteria is designed for ease of maintenance, not for the comfort and safety of the students. Cafeteria seating is made of good materials, but overcrowding is an issue when 16 or more people must eat at one table. Overcrowding invites potential problems, one of which is a high noise level. Acoustics is a major issue in cafeteria safety and drop-in ceilings do not take care of the noise level. Perforated block or acoustical panels, like those used in gymnasiums, would lend improved noise control.