Make school security invisible

James Alan Fox

December 8, 2014

A while back, I had a not-so-close encounter of the bizarre kind during a visit to a physician's office in a relatively safe suburb of Boston. Upon entering, I was surprised and unnerved to find a receptionist seated behind a bulletproof glass plate that extended all the way up to the ceiling. With some difficulty, she and I conversed through a speaker system installed in the glass.

There must be a good reason for the high-level security, I thought. The receptionist might be protected, but what about me and all the other sitting ducks in the waiting area?

Security is supposed to alleviate fear, not create it. This was a medical facility, not a bank, after all. In a high-risk neighborhood, visible security can indeed be reassuring. But absent a significant threat, tight security instead projects a feeling of impending danger.

Yet, as we arrive at the second anniversary of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., U.S. school officials are often all too quick to push such measures onto our children in terms of oversecuring schools against the threat of a shooting.

Heavy security common

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, two-thirds of public schools nationwide employ surveillance cameras; among secondary schools the figure reaches over 80%. A majority of upper-level schools employ drug-sniffing dogs and school resource officers; more than 10% use metal detectors either daily or on a random basis.

Of course, such security approaches might arguably be prudent in schools located within certain high-crime areas of the city, but they are also commonplace in suburban and small-town school buildings.

Understandably, parents want desperately to know that their children are protected from harm while at school. Though the figure has declined in the two years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, over a quarter of parents surveyed by Gallup in August reported being fearful for their child's physical safety while at school.

Despite these concerns and notwithstanding the handful of school shootings, students are extremely safe. In fact, the risk of serious violence at school is significantly lower than most other times and places.

This is not to suggest that we should abandon all efforts to safeguard children while they are at school, only that security should be low-key rather than in your face. Lockdown drills and armed guards roaming the halls can traumatize youngsters. No one should sense that he's being watched minute-by-minute. That could create a climate counterproductive to learning.

New Sandy Hook school

Surveillance systems in school buildings need to be as unobtrusive as possible. This is a lesson that architects of Sandy Hook's new school, expected to be finished in 2016, have incorporated into their plans.

The new school's reconstruction, according to Wired magazine, uses landscape design to create natural and aesthetic separation between the school and visitors, including pushing the school back from the road to provide for more open space. Visitors will have to cross one of three bridges to the front entrance, and first-floor rooms will be elevated from ground level. The open space and building configuration will allow for easier means of entering and leaving should an emergency evacuation ever become necessary.

Apart from Sandy Hook, another promising covert security measure is the use of acoustic detection systems, technology developed for the military to identify gunfire. For example, the Guardian Indoor Gunshot Detection system, recently installed as a pilot test in a suburban school north of Boston, employs small and well-disguised sensors throughout the building that would immediately alert first responders of a shooting as well as the shooter's location and movements.

It is extremely unlikely that the Guardian system will ever be triggered in this test school, or in any school where it might be installed. Compare the rare active shooter events in schools with the pool of the more than 100,000 schools in the U.S.

Even so, it would be comforting to know that should the unthinkable in fact occur, the speed and efficiency of police response would likely save lives and reduce injuries.

The objective is to prepare the school but not to scare the children.

James Alan Fox of Northeastern University is co-author of Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College, and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.