The recent release of the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is notable – not simply because it gave U.S. public schools a D+ grade on their overall condition, but due to its failure to address upgrades needed to the security infrastructure, security technology, and life safety systems of schools. As the new administration and Congress consider a major national infrastructure bill, it is time to invest in upgrading the security infrastructure of K-12 public schools.
Although the report card mentioned the secondary use of public school facilities as “emergency shelters during man-made or natural disasters,” it failed to address the primary use of school facilities. Every day, public schools in the United States house nearly 50 million students and 6 million adults, in 100,000 buildings, encompassing 7.5 billion gross square feet of space, on 2 million acres of public land.
Investments in Security
Per the Education Commission on the States, the average school year is 180 days, or 49 percent of the calendar year. According to the 2016 State of Our Schools report, state and local governments invest more in K-12 public schools (24%) than any other infrastructure sector outside of highways (32%). In fact, that report stated annual capital investment, maintenance, and operations spending from state and local governments on K-12 facilities is $99 billion per year. On the other hand, the report card noted, “the federal government contributes little to no funding for the nation’s K-12 educational facilities.” Given the “staggering scale” of investment, spending, and use of schools by so much of the U.S. population (17%), it can be argued that the federal government should invest more in protecting children and those who care for them daily during half of the year.
Not everyone agrees – some still argue that K-12 public school facilities are the responsibility of local school districts and states. However, there is a clear role and responsibility for the federal government in contributing to the protection of schools, which has been laid out by the Department of Homeland Security. The National Infrastructure Protection Plan lists schools as a subsector of “government facilities” and calls for their planning and protection. Since 9/11, the federal government has done an admirable job of protecting high-value targets – such as federal office buildings, power plants, and dams – from attack. Now, with the rise of both global and homegrown terrorism, the domestic homeland security emphasis has shifted to soft targets.
Internal & External School Threats
The Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology noted that schools and other educational institutions represent soft targets. A soft target is a relatively unguarded site where people congregate, normally in large numbers, thus offering the potential for mass casualties. According to Brenda Heck, deputy assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Counterterrorism Division, “soft targets are now a priority for terrorists determined to inflict damage in the United States…. This is a world where soft targets are the name of the game” (quoted in National Defense Magazine in 2011).
Terrorism is not the only threat of violence that schools face. One study, Violence in K-12 Schools 1974-2013, found almost all mass incidents of violence in elementary schools were committed by intruders and most often committed by adults. In middle and high schools, most violence came from within (students), but intruders – which can be stopped – committed 35% of violence.
The common denominator in the threat to public schools, then, is not the attacker, but the security readiness of the facility. The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission made specific recommendations for improving school facility security, and the state of New Jersey has gone as far as mandating security improvements for new and existing schools.
Taking Steps Toward Securing Facilities
With appropriate attention and funding, public schools can conduct the security steps needed to stop intruders before they have an opportunity to commit violence. In fact, most security improvements to school facilities also aid in the reduction of school-based violence and assist authorities in the identification and containment of violence when it occurs.
The first step in the process is to formally assess each school facility because each facility is different. The Secure Schools Alliance Research and Education (the Alliance) organization has released a list of no-cost safety and security facility assessments for K-12 public schools. The Alliance partnered with the Police Foundation and Dr. Erroll Southers of TAL Global to develop the list, which is based on a review of existing open-source federal and state information, so school officials can access the most comprehensive assessment tools available.
In addition to an assessment, each facility needs a security plan. No-cost planning guidelines are available through the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools. Both assessments and plans should be conducted and developed by experts in critical infrastructure protection, in consultation with local law enforcement and local school leaders.
In the coming weeks, the Alliance will be releasing three briefs prepared by the Police Foundation: “Starting the Conversation About School Safety,” “Partner Roles and Responsibilities for Securing Schools,” and “Secure Schools: Part of Healthy Learning Environment.” The briefs are intended to show that the entire community has a role in securing schools and that a secure school does not have to resemble a prison to be effective.
The Alliance has additionally launched a first-of-its-kind tool with the help of the Police Foundation and Southers: An interactive map of state-by-state security policies and resources for K-12 public schools. By selecting a state on the map, school decision makers can access a breakdown of “promising practices,” including state policies and resources related to school safety and security requirements in the following areas: security and assessment; creation and identification of roles and responsibilities for state school safety centers and related committees; school administrators and faculty; allocation of funds for improving school safety and security; and all-hazards emergency planning and preparedness.
Although the Alliance has identified state-by-state resources, local communities and state governments cannot and should not bear sole responsibility for the cost of securing school facilities. For this reason, the Alliance is working with industry and education organizations, parents, fire protection and law enforcement officials, as well as public safety experts to request that the president and congressional leaders designate matching funding to leverage and support the work states, local schools, and communities are doing to improve the security infrastructure, security technology, and life safety systems of K-12 public schools.
“Education and learning cannot happen in an environment that is unsafe. The protection of schools, as an element of our nation’s critical infrastructure, should be deemed a priority for homeland security,” said Southers, a former California deputy director of homeland security for critical infrastructure, during a personal discussion in April 2017. “It is time to have federal financial support for securing U.S. school facilities and protecting the nation’s most critical asset – its children.”
Robert Boyd is the executive director of Secure Schools Alliance, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to security and safety as a key part of a successful education. He was formerly an executive at several education nonprofits, including Donorschoose.org, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Community Education Building in Delaware, where he led the $26 million conversion of an 11-story office building into a state-of-the-art campus for charter schools. It has been heralded as the safest building in Wilmington as well as one of the safest schools in the nation. In addition to his role as chief of staff to a senior congressman, he also previously worked in the New York City Mayor’s Office and was public safety chairman for University Park, Texas. He holds degrees from Brown, Harvard, and Southern Methodist universities and can be reached at email@example.com.