Metal detectors. Bulletproof backpacks. Armed guards. Panic buttons. Shatterproof glass. With safety proposals on the table at an increasing number of schools, your child may be entering a different world this fall. How do you know whether the building he spends his days in is truly safe?
Although many parents may feel understandably apprehensive, your fears shouldn't distract your child. "We want kids to feel safe, but we also need to keep their focus on learning," says Cathy Paine, a school psychologist in Springfield, Oregon, and chair of the National Emergency Assistance Team for the National Association of School Psychologists. Learning how schools can become more secure can help you worry less and keep kids out of danger.
Measures that make sense for one school may not be necessary for another, and since schools are notoriously cash-strapped, they may have to make tough choices. But communities should at least consider the following safety features; some are relatively inexpensive to implement.
Locked front doors "Every school and child-care center needs to have secure access," says Parents advisor Irwin Redlener, M.D., director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, in New York City. "There should be no chance for people to wander onto school property." Ideally, everyone entering your child's school should pass through two sets of locked, monitored doors at the main entrance. Additional doors used by staff can be secured with card readers. During arrival and dismissal, staffers should be visible, supervising entrances and exits.
Visitor check-in Everyone who visits a school building should sign in and out, so that school personnel always know who is in the building. Some schools issue visitor badges or special ID cards for parents or give them card-reader access.
Security cameras They help school staff watch over entrances and other parts of the school building, as well as keep a record of any suspicious activity. At the very least, one of these cameras should track the school's main entrance.
Lighted, monitored hallways and other areas Staff should be on hand -- including in cafeterias, parking lots, and playgrounds -- to talk to kids and be aware of what's going on. "More adult presence helps reduce unusual behavior," says Paine. When key staff members are away from the building, the school shouldn't advertise their absence. If there is a marked parking spot for them, any passerby who sees an empty spot will know that they're away, says Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council in Sarasota, Florida.
Telephones or radios In response to Columbine in 1999, nearly every classroom now has a way of communicating with the school office, either by telephone, radio, or intercom. In Palm Beach County, Florida, teachers may even wear a listening device around their neck. By touching a button, they can alert the main office and turn on a microphone so staffers or police can hear what's going on in the room.
Classroom-door locks Fire codes and old hardware can sometimes make it tough for schools to install locks on the inside of classroom doors to keep intruders out. But most find ways to overcome these obstacles, says Lavarello.
Shatterproof glass Schools may consider adding this precaution or using film that covers existing glass and makes it bulletproof. It may not be practical everywhere, but some schools invest in this technology, at least for main entrance doors.
School resource officers Roughly one third of U.S. schools, mostly middle and high schools, already have them. An SRO is an armed police officer who is trained to work in a school setting and who becomes a part of the school community. The SRO's presence provides reassurance, and the officer can also help detect threats early and intervene.
Many parents and administrators would feel safest with an SRO present. But there aren't nearly enough police officers -- let alone specially trained ones -- to staff every school in the U.S. Lavarello does not recommend that school security guards carry a gun unless they have the same level of training as police officers (see "The Gun Question," on page 3). Instead, his group helps train road-patrol officers to become involved with the schools within their beat, so they'll be better prepared to respond if a crisis ever occurs.