Jun 23 2023

How to Make Schools Safer with the Four Pillars of Physical Safety

Schools that want to create a comprehensive safety plan will need to evaluate physical security, prevention, mental wellness and cybersecurity solutions.

From the moment students set foot on campus, keeping them safe in the classroom and beyond is a school’s responsibility. As technology evolves, school leaders have more ways to protect students, as well as the entire staff in district buildings. Administrators must consider their schools’ resources and carefully evaluate the newest security solutions to ensure they will scale and that they fit the district’s needs.

In addition to considering the technologies that align with these pillars, district leaders must also work to create a culture of awareness to promote safety. This requires training staff on physical safety best practices and delivering clear messaging from the top down.

K–12 leaders can ensure they’re creating a holistic safety strategy by evaluating their actions against the four pillars of physical safety: physical security, prevention, mental well-being and cybersecurity. Each of these pillars helps to keep staff and students safe.



“When you think about overall school safety, a lot of times we think about the heavier topics,” says Danielle Stevens, director of safety and security at Lake Zurich Community Unit School District in Illinois. “When we talk with teachers and students about safety, though, it’s a lot about the day-to-day things that happen in the classroom — behavioral concerns, fights in the school, a suspicious person walking up to a door — and how to handle those situations.”

What Is Physical Security Technology in K–12 Education?

Physical security technology encompasses the tools that keep a school campus secure. Not to be confused with physical safety, which is the top-level term for all of the things that keep staff and students safe, physical security includes protections such as access control, environmental sensors, video surveillance, window film and more.

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“Cameras are so important. There are no dead spots in the hallways. We make sure that everything is covered, and we have to move fast nowadays. If there’s a threat, the school or security staff has to be ready to follow a target and provide that information to the police,” says Art Delgadillo, director of security for McHenry Community High School in Illinois. “The cameras we use are NUUO and Verkada.”

When it comes to physical security, securing the perimeter to prevent unwanted access to the buildings is key. “If you can contain the person from going into the school, you’re way ahead of the game,” Delgadillo says.

Even when complete prevention isn’t attainable, physical security tools can slow a person down. “Safety film is not like bulletproof glass, but it buys time, and time in law enforcement is everything,” says Tim Burke, director of safety and security for Wauconda Community Unit School District in Illinois. “If it takes anywhere between two and six minutes to get into the building, those are two to six minutes that teachers have to lock down staff and students. It gives first responders that much more time to get to the scene.”

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How Are Schools Upgrading Physical Security Technologies?

School districts are upgrading their physical security technologies by prioritizing the most important and most financially feasible changes.

“Every district would say budget is a challenge,” Stevens says. “There are always a lot of projects. One thing I encourage districts to look at is how can you build that into your long-term plans.”

At Lake Zurich CUSD, building physical security upgrades into long-term planning includes installing window film where possible and ensuring that any new exterior doors or windows already have the film in place. The district is also looking at doors that lock from the inside and out as it makes any replacements or renovations.

The security and technology teams at Wauconda CUSD are using time over the summer to make their upgrades. “We do have additional cameras being put on the outside of all of our buildings. Currently, only the high school has outdoor cameras,” Burke says.

Stevens notes that there are also free upgrades the district has made to better protect staff and students. “We use a visitor management system, and we had to do a massive upgrade to that because we were about two versions behind,” she says. “That was a simple upgrade. It was free. It just took time.”

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What Does Prevention Include in Terms of K–12 Safety?

Prevention includes technologies that help school districts communicate. This comprises all types of communication, including communication within the district, with parents and the community, and with emergency responders.

“We have the police over to walk through, to make sure the officers know all the buildings inside and out, including officers in the neighboring community because they will be one of the first responders to show up,” Burke says.

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Burke’s and Delgadillo’s districts are both considering BluePoint Alert Solutions for their school buildings. This technology, which looks like a blue fire alarm, alerts the police when activated.

“It gives an audible alert and flashing blue lights in your hallways and in your parking lot. There’s an audible message that circulates on all your systems and your TVs indicating there’s been an incident,” Burke explains. “It gives very specific locations from where it was pulled that activates the cameras for law enforcement and first responders. They can pull up, on their phones, the cameras in the location where the event is taking place to see live footage.”

“Communication is key when it comes to these situations,” Delgadillo says. “We upgraded to Motorola radios, and we added repeaters to both campuses so we can have cross-traffic.”

Steven’s district also wanted to upgrade its radios but found that many of the products were backordered and delayed due to the pandemic. To bridge the gap caused by supply chain issues, the district found new ways to use the devices it already had.

“We looked at the radios we had throughout the entire building. We assessed the time of day that the staff needed the radios,” she says. “We found that the base radios for the secretary staff at the main office could be used, so we deployed their radios in the classroom during the day.”

How Do Mental Well-Being and School Culture Contribute to Safety?

Mental well-being and positive school culture ensure that the school is a place students and staff feel safe. While there are technologies that support this pillar of physical safety, a lot of it also comes down to training and carefully balancing security and learning technologies.

For McHenry Community High School, striking that balance is possible with the help of software like GoGuardian. “We monitor the kids and what they’re looking for on the internet,” Delgadillo says. “We can pick up some of those things and hopefully prevent something bad from happening.”

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Burke, meanwhile, praises his district’s threat assessment team, which consists of a teacher/counselor from the grade school, the district’s head of special education curriculum, the school psychologist, a social worker and Burke himself.

“We have a very good threat assessment team that does deep dives when they have suspicions or when something is going on with a student,” he says. “They can get into the background and even bring in the psychologist or the social worker to figure out what’s going on with the student. Your threat assessment team is really step one of your school security.”

This helps his district maintain the balance between a welcoming learning environment and a safe one, Burke says.

“School safety is unique because you’re trying to merge two things that really are opposites. You want to create a healthy school environment — a warm, inviting environment for the kids to learn in — but now you’re incorporating safety, which can be rigid and more structured and maybe not so warm and fuzzy,” Burke says. “I’ll be honest, it’s not a nice topic to talk about, but in the world we live in today, we kind of have to adjust to these things, so you’re merging two cultures.”

Stevens also is working toward merging new safety measures with the traditional school environment. “The goal is for it to be a warm environment where everyone can learn and grow,” she says. “When we look at our school emergency and response plans, we want staff and students to feel empowered to respond to any crisis. That’s why having a plan is so important.”

Art Delgadillo
Communication is key when it comes to these situations.”

Art Delgadillo Director of Security, McHenry Community High School

What Is Cybersecurity’s Role in K–12 Physical Safety?

Cybersecurity plays a large role in physical safety. It’s important to keep students’ data out of the hands of bad actors, but there are also many physical safety implications should a threat actor find a way into the school’s network or secured data.

Among the sensitive data that could be stolen or encrypted by cybercriminals is the school’s layout and other information on its security systems and processes. Having this intel could allow a criminal to bypass the physical security measures a school has put in place or shut down its video surveillance systems entirely.

“The head of our IT department, who helps run the cameras, is actively involved in bringing safety ideas to the table as well,” Burke says.

skynesher (students), filo (icons)/Getty images

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