Expert: Conn. Shooting to Impact School Security Nationwide

Dec. 17, 2012
School security expert cites two ways in which schools can immediately improve access control

The shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. on Friday that left 27 people dead, including 20 children, will shape the very foundation of school security across the country moving forward, according to one prominent school security expert.

Paul Timm, who serves as president of Illinois-based school security consulting firm RETA Security, says he has "no doubt" that this massacre will garner attention from federal lawmakers and that schools nationwide will be forced to look at their security measures in a completely new way.

Among the most important things that Timm believes schools will look at in the aftermath of this shooting is access control, which he says has been glossed over for too long. "The name of the game is always going to be access control. Our access control procedures must be better," he said.

Timm said there are two ways in which schools can immediately improve access control; implementing lock vestibules (a small room or hall between the main entrance and building interior) at a school’s main entrance and by deploying visitor management software systems.

Although some schools have used vestibules for years as a way to block out inclement weather, Timm said they could also be used as a way of blocking entrance to a school, making visitors show identification and state a purpose for their presence at the facility. Visitor management systems could then be used check a visitor’s name against sex offender registries, as well as other databases that show whether or not a person has been recently terminated, has a restraining order against them and other information along those lines.

In addition, Timm says that this will undoubtedly impact the way that schools are designed, built and retrofitted moving forward. "Architects are going to change the way they’re designing buildings," he said, adding that this can already be seen in some schools where offices have been strategically placed at the main entrance.

While some people may call for an immediate increase in security manpower and guards in schools, Timm says that unfortunately, even incidents like this have a tendency to fade from the consciousness of decision makers when they’re faced with budget realities. That’s not to say, however, that Timm doesn’t think having more resource officers is a bad idea. "If I could put a school resource officer in every school building in America I would do it," he said.

According to Timm, this shooting is likely spur lawmakers into reallocating or increasing funding for several grant programs that had been scaled back in recent years: The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Grant from the U.S. Department of Education which provides funds to schools to establish emergency management plans, and the COPS Secure Our Schools (SOS) grants from the U.S. Department of Justice that gives funds to state and local governments to improve school safety.

Robert Lang, assistant vice president for strategic security and safety at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, says he believes this massacre has opened peoples’ eyes to the fact that mass shootings are about more than police response and that is has also shined a light on the important roles that teachers and other school personnel play during active shooter incidents. "Everyone, all teachers, all professors are responsible for their individual students and to take action rather than sit around and wait for someone to tell them what to do," said Lang.

Some of the questions that Lang said will arise from this will focus what people should do between the time that a shooting begins and the police arrive. Do they have a way of alerting others to what’s going on inside the building? Once you "shelter-in" a location, do you hide in a corner together or spread out?

"I think that’s the kind of the philosophy that we need to look at. Shutting the lights off, locking the doors and spreading out," explained Lang.

Another question that Lang said school security managers should be asking is how teachers and other staff members should respond if a shooter is able to make their way inside of a classroom where the lights have already been turned off and the door has been locked.

"I think we’ve stopped with the education at that point and we have said 'ok, the first responders will show up,'" he said. "This is another example of where (the shooting) was over before the first responders showed up. You’re on your own for those first couple of minutes, so you need to have all the tools available for not just awareness that this is taking place, but what to do if you’re actually confronted with the person."

Moving forward, Lang said schools across the country will undoubtedly look at their security policies and procedures to see where changes need to be made. Lang also believes that lawmakers will push for active shooter drill mandates to help schools be better prepared for a mass shooting.

"I think we’re going to see some additional directives coming out that say you must hold drills, active shooter drills once a year or whatever period of time it is," Lang said. "I think you’re going to see some mandates coming out, not just on fire drill participation for universities, but you’re going to see active shooter drills, hazardous material drills and all of those things that seem to be occurring more and more."

Additionally, Lang said that there will probably be more loosening of restrictions when it comes to mental health reporting and the sharing of that information with key personnel on a school campus.

"FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) was reinterpreted some years back," according to Lang. "Originally, it didn’t not allow any of the psychological information that universities would have from their medical people or psychological services people to be shared with anyone else on the campus. That has now been reinterpreted to mean that you can share it with certain entities, especially during an emergency, but to be able to do some prevention methods as well."

Despite other high-profile mass shootings in schools, such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, Timm said that the nature of the Newtown rampage and the fact that small children were targeted will spur more action than ever before.

"It’s heartbreaking and because it’s heartbreaking, there will probably be a louder cry for change to be made," Timm said.