It’s not just seventh grade math that is complex. Equally head-scratching for parents, teachers and school administrators is how to ensure that visitors to K-12 educational institutions have a right to be there and are properly identified and recorded. There are a host of reasons why a school would want to screen people before they can enter the building, ranging from fear of violence to unresolved custody disputes, to the need to keep track of everyone in the building in case of an emergency.
School-related shootings by outsiders have made the headlines in recent years and have raised awareness among school administrators about the need for vigilance.
The case of Adam Lanza and the shooting of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 certainly brought school safety to the forefront. But even before that, in 2006, a gunman in Bailey, Colo., took six girls hostage at the high school, killing one before he shot himself.
Preventing sex offenders from gaining access to students is also a reason schools want to screen visitors. Registered sex offenders may target a school, as was the case recently in Raleigh, N.C., where a known offender tried to gain access to an elementary school using a forged letter from the principal. But the offender population can also include parents, other relatives, friends or guardians of children attending a specific institution. Custody-related abductions are another area of concern. And although schools may require written forms that spell out who can pick up a child after school, an incomplete or faulty visitor procedure could cause confusion and allow a child to leave with the wrong parent. Paper logs, in which a visitor writes his or her name and relationship to a student, along with the reason for the visit, are still the norm for the majority of schools today. The issue with these logs, of course, is that a visitor can use any name — from Mickey Mouse to Santa Claus — and unless there is someone who is overseeing the log and asking for the corresponding identification, a false ID will go undetected.
Incorrect, incomplete or illegible paper sign-in systems also leave schools vulnerable when an event occurs. If there is a fire or some other emergency that requires shelter in place or evacuation, a school will need to have a comprehensive tally of who is in the building. However, paper logs also run the risk of being damaged or forgotten in a crisis, and security personnel or first responders won’t be able to access the information remotely if they aren’t able to get to the office or station where the log is stored. And often these hand-written logs are tied in with certain types of paper badges that can also be easily duplicated or reused after being discarded by the legitimate user. As a result of the inconsistencies of paper-based systems, schools have begun implementing a combination of electronic visitor management and access control procedures along with best practices that tighten the reins over who can gain access to the school.
Here are some of the steps schools can take toward implementing a more effective visitor management program:
• Even before visitors reach the sign in or badging station, schools should be sure to funnel visitors to a central location. Older schools are especially vulnerable with multiple entrances and winding hallways that present opportunities for visitors to bypass the main office or visitor center. But a clearly marked entrance and access-controls on all other doors will send visitors in the right direction. Once inside, if the main office is far from the primary doorway, there should be a badging station or security personnel nearby so visitors can be met and enrolled immediately.
• Another alternative is to pre-enroll parents and frequent visitors, vendors or school district personnel with identification cards so they can have their badges or cards scanned and verified as they enter the building. Some schools may tie this in with access codes on exterior card readers that allow visitors into the school at specific times.
The cost of permanent ID cards can be more expensive than paper badges, but the upside is that they can contain information about the individual and can be “turned off” if a person’s status has changed.
• While schools can gather information about visitors and build that into a database, situations do evolve over time. Systems that allow self-registration are vulnerable to misinformation or missing data, and even those that access third-party data maintained by the visitor management supplier may be hampered by old or incomplete information gathered from court records. Typically systems that are linked to a federal or state government-controlled database can offer a wider range of information.
One high school in Delaware upgraded its visitor management system, tying in with the state’s criminal justice database to get the most up-to-date information on individuals’ backgrounds. The visitor management system allows school personnel to scan Government-issued IDs and capture information and photos for a visitor management database, and then automatically compare the people in the database against the Delaware Judicial Information System (DELJIS). In addition to scanning the DELJIS information for sexual offenders, the visitor management system also looks for protection against abuse orders and open wants and warrants beyond minor traffic issues. Once someone is OK’d by the system, they are issued an expiring sticker badge that is good for about 24 hours. After 24 hours a stop sign image automatically appears on the badge making the badge useless.
If there is a match to the criminal database it can be handled based on the school’s policies. Typically access is denied. The visitor can also be told that the system flagged them and they can check with the State Police Bureau of Identification to make sure there is not incorrect data. The important part is that the school does not admit those individuals with criminal matches.
• Access systems joined with video also allow schools to control visitation by identifying people before they enter. Through the use of exterior cameras, or cameras placed in the main vestibule, someone in the school office can view and identify the visitor and then grant them access.
In conjunction with this, some schools are also installing lockdown buttons in the main office or classrooms, so if an intruder does gain access, they can quickly lock doors or restrict access.
Visitor management may be viewed as a time-consuming step by those trying to gain access to schools. Informing parents and frequent visitors in advance about the process and enforcing it on a consistent basis will not only make it less of a burden for those involved, but it will ultimately raise the level of protection for students and faculty alike.