NCERT Summer Leadership Summit: Operational and Facilities Perspectives on 21st Century School Safety

This year's NCERT Summer Leadership Summit in Del Mar, California featured a wide variety of topics along this year's theme of "Safe Schools in a Changing World." Presenters, educators, school leadership, researchers, and professionals from across the nation gathered for this 3-day summit to focus on student safety and well being.

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Jim DiCamillo, WLC President and Principal, presented "Operational and Facilities Perspectives on 21st Century School Safety: From Cyber Bullying to Access Control Systems." While most safety workshops of this kind look at the issue of school safety from the perspective of the end user or the designer, the unique approach of this presentation explored school safety-related topics spanning from everyday school operational issues to the latest trends in facilities security improvements. With 37 years of design experience at WLC Architects, Jim brought specific insights learned from the design of hundreds of school projects over his career.

The valuable feedback from those working in and experiencing these school designs - especially on the topic of student safety and well being - was another unique component of this presentation. Kim DiCamillo, a retired middle school counselor with over 30 years of service within the public school system, provided the in-depth perspective of what challenges the school leadership face on a day-to-day basis in keeping students safe and engaged in their learning. The dialogue of both designer and school leadership shed light on how the decisions made in the design and operation of the facilities impact the student experience.

Jim DiCamillo shared his perspectives on the role of the built environment on safety.

"There's an Italian proverb that says, 'You eat with your eyes first.' It is very important that we produce schools that feel and look safe. You've experienced environments that look and feel safe - and that probably is not something surrounded by barbed wire fences. That probably is safe, but doesn't make you feel safe. What you are trying to do with school safety is to make a soft deterrent to those who might want to enter your school site. As you go back to your school districts, look at some of your schools, and assess them."

Attendees were equipped with a list of considerations to bring back to their Districts and assess:

  • Imparting a sense of calm to the students, teachers, and all of those who visit the campus plays an important role in designing a secure campus

  • Clearly marked entrances and doors that would eliminate security breaches

  • Removing or eliminating remote parking facilities that require resource officers for access

  • Training staff in being prepared for different security needs in sheltering/safe dispersal of students - i.e., fire vs. active shooter on campus

  • Removing painted reserved parking spots for specific people, identifying when key personnel are absent

  • Making sure school gates can be secure and not easily popped or propped open

  • Being cognizant of opportunities for mischief using balconies that extend over students

  • Covering of door windows that are meant to help prevent collisions with students

  • Choice of materials that eliminate slip and fall accidents

The presentation also emphasized the importance of a proper sign-in and sign-out process, and how knowing who is on your campus and when they leave can help first responders secure the campus quickly.

"Everyone does really well on the sign-in policy. I've been to hundreds of schools, and I believe I can count on one hand the number of times I've been asked to sign out. If you have a problem and the first responders come, the first thing they look for is who is on campus and who is not supposed to be on campus - and as far as you know, everyone is still on campus from 7:00 AM that morning, since nobody has signed out. So you have first responders looking all over campus for a stranger and everyone is at home or at the mall. Be sure to have your sign-out policies in place."

Technology can play a key role in securing and upgrading the safety of your school, but there is much to consider. Access control systems, electronic locks - all can now be controlled wirelessly with a low cost threshold and easy installation. The ability to selectively open and close parts of the campus for evening programs, for example, allows the school to grant specific access to certain groups at certain times. Key card access, especially those tied to your school ID, are convenient - but if the card is misplaced or simply ends up in the wrong hands, a serious security issue could be possible. Advances in intelligent tracking software eliminate the need for hours of video review by staff; subjects can now be pinpointed and tracked autonomously using existing camera systems.

"You can spend an extraordinary amount of wasted time on school safety and security just with some really poor design ideas. We are very, very mindful that we're not causing more problems for you when you ask us to design a new school. The moral to this story is to look around your own environments when you get back to your schools - and see if they're not also causing some problems for you and your staff."

Michael Isidro