I work at a small college as their first-ever Director of Campus Safety and Security. Prior to my arrival, the college employed security for eight hours an evening, and the security supervisor was also the dorm supervisor/men’s soccer coach.
When I came on board, I felt our new department should have a mission statement, because they taught me how to write those in college. What I came up with began like this:
The mission of Campus Safety and Security is to keep the campus a safe and welcoming environment.
The intervening years have been spent in that inherent tension of balancing safe with welcoming.
A Necessary Inconvenience
At its best, security is inconvenient. We often accept this inconvenience without much thought. We remember to lock our homes and our cars, and then we need to unlock them to enter them again. We put up with this inconvenience because it’s worth it. The consequences of not locking up our stuff are potentially negative enough that it’s worthwhile to take steps to mitigate the risk.
If security is inconvenient at its best, at its worst, it is unfriendly, opaque, or even draconian. This works well for a military base or a prison, but it’s not what we’re looking for in an educational environment.
I have a company that wants to lease robot dogs and automated drones to me for use around campus. This sounds cool and cutting edge, but we also have to think about the perception this type of security carries. Is it next-level and I’m just stuck in the past for not jumping at the opportunity, or does it imply this campus isn’t safe, so they need these special tools? But again, security in other areas has evolved over time, so maybe robots and drones will be accepted as basic security tools at some point.
As an example of security evolving, the grounds of the elementary school in my suburban neighborhood used to be open. As a kid, I remember spending time after school, weekends, and holidays riding bikes all over the school, and playing pick-up basketball or football with anyone from the neighborhood. It was the town hall for neighborhood kids. Today, there’s a fence around the entire perimeter. Why? Because recent history repeatedly proves that bad actors can wreak havoc with lives. We accept that fenced schoolyard as a basic security tool now, but we wouldn’t have in the past.
I’d sleep better if I could build a fence around my entire campus—checking IDs, searching vehicles and backpacks of everyone entering the parking lot. For various reasons, I cannot do that, so we take other measures. Regardless of what measures we take, the crux is this: How do we balance keeping people safe with making them feel welcome?
Security vendors don’t like to hear this, but technology and gadgets are not going to keep your campus or workplace safe. On their own, they are expensive toys that require a lot of attention and maintenance, and often don’t live up to their hype.
What will keep your workplace safe are the 3Ps—People, Policies, and (sound) Practices. You can put those in any order you want, because they all feed off of each other.
What do the 3Ps look like in action? As a counter example, let’s take the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas—the low-hanging fruit of bad campus safety examples these days, and rightly so.
Putting aside the inexplicable police response, it’s possible the shooter would have never gained access to the building if people (school staff) were following sound practices; implementing the policies that were in place.
According to the Robb Committee Report, the school had a “culture of noncompliance” toward their policies. Their polices were sound, but their practices were unsafe.
Page 5 of the Robb Committee Report:
While the school had adopted security policies to lock exterior doors and internal classroom doors, there was a regrettable culture of noncompliance by school personnel who frequently propped doors open and deliberately circumvented locks (emphasis added).
Page 71 of the Robb Committee Report:
Robb Elementary had a culture of noncompliance with safety policies requiring doors to be kept locked, which turned out to be fatal.
This culture of noncompliance serves as a tragic example of people ignoring policy, opting instead to practice convenience at the cost of lives.
We like things to be easy. Simply walk around your workplace and look at the ground near doors that are supposed to be secure. How many wedges, bricks, or rocks do you see? Are they there only to keep the door open while loading activities are going on, or are they used to prop up the door to make life easier for people who can’t be bothered to carry their access badge or keys with them?
We need to be having discussions with these folks—not just assume they’re slacking on security. Maybe there’s a good business reason that door doesn’t have to be secure 24/7. Maybe we can learn to better serve them without always defaulting to “a locked door is better.”
This shows how intertwined people and practices are in the 3Ps. That said, the weakest link—one unsecured door—can collapse the best security plan.
The people responsible for security—the folks your employees and customers see—have to be cordial, knowledgeable, fair, and consistent. This means they’re vetted before they’re hired and trained, and developed after they’re hired.
Finally, to use a popular business phrase, the person responsible for your security staff has to be the chief reminding officer—if you don’t think you’re over-communicating, you’re not communicating enough.
I recently finished updating and reviewing our Emergency Operations Plan, and it occurs to me we need to be reminded of the following—no safety plan is perfect—you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to make it so. You do the best you can with the resources you have—you train people, you drill, and you create plans based on best practices and, frankly, the odds.
What about the odds? At my college, our doors have electronic readers. During a lockdown, does an employee’s card allow them entry into a door they would normally have access to? In other words, can I get into the building during a lockdown if I had access to that building a moment before we went into lockdown? We can play the what if the shooter is a staff member? game, but the flip side of this is what if an otherwise innocent staff member is caught unprotected on the wrong side of a locked door? This is a tough decision each workplace needs to make.
Lastly, we need sound practices that are followed consistently by all. It doesn’t matter if they’re the CFO or the groundskeeper—no one is exempt from sound security practices. Doors are not left unsecured and unattended, and all employees need the authority to call out bad security practices without fear of reprisal. What if the newest classified staff member at Robb Elementary felt comfortable enough to point out that policies were not being followed regarding keeping entries secure? It’s likely we’d be reading about some other example right now.
The job of the security professional is important—we’re serving others by both keeping them safe and making them feel safe. A failure in either the perception or the reality of safety is a failure of the entire security apparatus. Let us resolve to practice what our policies say we’re supposed to do, and routinely examine how effective our people, our policies, and our practices are in keeping the campus a safe and welcoming environment.
Kevin Altenhofel is Director of Campus Safety and Security at Taft College in Taft, Calif., as well as the California Chapter President of NACSA, the National Association of Campus Safety Administrators. He was previously a sworn municipal police officer from 2002 until 2018.