Dave Cotton, Force Crime Reduction Officer at West Midlands Police Force, looks at security risks and gives safety advice for schools, staff and pupils.

No two schools have exactly the same security issues or concerns, each one is unique and must be treated accordingly. Each has a different set of risks, which must be taken into account when evaluating security needs. What follows is give generic advice that I would urge you to consider in relation to your own school. Your school security officer is the best person to evaluate the safety of your school.

Four things to ask yourself:

  • What are the main security issues within your school? Damage, burglary, violence, unauthorised access to the grounds, arson? How high a risk is each problem? (if funding is limited you will need to prioritise)
  • What would be the consequences, if this problem occurred at the school.
  • What would it take to repair damage, is there any danger to personal safety etc
  • Have you got a current, comprehensive security policy for the school?

In practice the more interventions and partners which can be used to reduce a particular problem, the more effective a solution will be found. Below are some considerations which can be shared with the board of governors and school leaders when making decisions about how to protect your school.

THE PROBLEMS WITH PERIMETER SECURITY

The perimeter of most schools is relatively large, which can cause problems when deciding how best to secure it, especially with limited funds. The additional costs of perimeter maintenance can be high, including the cost of repairing or replacing damaged fencing or walls.

Fences are designed primarily as a demarcation feature. They are likely to delay intruders for a short period of time, but they can cost a great deal of money. The questions must be asked, “How effective are they at stopping unauthorised access?” and, most importantly, “Might it be more cost effective to spend the money on better security for the building or contents instead of a full perimeter barrier”?

Another issue to consider when evaluating the benefits of secure fencing for your school perimeter, is achieving balance between the environment being an enjoyable and attractive place for young people to spend their time, and making it a safe place to be. Secure fencing can make the premises look like a prison for those inside it and can also cause harm to intruders, a potential legal risk. If walls or fences are too obtrusive, neighbours might feel aggrieved and assume they have no need to look out for intruders, neighbourhood vigilance is a valuable security safeguard for schools and should be nurtured where possible.

SURVEILLANCE

There are three types of surveillance of relevant to school security:

  • Natural: the ability to see events and people naturally, for example walking from one building to another, looking out of your window 
  • Formal: CCTV, official security patrols etc
  • Informal: neighbourhood watch or similar

Whichever method of surveillance you decide to use, and I would strongly advise using a combination of more than one where the funding is available, you need to ensure that the lighting is sufficient for the purpose. If you are unable to see any potential damage or intruders because the lighting is poor, most types of surveillance will be next to useless however high tech.

All reputable companies setting up CCTV or the like, will take account of the school lighting conditions and if they are not sufficient, inform you. However, in my experience, schools can be “oversold” to unless they are experienced in this area. In one case I dealt with personally, a school who used a local contact for CCTV got what they called ‘a great deal’. Firstly the school were convinced by the company salesman that they needed 14 cameras on the building. If they had sought independent advice from the police we would have advised they only needed 8 or 9.

However, the main problem in this case was that the school had no exterior lighting. After a fire in the premises, we came to look for evidence of arson but all we could see on the expensive CCTV system was the glow from the flames – the visibility after dark was practically zero. When I spoke to the company involved, they claimed “the school said they had sufficient lighting”. It is wrong to be sold any type of CCTV surveillance which needs additional lighting to make it useful. However, schools must be aware themselves of the importance of sufficient lighting.

This should be included in any initial discussions with companies offering to provide surveillance equipment. The police can give free advice and have no commercial ties to any one company, they should be another point of call when deciding on security measures.

PURCHASING SECURITY EQUIPMENT

If you are thinking of installing either an alarm or a CCTV system, it is essential to first decide on exactly what you want the system to do for your school. Write down your ideal requirements and then ask suppliers to quote for what you want, not what might be easier or more profitable for the company. This advice sounds very simple but it is easy for anyone to be seduced by a good deal, jargon and value instead of efficiency.

Imagine if you were at home and wanted to buy an alarm clock to wake you up in the mornings – would you then go out and buy one that makes you a cup of tea and turns all the lights on as well? If you did, would you expect to pay the same price? There are a number of companies who will quote you for an alarm or CCTV system. Always try to get as many quotes as possible to find the best deal to suit your needs. If you do not understand all the options offered, ask the police or other experts in your Local Authority for advice before committing.

MAINTENANCE AND MONITORING OF CCTV AND ALARM SYSTEMS

All school alarms must be monitored regularly, and connected to their local police station. This guarantees a response should they should be set off. Some schools are too relaxed about ensuring their alarms are connected. Our police force worked on a security project with 8 schools who had received a great deal of special funding for additional IT equipment. When we investigated further, 5 out of these 8 schools had previously had their alarm coverage withdrawn for various reasons. The alarms still worked but the police would not automatically attend if the alarm sounded. This obviously renders even an expensive alarm system far less effective at thwarting crime and puts the security of expensive equipment at risk.

All schools must check their alarms are active in this way, and if not get them reactivated as soon as possible. It might also be useful to find out why the systems were de-activated in the first place. Are the false activations down to operator error which must be rectified, or does the entire alarm and connection system need reviewing?

As part of any security plan, schools need to have regular systems in place to check the alarm system, and also to ensure that all staff have regular refresher training covering all aspects of the security of the school.

CCTV AND OTHER SECURITY PRODUCTS

Some security systems offer to link your CCTV to your alarm system. This allows the monitoring company to see a picture of the area where the alarm is activated. As mentioned earlier, fencing only slows offenders down but these systems detect movement directly outside your school building. This technology works by using sensors in the same way as internal alarms. If someone approaches the building they can be detected and by linking this detection to CCTV images, the monitoring station is able to see people before they break in. This can be an excellent way of stopping criminals before they manage to enter the school building.

There are also a number of products that link to your alarm system which either spray the offenders with a chemical spray or fill a space with a dense smoke. Both have their individual benefits and problems but could be given some consideration as options.

School buildings cover a wide area so it is always difficult to protect the whole site. This is where considerations about your budget and assessments of your priorities must come in.

“Crime Reduction is common sense, but it is not always common practice”, Please make it common practice.

PERSONAL SAFETY

Staff

The Local Education Authority, unions and every school, should have policies in place advising staff about what safety precautions they can reasonably take.

Basic, common sense advice to staff when in school alone is the same general safety advice which is given to adults by the police:

  • Always think before you act.
  • When you leave the building at night, have your car keys ready; do not wait until you reach your car.
  • If you think someone is following you, go to somewhere i.e. a shop or house with lights on.
  • Do not take short cuts.
  • Think what advice you would give to your own children or pupils, and follow it yourself at all times.

Young people

There are two main areas of risk for young people: robbery and assault.

An increasing number of young people are falling victim to crime on their ways to and from school. This pattern is emerging across the UK. Offenders are  often from the same age group as the pupils they attack, which means that the schools have a vital part to play in the fight against this rising crime on young people.

Young people need to be made aware of the consequences of their actions. Something we have worked hard at in the West Midlands is making positive contact with vulnerable groups and schools. We try and speak to different year groups to advise them on simple steps to take that can reduce obvious risks and have also taken some steps ourselves to help protect vulnerable young people.

  • Extra patrols on the buses at certain times, such as after the school day finishes. Some schools also use bus marshals on the main school routes.
  • Encouraging schools to request the use of the MEND database to register all mobile phones. This can also be used for all electrical items i.e. I-pods, MP3 players etc. This is a free service. 
  • Creating a ‘safe route’ to school. This is a set route that all pupils are encouraged to take and reduces the risk of pupils being isolated and so becoming a victim of crime.

Our advice to give young people is:

  • If possible travel down stairs on the buses.
  • If you are being bullied and having money taken from you, make sure you tell someone. If you do not, the offenders will continue and some of your friends might also fall victim 
  • Record you mobile phone IMEI number for insurance purposes 
  • Make sure someone knows exactly where you are going when you go out.

The most important message from the police for people of all ages is, “If you are a victim of crime please report it. If you do not, the police will not
know, or be able to deal with the full extent of the problem”.

A great deal of crime can be prevented if a little thought is given to security problems. You do not always have to spend a fortune to achieve the best
results. So think about your problems and hopefully the risk will reduce.

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