Visitor Management and School Safety
Access control continues to be one of the top safety and security challenges faced by schools1. Although access control procedures often impose restrictions for parents and other visitors, and can be perceived as an inconvenience, allowing unauthorized individuals to gain access to a school could compromise student and staff safety. Despite these restrictions, during the 2013/2014 school year, 93 percent of public schools in the country reported use of controlled access during school hours to school buildings, by locking or monitoring doors. There are a number of additional practices and considerations schools should think about when creating and improving visitor management and access control procedures.
“Access control continues to be one of the top safety and security challenges faced by schools (United States Department of Education, 2016).”
Source: United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics1. (Click image to enlarge.)
Access Control Versus Visitor Management
Often, the terms “access control” and “visitor management” are used interchangeably; however, there are notable differences. For the purpose of this article we will define access control as the selective restriction of access to educational facilities and property as determined by the school district or facility. Visitor management is defined as the procedures to identify, determine appropriate access, and track a visitor’s access to an educational facility or property. Visitor management merges some of the processes of access control by determining who will be authorized to enter, where they are authorized to go, how they will be monitored, as well as documenting entry times and destinations. Access control should be implemented in each area of school facilities or property at all times. School district and school visitor management procedures should address all visitors, what forms of identification are acceptable, sign-in and sign-out requirements as well as information visitors need regarding rules and emergency protective actions.
“School district and school visitor management procedures should address all visitors, what forms of identification are acceptable, sign-in and sign-out requirements as well as information visitors need regarding rules and emergency protective actions.”
Creating Visitor Management and Access Control Procedures
Many schools utilize electronic visitor management systems. These can be effective in maintaining a record of visitors to a school or facility. Many systems also have features that allow for checking visitor’s IDs against a sex offender registry and printing a visitor badge with a photo from their driver’s license. It is important to realize the limitations of these systems.
For example, a driver’s license photo may be outdated, and therefore, may not currently look like the visitor. Some systems allow for a photo to be taken upon check-in, which may provide a more valuable identification photo. Checking a sex offender registry should identify individuals that have been convicted of a sex crime and therefore are required to register as a sex offender. However, these systems may not provide information on other types of convictions or outstanding warrants. Schools should develop procedures and train staff on what to do if a visitor or parent is identified by the system as a sex offender, who should be notified, under what circumstances might they be allowed into the school and would adult staff be required to escort and supervise their visit. Staff should also be trained what to do if a visitor’s ID triggers a false identification.
“Schools should develop procedures and train staff on what to do if a visitor or parent is identified by the system as a sex offender, who should be notified, under what circumstances might they be allowed into the school and would adult staff be required to escort and supervise their visit.”
Districts may wish to consider implementing a practice of retaining the district accepted form of visitor ID, usually a valid driver’s license, until the visitor checks-out and leaves the facility. This will help ensure the visitor returns and completes the visitor process by signing out, turning in their visitor badge and retrieving their ID. Without such a process, many visitors may simply go out the nearest door and the school has lost accountability for that visitor. Accommodations for visitors that do not possess a valid and current ID should be considered on a case by case basis. This should be reserved for rare circumstances and not become routine. Access should be denied or restricted for those that are not able to verify their ID as required by the district procedures.
In the case of visitors in a school, the idea of “less is more” is important. Less visitors usually equals more security. Most visitors to a school may not need access beyond the front office. Consider putting procedures in place to only allow visitors into facilities if the district recognizes their need for access, put appropriate procedures in place to ensure visitors access only the areas intended, and that all sign-in and sign-out requirements are met. It is extremely important to know who is on your campus and in your facilities at all times.
Finally, individuals that are experiencing relationship challenges where their safety could be compromised at school, should be encouraged to discuss their situation with appropriate administration or authorities. While staff and students may be reluctant to share personal information, this would be essential to the district or school accommodating additional precautions. Districts should consider requiring the visitor to be met in the office by the person they wish to see or to set an appointment. Vendors should not be allowed access simply because they say they represent a company whose services the district may use or need. Appointments should be set up and a phone call made to the staff member to check if they are expecting the visitor and if that staff member is available to come to the office to meet with them and/or escort them as appropriate.
Evaluating Visitor Management and Access Control Procedures
Intruder assessments can be used to test visitor management and access control procedures. In an intruder assessment, one or two adults that are not recognized by school or facility staff, would try to gain access to the facility. This will provide staff and students with an opportunity to demonstrate their situational awareness and report anyone suspicious or that does not have a valid visitor badge issued by the school. The assessment also checks for entry points that are not secured, those that are propped open, and those that may not close securely following entry. It also allows for observation of individuals letting someone in to building without following current procedures. It is recommended that one evaluator enter through the normal entry point and test procedures for requiring sign-in. This evaluator may test procedures by giving false information about the reason for their visit to see if they can gain access to the facility.
Caution must be used not to create an unsafe situation for both the evaluator and the facility staff. If confronted by staff, this should be noted and the evaluator should follow instructions provided by staff. It is a good practice to notify the local law enforcement that the district has authorized the assessment and provide them with information needed to ensure a safe assessment is conducted. These assessments, while considered an important part of a comprehensive safety and security audit, should be conducted periodically until staff and students demonstrate an ability to routinely execute access control and visitor management procedures. For a sample intruder assessment checklist, visit the TxSSC website:
Remember, even if all visitors are authorized, in an emergency the district and/or facility may have to account for each of them. Consider that visitors may not know the appropriate protective actions to take in the event an emergency or if a drill is announced. Consider providing a short general flyer of appropriate protective actions for visitors that are not familiar with emergency protocol of the facility. Effective visitor management and access control is a key component to providing students with a safe and effective learning environment, as well as providing safety to all staff and visitors.
1 United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015, Indicator 20. Retrieved May, 2017, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=334.