Asked and Answered: Expert Insights on School Safety and Security

By: Michele Gay

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Anthony Seiler of Johnson Controls, a leading security industry firm, and proud supporter of our mission at Safe and Sound Schools, to discuss the current and future landscapes of school safety and security. Seiler shares insights and expertise on security, a back-to-basics approach, and creating safe and welcoming spaces for learning success.

MG: Anthony, thanks for sitting down with me to talk safety and security! I know how busy you are in your work and as part of a leading, international safety and security company. We really value your time and expertise in our mission at Safe and Sound Schools!

AS: Thank you! Campus health and safety is a passion of mine. Having two young elementary school daughters makes what I do have real meaning and immediate impact. And my role at Johnson Controls provides an avenue to bring safety to schools everywhere. I’m thrilled to chat with you today.

MG: As you know, the past 10 years have really brought school safety to the forefront in terms of mainstream awareness. I’d like to think a lot of that is due to the work of so many of us in the field, but it’s also clearly due to an increased awareness of risk, and unfortunately increasing violence across our country. These factors have really accelerated the pace of improvement efforts in our schools—which can be a good thing. But of course, there are many challenges as schools step up to address new safety and security needs, and out of their traditional comfort zone of education. How are you seeing it with the schools you serve?

AS: It’s a common theme we are seeing within districts everywhere. No two districts are exactly alike so there’s no one-size-fits-all. Inner city schools, rural schools, underfunded schools, and affluent suburban schools all face something different. The goal is a healthy and safe environment for all students and faculty. But between budget and priorities, how they get there can take many different paths and challenges. That can be challenging as we in the industry build and innovate solutions for education settings. But it also gives us an opportunity to build something very special and tailored. And when that comes together, it is a wonderful thing to see. One challenge we’re seeing is getting schools to start at the beginning. There is a lot of urgency on the part of schools to improve, but guiding educators to adopt more of a “walk-before-you- run approach” is critical to getting it right. If a district doesn’t have the basics, then even the latest and greatest recommendation will not work as intended. For example, installing artificial intelligence without simple access control [controlling who how people can get into the building] is an example of this. So, we ask schools to look holistically at the environment and implement solutions that meet a specific need and tie in existing resources. That helps them to make the most of their funding and build with a long term strategy in mind. We always try to understand the end goal and work backwards with that goal in mind.

MG: How do you and other physical safety experts serve schools?

AS: As experts in physical safety and security, we have a lot to offer. Most of us work in a variety of spaces—corporate, government, business, worship spaces, and of course schools. And many of us have families too, so building solutions for the most important people in any community is a personal passion for us. I’m lucky to work in an organization that takes a partnership approach to working with schools. Our approach is more like what my mother taught me years ago, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen!” So, spending a great deal of time listening to our schools is the first step the process. Understanding what they want to achieve, what they currently have and don’t have in place, and only then building into their areas of opportunity. We advocate that schools prioritize solutions that interconnect and are vendor agnostic. It saves a lot of time and money—two things schools are pretty short on–– and builds confidence and engagement. We engage our schools with walk-throughs and scenarios to pressure test situations to help see any area of threat; and we spend a great deal of time helping our schools find and navigate funding opportunities too. There are so many opportunities out there now that it’s a bit overwhelming for most schools and districts.

MG: Well, it is good news that we are in a time of funding for all things school safety, right? From mental health resources, to physical safety improvements, to support positions like nurses, SRO’s, counselors–our schools want and need help in all areas of safety. We’ve seen some great progress in terms of the standard of care that schools are setting for keeping students and staff safe as well.

AS: Yes, we sure have. We have seen an entire nation get behind school safety for kids everywhere. Today’s schools are open to suggestions and feedback on how to make their campuses safer and healthier. There is a receptive ear for listening and learning about how we can all do better by our kids. And certainly, the federal and state governments have increased support for schools. School safety grants are allowing schools to address longstanding issues and updates, and even bring projects over the finish line. I truly believe that student health and safety is the #1 priority shared by all today. And that gives us great hope to continue to make a difference together.

MG: Together. Yes! How do you see schools working smarter to increase safety without sacrificing the welcoming, comforting environment that is required for education? Are my teaching roots obvious here?

AS: Ha, yes! Many schools are working smarter to achieve the outcomes they want these days—and learning is the primary outcome after all. There’s always a worry that the improving safety and security could negatively impact culture and environment, but that doesn’t have to
be the case. I see districts exploring many avenues to increase safety but not forgo the welcoming environment. Campuses that look and feel safer are a big part of this. There’s an architectural design strategy called, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design that has helped many communities reduce crime and improve climate. Now it’s working in our schools.

CPTED is the effective use and design of the built environment to reduces the opportunity and fear of crime. For schools that can yield an improvement in the quality of the educational experience. There are many factors that go into this. But one example of this is limited and controlled entrance points. For example, at my daughter’s school, there are always two smiling teachers greeting students as they enter the one and only entrance. This lets staff better control and account for everyone–from students to visitors– in the building. Security layering, training staff, developing safety plans and practicing drills, are all examples of how to improve safety and reduce the opportunity for fear and crime. Schools have been utilizing stimulus funding to cover initiatives like these as they can directly impact the safety and in turn the quality of the learning environment.

I think schools are taking better advantage of supports from volunteers and free/low-cost local experts too. School Resource Officers and other public safety servants are more involved in many school communities. Many Governors are offering state-led assessment teams to uncover areas of threats and close the gaps. Also there has been a clear and steady rise in full time positions for chartering security. Less and less is falling under facilities folks to shoulder alone. We are seeing many schools double down on safety by hiring Directors of Security and Public Safety. This is accelerating a lot of improvements in K12 schools.

MG: What are some of the exciting things on the horizon in terms of supporting school safety?

AS: So one of the most exciting things about my job is research and development. Basically, I get the privilege of constantly dreaming about K12 safety and all the ways we can better support safe learning environments for our schools. We literally get to imagine what an ideal campus could look like from a safety and comfort standpoint (because you need both). This is how we give the breadth and scope of possibilities, and then help schools move strategically to their ideal. It’s a fabulous approach that combines dreaming, listening, and adapting for each unique community.

Another exciting thing to watch is how artificial intelligence can shape school safety. The things we can do to automate, simplify, and reduce the burden on busy staff are only getting better and better. I don’t want to get too SiFi here, but there’s some pretty cool technology already in use in businesses, workplaces, and out in the community that’s finally making its way to our schools, where our most precious people are every day.

One last piece of encouraging news for schools is the ability to leverage economies of scale to make solutions more affordable. Pricing models and subscriptions have helped reduce the capital expenditures of large projects for our schools. For example, SaaS allow schools everywhere to utilize security offerings without having to receive large bonds or exhaust a budget. There is so much instore for schools in the area of improved campus safety. And it’s never been more critically important.

MG: If you could give our schools your top 5 areas to focus on to support a safe and secure learning environment, what would those be?

AS: That’s a great question. Here are my suggestions to 5 focus areas to kick start campus

  1. Have a plan and get some trusted help. No one can do this alone and there are plenty of experts to help in the process. And if you don’t know where to start, look to your neighbors! Plan with nearby schools, districts, and public safety folks.
  2. Understand your current state. What technology you have and don’t have. Know your security measures and designated stakeholders. If you don’t know, that’s your current state and that’s okay too. Just get started.
  3. Get a risk assessment and site walk through completed. The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) and the Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) both have free resources for schools.
  4. Remember the “walk-before-you-run” approach. Starting at the basics and working upstream is the best way to have a comprehensive plan and roadmap. We like Safe and Sound’s Layers of Security toolkit tool too.
  5. Designate a team, training or all students and faculty, and test regularly what you have in place. Additional walk throughs are always recommended to adapt and refine.

There you have it, in no particular order, but some best practices we see to kick start any district at any level. I get great fulfillment in creating ways to partner with school districts large and small. Each have a different vantage point, competing initiatives, but when we get campus safety across the finish line, there’s a sense of accomplishment for all.

MG: It’s been lots of fun digging into all of this with you today. I always learn something new when we sit down with one of our experts. We’re so grateful for your insight and expertise, and for the work that Johnson Controls does to bring it all to our schools and communities. We see you out there in the world, in the corporate, bank, business, and other sectors, but school and community safety is at the heart of the matter for us. We’re glad it is for you too!