The incident at Evansville High School last week provides a fresh reminder of the limitations of security systems and the difficulty in vetting non-students seeking to enter a building.
Many school districts rushed to install new security systems in response to mass shootings, particularly after the December 2012 massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school.
Evansville in 2014 passed a referendum that included funding for more security cameras and a buzzer/intercom system for the high school’s main entrance, and officials say the security system and procedures worked properly when a former student with a knife entered the building last week.
While individuals trying to enter the school have their IDs scanned to be checked against a database of sex offenders, school staff found no reason to turn away the former student.
Deciding whether to admit an individual through a school’s locked doors is challenging. When should a school staff member not push the button to open the door? What should she be looking for on the video monitor or hearing through the intercom to inform that decision?
The vast majority of non-students seeking access are on legitimate business. They are, for example, parents dropping off medicine for a child or a guest speaker planning to address a class for career day. In Evansville, it is “extremely rare” for administrators to encounter someone who appears to be a threat, District Administrator Jerry Roth said.
We suspect that’s true for many other districts, too.
Schools must strike a balance between being welcoming and maintaining adequate security. Evansville wouldn’t want to erect a wall around its campus because of this one incident. While staff might have erred by admitting the former student, it’s important to note administrators effectively handled the threat by detaining the former student without anyone getting hurt.
The truth is no matter how elaborate or expensive a security system, it cannot guarantee student safety or prevent a worst-case scenario.
In efforts to prevent a mass shooting, schools are at a disadvantage because shooters oftentimes plan their attacks weeks in advance and anticipate circumventing security systems. Buzzer/intercom systems, such as the one in Evansville and many other districts, might slow down but won’t necessarily stop a shooter intent on entering a school, as occurred in the Newtown incident.
Our point isn’t to be morbid but to be realistic. Districts should, of course, evaluate their security systems and procedures in the wake of incidents. Staff who must decide several times a day whether to push the button to admit people to the school should get proper training.
Sure, a metal detector and security guards might have stopped this former Evansville student from entering the high school, but at a significant cost to taxpayers. When school districts spend more on security, there’s less money available for education, and educating students should be a school’s top priority.
While school districts should be open to improving their security systems, parents, school board members and administrators alike must avoid the temptation to assume additional security measures would prevent future attacks.
We live in a world of risks, and there’s no such thing as absolute security.