Support for Safety in Schools

Experts collaborate to create a guide for school safety.
Jack Maxwell

Gun violence is a sad reality in today’s world. With far too much regularity, we see headlines from around the world describing the latest tragedy, and sometimes, that involves a school. After each such incident, many of the same questions are asked, and among them is: How can we enhance school safety?

Experts from two ASTM International committees have teamed up to address that very question. Though their work on the proposed guide — Minimizing the Effectiveness of Armed Aggressors in Educational Institutions (WK69294) — is ongoing, the members of the committees on homeland security applications (E54) and security systems and equipment (F12) have already mapped out an ambitious outline that covers everything from risk assessment to building design, drills, and exercises. In addition to compiling as much information as possible on technology options and best practices, the committees are also exploring a unique, data-driven approach that may help prevent such incidents from occurring in the first place.

No Comprehensive Standard

The work started in early 2018 with an article in a local newspaper. Jonathan Shull, a member of both committees, learned that his local school — the one he attended as a child and that his children now attend — was installing ballistic film on the building’s windows. “As an expert in the field of antiterrorism force protection, I knew that this film would not fix the problem. I called the school board and was told there is nothing out there that says what we should do, but we have to do something,” he recounts.

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When he began researching the issue, Shull — a physical security and protective structure specialist with Parsons, a critical infrastructure design firm — soon discovered that there were no comprehensive design standards to help guide school officials, architects, and engineers through the confusing welter of information on the many types of available ballistic-resistant materials. Nor were there standards covering the many other products and systems touted as potential solutions to the complex problem of improving school security.

Around this time, Shull connected with old friend Jeff Brown (also then a member of both F12 and E54). As an expert in the security consulting and design field with Live Oak Consultants, which works with school systems on security issues, Brown was well aware of the problem of having too much information. “There is a vast amount of general design guidance out there,” he explains. “However, design guidance with respect to security is focused primarily on military and government facilities. Most of the existing nonmilitary, nongovernmental security guidance speaks in generalities about security systems, layouts, and operational issues, but [offers] nothing overly specific.”

When Shull suggested working on this problem through ASTM, Brown was all for it. “A quick email put the topic on the next meeting’s agenda,” says Shull. “I am a member of E54 as well, and they deal with similar problems but from more of a law enforcement perspective, so bringing them to the table for a joint document was a no-brainer.”

The two friends agreed that the absence of a single source of credible, objective information on designing more secure schools was a big problem and that such a resource was desperately needed. “There are many silos of expertise, innovative ideas, and solutions throughout the country that are being implemented in the design of educational institutions,” Brown says. “But the design community needs a comprehensive document or standard that collects all of this information and best practices into a single source.”

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Jason Destein, founder and owner of school security consultancy Securable Alternatives LLC, and member of both E54 and F12, agrees. “The challenge with school security comes when you have an industry with thousands of security product manufacturers, thousands of consultants, and tens of thousands of end users, all with different opinions and approaches on how to keep schools secure,” he says. “With so many different viewpoints swirling around, and school administrators feeling the intense pressure generated by the overall sense of urgency that demands that something - anything - be done to try and keep kids safer at school, confusion and frustration are to be expected.”

To help meet the challenge, the proposed standard for educational institutions was announced in June 2018 as a result of the joint E54/F12 initiative. The work aims to help school administrators, architects, and engineers better evaluate the pros and cons of the many products and services being touted as the answer to the school security problem.

Information Overload

According to technology consulting firm IHS Markit, the education sector of the market for security equipment and services generated $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017, the latest year for which complete figures are available. This figure encompasses a staggering number of options: ballistic-resistant materials; ID cards with built-in panic buttons; facial recognition software; gunshot detection sensors; emergency response procedures; active shooter training; and more.

The issue is not necessarily whether these products “work.” Presumably, the vast majority are legitimate, good faith attempts to address very specific objectives (identifying suspicious individuals, facilitating lockdowns, etc.). The issue is that school officials lack guidance in the face of a mountain of marketing material designed to convince them of the ability of this technology or that approach to make their schools safer. “Due to the outcry by parents, teachers, students, and staff for schools to ‘do something’ or ‘do more,’ [officials] get lost in the world of widgets and gizmos,” says Brown.

Take cameras, for example. Destein points out that rapid advances in technology make an already difficult decision even more challenging. “Do I need to have an Ultra 4K resolution camera or will something else be more appropriate? What is the right camera to have? Do I need to have a certain feature? What kind of storage do I need to have, and how long should I retain the video? What evidentiary watermarks are required? There are hundreds of different features built into video surveillance nowadays, and it can become overwhelming for school officials with little expertise in this area to determine what is right or best.”

One potential tool Destein and Brown are developing and excited about is a counter-measure scorecard. They believe it will encourage school officials to ask a series of critical questions as they evaluate the relative merits of various security options: Will I get the most out of the camera if it goes here? What is the deterrent value if I install the camera there? Will this countermeasure help reduce access to restricted areas? “These questions will allow for better data-driven decisions to be made, thus allowing for better results of the countermeasures being deployed,” says Destein.

School officials face a daunting task when choosing which technologies to purchase.

“Schools are experts at teaching our kids. They’re not experts at specific security solutions,” says Destein. “I think confusion is always going to be a part of the equation, but if we can make the selection and deployment process less confusing, then schools will be in a better position to make more strategic decisions on their own and not be at the mercy of what a vendor or a consultant tells them to do.”

Return on Prevention

Much of the current discussion about violence in educational institutions begins with questions that arise after an incident has already begun. What kind of access control system will be most effective in preventing a shooter from entering a school? Where should cameras be placed to have the best view of a shooter moving through the hallways? Can shelter-in-place structures designed to protect students during severe weather be adapted to offer similar protection from firearms?

But these committees are also asking themselves: What if we rewind and take a look at whether the armed aggressor could have been identified and thwarted prior to his or her arrival at the facility? What if, in addition to considering the return on investment for security-related purchases, school officials were able to consider the return on prevention?

“We’re trying to take a more prevention-oriented approach rather than a reactive one,” says Destein. “The security industry is hyper-focused on responding faster once an incident is in motion, and we should have that focus. But we should not be afraid to consider incorporating a different approach and seeing what preventive measures we can design.”

One of these elements is specifically in threat assessment: How do you design a building based on threat assessments that take into account how threats could evolve over the next 10-20 years? And further, is there a way to design in de-escalation efforts to help make a school less stressful for kids?

“What’s really exciting is that there’s a data-driven approach behind what we’re trying to develop,” says Destein. “We are looking at not only the historical aspects of armed aggression in schools, but the conditions that exist in schools that can lead to armed aggression. It is critical to understand what the data tells us, not only in terms of how the perpetrators acted, but what their behaviors looked like leading up to the aggression.”

Destein emphasizes how important it is for school officials to focus on the unique attributes of their particular area. “There’s so much research out there on armed aggressors in school environments at the national level, but what I try to get schools to look at is what does your data tell you? It is important that the threat assessment becomes not so much that school shootings are up nationwide, but focused locally in your school district. Do the behaviors that lead someone down the pathway to violence show an increase year over year, by building or by grade level?” 

“We are at a point where we are able to really drill into what that pathway to violence looks like,” he says, and based on that ability, “I think you’re going to see something really different come out with this ASTM standard.”

Providing historical context and a sense of how such threats may evolve over time can, in Destein’s view, give architects and school administrators key insights.

The Path Forward

The effort to develop an armed aggressor mitigation standard is fueled by a sense of urgency, an urgency reflected in the collaboration between two different ASTM committees.

“This is somewhat of a first for both committees,” notes Shull. “We have had several meetings where we pitched the idea to both F12 and E54 to gauge interest and identify people who could contribute in one way or another. Currently, we have teams tackling various subtopics of the standard.” (See sidebar on page 23 for an outline of the proposed standard.)

Leveraging the work being done by an array of ASTM members is an important part of the process of compiling documentation on the many relevant standards that already exist. To cite just one example, the homeland security applications committee is working on a new specification (WK63319) for ballistic-resistant products such as cubicle partitions, nonstructural transparent barriers, security checkpoint barriers, and barriers installed in courtrooms, school safe rooms, and service counters. Currently out for its first subcommittee ballot, this specification is the third in a series of related standards. All three will undoubtedly be examined and may well be incorporated in some fashion into the overall armed aggressor standard.

Casandra Robinson of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading the effort on this work item in the subcommittee on personal equipment (54.04). “In general, E54 works collaboratively with F12 to ensure that we develop complementary, not duplicative, standards. WK63319 would apply to panels or barriers that are retrofitted into existing spaces in schools,” she says.

By the time of the F12 meeting this October in Houston, Texas, Shull, Brown, and the teams plan to have compiled the majority of the necessary documentation on current standards, and each subject lead will update the group on the content and status of their sections. Longer-term goals include having a draft document ready for the spring F12 meeting next April, with a version ready for balloting by E54’s July 2020 meetings.

“We want school boards and their architects and engineers to be able to use this document to help them address school security much like the International Building Code tells them how to design for environmental loads,” Shull says. “The solution is a complex system, and this document will attempt to capture the essential elements of that system from conception to implementation.”

The Guide

The proposed standard for minimizing the effectiveness of armed aggressors in educational institutions currently includes 12 sections, which may be revised as it moves toward balloting next year. The draft is being developed by members of the committees on security systems and equipment (F12) and homeland security applications (E54). 

  1. Threat/Vulnerability/Risk Assessment
  2. Intervention/Prevention
  3. Perimeters
  4. Layouts
  5. Systems/Technology
  6. Building Components
  7. Operations
  8. Drills and Exercises
  9. Security Considering the Educational/Learning Environment
  10. Summary of Existing Guidance/Knowledge/Expertise (appendix)
  11. Third Party Inspection/Certification of Installation
  12. Funding – State/Federal

ASTM International welcomes involvement in the standards process. To get involved with E54, contact Mary Mikolajewski, staff manager (+1.610.832.9678; To get involved with F12, contact Joseph Hugo, staff manager (+1.610.832.9740; 

Jack Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Westmont, New Jersey.

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