Education has changed radically over the past 50 years – but perhaps nowhere more than in ensuring the safety of pupils, as Ian McMurray finds out.
Question: what do Palm Beach Currumbin State High School and Brisbane’s Boondall Primary School in Australia, and St. Edmunds School in Birmingham and Wolsey Junior Academy in Croydon, England have in common? Answer: all were recently subject to lockdown in response to real or perceived threats. And: there have been many, many more…
If you’re of a certain age, you’re probably thinking “lockdown?” Back in those heady days when use of the cane or spending your lunch break writing out 500 times ‘I must pay attention at all times in maths lessons’ were considered appropriate punishments for a misdemeanour, lockdowns were unheard of.
If, on the other hand, you have children of school age, then lockdown is something with which you’re probably very familiar. Today, schools do lockdown drills as often as we once used to do fire drills.
The history of school lockdowns can probably be traced back to the notorious Columbine High School massacre in April 1999, when 12 students and a teacher were murdered by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Inevitably, as well as sparking renewed debate over America’s gun control laws, it also focused increased attention on ensuring the security of schools – an attention which is now worldwide. That attention only increased in 2012, following the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
Borrowed from prisons
But what, exactly, is a lockdown? It’s a term said to have been borrowed from the prisons regime in which prisoners are confined to their cells, typically to regain control in a riot. In education, it means securing the establishment with staff and pupils locked in the building – and potential intruders locked out. It’s not, though, just applicable to schools: lockdown policies are also in place in many businesses. It’s akin to the old practice in the wild west of drawing the wagons in a circle to ward off an attack by those pesky Indians…
It’s not just about potential shootings, though. A lockdown may be in response to a threat to the school of any kind – or to another school in the area. It can be in response to suspicious activity, or a civil disturbance, nearby. It can be in response to, for example, fire or severe weather, or reports of highly polluted air – or for something as apparently minor as a dangerous dog on the loose. It is an unfortunate, if inevitable, fact that hoax threats to schools have become commonplace – but schools need to react no less completely.
Because of the range of threats, their perceived likelihood and perceived severity, various types of lockdown have evolved. A ‘soft’ lockdown may be a school where external doors remain locked throughout the school day, and visitors are vetted before entry. A ‘partial’ lockdown places the school on high alert and prepared to implement a ‘hard’ or ‘full’ lockdown, which brings all pupils and staff into the building, and windows and doors (possibly including classroom doors) locked – and can often only be lifted by the police.
Unsurprisingly, there is now an extensive market for lockdown systems, not least because it is now mandatory for schools in Australia to have protocols in place to respond to threats. In many cases, these can be thought of as application-specific implementations of, for example, a PA system or emergency evacuation system (although a lockdown is, of course, usually the reverse of an evacuation) – or even the bell system that often signifies class changeover time. A range of solutions is available – from simple broadcast messages to the ability to lock all external doors at the push of a button, from basic point solutions to what can be thought of as enterprise-grade integrated systems that leverage the existing IP network and encompass PA, fire alarms, panic buttons, CCTV and so on. The kind of access systems – via badge or fob, for example – widely deployed in business are also finding favour in schools.
Locking external doors is, of course, appropriate when the threat is outside the school buildings – but if the threat is already on the premises, then systems are available that immediately lock all doors within the facility, confining pupils and staff to the space they are currently in. Some systems allow for the creation of zones, such that only a subset of doors is locked: much depends on the layout and flow of the establishment. It is also, of course, important to pay attention to security on the school perimeter to provide security for pupils during break times.
Many systems provide for three stages of alert. Stage one is ‘stand by’ – some form of warning that a lockdown may be about to be implemented: this can be in the form of a ‘secret signal’, which may be a specific piece of music. The second stage is to implement the lockdown itself (and a distinction may be made between lock in and lock out) – and the third, to sound the all clear.
Some vendors stress that their systems are wired, rather than wireless – allegedly providing superior reliability in an emergency situation. For similar reasons, some include battery back-up in the event of mains failure. Inevitably, some solutions are app-based, allowing control via a mobile device, while others can be activated from any PC on the campus. In choosing or specifying a system, an overriding concern will always be the speed with which a lockdown can be implemented: as many commentators note, in an emergency, seconds count.
Activation of the necessary alarms can be from a single point, or multiple locations throughout the facility. This will depend on the school’s policy of whether only one person is authorised to make a lockdown decision, or whether that responsibility is devolved to individual teachers. In the case of distributed authority, some kind of central control panel is necessary to ensure that the classroom that has initiated a lockdown can be rapidly identified. Provision – perhaps in the form of walkie-talkies – needs to be made for staff to be able to communicate with each other.
As with any AV application, understanding the problem is key. Lockdown systems can be thought of as a highly specialist niche market – a subset, perhaps, of the overall security market – and subject knowledge is vital. Just because a school thinks it knows what it wants, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that’s what it needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ lockdown solution. Research has shown that too many schools focus exclusively on the ‘active shooter’ scenario, without considering the multiple other circumstances that create the need for lockdown.
And, yes, the sales process can be complex and lengthy, given the number of potential stakeholders – from the education authority and emergency services through teaching and IT staff to parent associations. All of them may have different – and potentially conflicting – requirements. Just as with school network security, a lockdown system will be the outcome of the establishment’s broader policies concerning student welfare, and the balance between protection on the one hand and individual freedom on the other. As always in education, budget is also often an issue.
For integrators already providing AV systems to education, however – especially internal audio systems and security systems – lockdown systems represent more than an opportunity: it could be said that they represent an obligation. Schools unquestionably need and value the expert advice that a knowledgeable integrator can bring.