Schools face a wide variety of risks – anything from crime, vandalism, injuries and death to kidnapping, assault and shootings. Although threats differ slightly in different countries, and responses vary, there are common learnings when assessing security concerns and risk management in schools.
According to Alexander Irvine-Fortescue, Head of Risk Advisory at DS-48, a risk management and security services company based in London, South African schools are generally more aware of security concerns than their UK counterparts. “In the UK, we have lessons to learn from South Africa,” he says. “UK schools have been reluctant to accept a security presence, but school bodies are taking more interest in this now.”
After visiting some affluent schools in Centurion, Pretoria, Irvine-Fortescue said the fundamental security risks and concerns are no different to those in the UK, but these schools have already put many more measures in place, including electric fencing around the perimeter, guards, and CCTV monitoring.
Perhaps surprisingly, private schools in the UK are slower to respond to some of the threats to schools, but Irvine-Fortescue points out that it is public schools that are at greater risk of some of the more intimidating threats levelled at schools, like knife crimes.“This is to do with a lack of understanding about where security fits into the budget and how it can complement health and safety and safeguarding in those institutions,” he says.
Public schools take safety and security more seriously as they are exposed to threats more frequently and have had to act in a more focused manner to address these concerns.
According to Johan Du Plooy, Senior Managing Partner of Roarr-Advisory, South African schools also have a problem with knife crimes and there have been some fatal stabbings in recent months. Even private schools have this problem, which can be difficult to address. However, he believes that having the appropriate policies in schools can assist. “Policy is very important and the application of policy, and how you control it, becomes even more critical,” he says.
Irvine-Fortescue says the major components of physical, technical and procedural safety at schools include:
- What your perimeter looks like. Whether you have a fence or a wall around the perimeter, you have to be able to control ingress and egress from the site.
- The ability to monitor and record who has access to the site – preferably with CCTV.
- Having appropriate policies in place to manage different crises. “Do you have a critical incident management plan in place and are your staff trained in what this looks like?” he says. “Do you have an access control plan and a visitor policy? Do the staff understand them? Are they willing to challenge visitors without lanyards or unaccompanied by staff members? Do you have a lockdown or evacuation policy? Do the staff and student bodies understand what the actions involved in those would look like?”
School shootings a possibility?
Although school shootings are prevalent in the United States, this is not much of a problem in the UK or in South Africa.
Irvine-Fortescue says the last such incident took place in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, when 16 children and one teacher were shot dead by a pupil. Firearm laws in the UK are comprehensive, but he says this does not completely eliminate the possibility of such shooting in the future – and that these events do pose a worst-case scenario threat. “It is the duty of schools to ensure their security and risk management planning takes into account how they might address an active assailant,” he asserts
South Africa has not faced school shootings to date, despite the prevalence of firearms in the country. “This is not something we need to worry about – but it could take place,” says Du Plooy, adding that the US shootings were well planned by disgruntled individuals who were ‘ticking time bombs’.
Lockdown policies allow schools to address, not just active shooter scenarios, but a whole range of other less intimidating security risks – or risks to visitors, students and staff – and gain control of the situation. With the correct procedures in place, such threats can be mitigated.
Irvine-Fortescue says there was a spate of threats issued against schools in 2017, including bomb threats and suggestions that individuals were going to run children down in their vehicles. However, schools were able to respond appropriately, and arrests were made – fortunately, most of the threats were hoaxes.
Other threats to be aware of
According to Du Plooy, kidnapping is a growing problem as the economy weakens. “It’s any parent’s worst nightmare,” he says, adding that it is crucial to teach children to identify risks and take precautions. Irvine-Fortescue says a number of his clients are schools attended by the children of celebrities or high-net-worth individuals. Having the correct access guidelines as well as background checks on staff can help to keep pupils safe. Criminals are opportunists, so minimising opportunities can make them think twice.
He says he was pleased to see the use of biometrics in some South African schools but adds that there is limited use in the UK as the cost can be high. He also says the cost of a security guard can be prohibitive for schools and most feel they don’t need a guard, but they do rely on other security measures to reduce risk. “We tend to focus more on capital expenditure, costs around the perimeter, and physical and technical security,” he says. Effective behavioural changes within school bodies, and embedding security culture that’s not over the top, will lead to an ability to apply practical measures in schools in case of worst-case scenarios.
“Control starts at your date,” says Du Plooy. “Like any good security plan, start with barriers and look at personnel. Schools aren’t doing the necessary background checks.” He says schools with GC-Mark certification from a DQS Academy give parents peace of mind as they know the security measures in place at a school are more than adequate. “Many schools are looking into this. It’s a good measure,” adds Du Plooy.
Du Plooy also says parents need to monitor children’s cellphone usage. Pornography is a significant problem and syndicates are often involved.
Irvine-Fortescue points out that UK schools have started to undertake safeguarding – the protection of all pupils within schools – after being pressured by school bodies and governing authorities. This is complemented by other security measures – and health & safety measures are further complemented by good security and risk management. “It’s important that schools recognise the value of combining various different approaches,” he says.
Risk management to prevent the death of learners
With so many pupils having died in South African schools this year – either on site or on school trips – there is a necessity for schools to conduct more risk assessments. Du Plooy says schools seldom carry out proper risk assessments before school activities. There are laws that govern mass gatherings, but away excursions are an area of weakness.
Irvine-Fortescue says UK schools are generally good at assessing risk when it comes to trips and travel but are less confident with critical incidents management plans and dealing with worst-case scenarios.
“When we conduct critical incidents training, we deal with a range of events – not just an unauthorised male gaining entrance to the grounds or a major security breach, but also injury, road traffic collision just outside the school, and so on,” he says.
“It is critical that the senior leadership team can step up and make decisions. The wider staff body must understand where their responsibilities lie. Are they First Aid trained? Do they know to call the emergency services, or will they panic? If an accident happens off-site, do they know to inform the school bring a wider alert team or critical incident management team together?”
Du Plooy says having a basic checklist will also make a different – like having lifejackets for any trips that involve being on or around water.
Irvine-Fortescue says that qualified risk managers can train senior leadership, making them aware of their roles and responsibilities and assessing how they respond in different scenarios. They can also assess who is stronger at fulfilling certain roles. Taking the wider staff body through critical incidents and preparing them with their own understanding of events is the best preparation to prevent an incident from escalating beyond their control.
When to apply lockdown
Irvine-Fortescue says we typically associate lockdown with an active shooter, but lockdown can also be used by a senior leadership team to keep everyone together in one place, whether security them in a classroom or within the school grounds. This allows the team to address any number of incidents in slow, controlled fashion – from a police incident outside the school gates to a gas leak or swarm of bees. Lockdown helps the team to account for everyone, marshal a coordinated response, and take the appropriate actions. It empowers the team to take control of a situation.
Measures for less affluent schools
Can some of the security measures adopted in urban schools we applied in less affluent schools in rural areas?
Du Plooy points out that some communities already applying security practices themselves, but a bigger budget is needed. It is ideal to have different alarm systems – even a hand-hell bell – provided learners are not confused as to which bell or alarm signifies a particular emergency. However, behavioural knowledge will increase the success of a response and reduce the threat most.