In the Wake of Tragedies, Schools Strive to Improve Security Measures

Jun 20, 2013


Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. For educational institutions across the United States, from elementary schools to post-secondary institutions, the saying goes past a cliché. It has become an authentic reflection of the current state of school safety and reminder that anything can happen at any given time.

The threat of a mass school shooting is no longer limited to just high schools and colleges. The highly-publicized incident at a grammar school in Newtown, Connecticut last December confirmed that no age group or demographic is immune to random acts of violence.

“The days where you say, ‘it will never happen here’ are long past,” said Ned Miller, director of Campus Safety and Emergency Management at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). “The urgency has been higher for us to do all the things we possibly can to create safer campuses.”

Miller joined DMACC five years ago, not long after the infamous Virginia Tech school shooting in 2007 that claimed the lives of 32 people including students, faculty and staff. It was clear from the beginning that ensuring the safety of the college was a top priority. But it wouldn’t be an easy task as DMACC has more than 23,600 credit and 31,000 non-credit students and over 3,000 faculty and staff members spread across six campuses and five centers. 

With recent incidents like the Newtown shooting, the public pressure for schools to safeguard their students is at an all-time high. Parents and people within the DMACC community often approach Miller to inquire about campus security.

“I wouldn’t say it happens every day, but we get a lot of questions from concerned parents,” Miller said. “What are you guys doing for campus safety? How would you respond to the events that may happen? What can you show us and tell us?”

“You know, you’re never completely ready for an event like that to happen,” added Miller. “Having said that, we have many processes, protocols and procedures in place, if an incident were to arise.”

In his five years with the college, Miller and his team have steadily increased the number of security officers. They regularly attend conferences and seminars to network with similar educational institutions and share best safety practices. In June, Miller will be one of hundreds traveling to Louisville, KY to attend the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement (IACLEA).      

On top of emergency planning, one of DMACC’s biggest commitments to campus safety has been the school’s significant investment in technology. Miller has found the strong presence of high-definition surveillance cameras to be an asset in maintaining a safe school. According to a new survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for Avigilon, 60 percent of those polled indicated that they would prefer that their children or children of their loved ones go to a school with surveillance cameras over one without.

Miller states that HD surveillance helps cover more ground, a feature that is important to an institution that has 50 buildings that cover 1.5 million square feet. On top of accurately and efficiently solving day-to-day incidents, its presence also helps prevent crimes from occurring. 

“I think there is a good deterrent factor when people know you have good video surveillance,” said Miller. “We don’t make any secret of the fact that we have video surveillance we want people to know that public areas are under surveillance.”

The trend to implement HD surveillance cameras is not limited to post-secondary institutions. The Denver Public School District (DPS), which is comprised of 162 elementary, middle and high schools, uses over 2,200 surveillance cameras. It is one of the many security measures the district takes.

During school hours, all doors remain locked to the schools, and visitors must be buzzed in at the main entrances and must show ID at the main offices. There are over 120 DPS security officers at the schools and on patrol. In November 2012, Denver voters overwhelmingly passed a proposal that included upgrades to security technology – including state-of-the-art CCTV cameras and access control systems - at all of the district’s schools, which will be installed over the coming months.

The DPS’ commitment to safety comes to no surprise given the area’s tragic past. In 1999, the state of Colorado experienced one of the largest school shootings in the nation’s history when a pair of students opened fire at Columbine High School resulting in 12 deaths and 24 injuries. Last year, a gunman in Aurora, Colorado fired rounds of shots inside a crowded movie theater which claimed the lives of 12 people.

“Generally speaking, the community has had a heightened awareness following the Columbine and Aurora theatre shootings,” said DPS Chief of Security, Michael Eaton, who also stated members of the community have stepped up their efforts to protect their students and teachers. “Our community and parents are partners to us in helping to ensure the safety of our schools. Parents and neighbors can be a huge resource in helping to identify suspicious individuals and report anything that seems unusual.”

Learning from past tragedies like Columbine or Newtown is something schools around the nation do to prepare for the unthinkable. 

“You certainly look at what happened at those tragic instances and you try to compare it to your own campus,” said Miller. “We have six campus locations and none of them are the same, and we’re certainly not the same as any other campus. So what happens at, for example, Virginia Tech, wouldn’t happen the same way here. Yet you still use those as examples of and try to learn as much as you can and be ready to respond and react.”

Miller and the security team at DMACC have been able to maintain a safe campus. Their day-to-day security challenges revolve around laptop thefts, textbook thefts and fender benders in parking lots. Year after year, the school posts low crime rates, but Miller continues to attend safety conferences, upgrade DMACC’s security team and invest in HD cameras.  

“It wasn’t our safety record that was driving the need to improve our security, because we have had a very low crime rate” said Miller. “Having said that, that can change tomorrow.”


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