Taking a Systems Approach to Physical Safety in Schools

In order to be effective, physical safety in schools has to be more than superficial. For example, more than 90% of all US schools have access control. People can't just wander in off the street without showing ID, being monitored and checked in, and so on. That's terrific.

But once they're past the front doors, all too often the security dissolves. According to a 2020 survey by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center on Education Statistics, more than one-quarter of all U.S. public schools have classroom doors that cannot be locked from the inside.  

In other words, as we've seen played out horrifically in the last several months, it's still the case that in many schools, if an attacker gets into the building, there is little or nothing to stop them from wreaking havoc.

The Four Key Elements to Improving Physical Safety in Schools

Regardless of what any given parent, politician, or vendor claims, no single security improvement can or will provide complete protection on its own. Schools need a well-thought-out security improvement plan. Such plans have four key elements, all of which work together to improve safety and security for students and staff:

  1. Awareness—You need to be aware of potential threats and incidents. A strong school safety culture begins with students and staff enjoying a strong sense of belonging in their school and "ownership" of that community. This can then be leveraged to increase safety through clearly identifying visitors, 'See Something, Say Something'/check-in policies, and a norm of quickly responding to any staff or student concerns. 
  2. Training—Regular fire and weather emergency drills have proven the value of training students and staff in emergency response. Evacuation, lockdown, and assailant response procedures should similarly be regularly rehearsed.
  3. Access Control—97% of all public schools have some sort of access control in place. This includes exterior doors with electric strikes, cameras, a guard, etc.
  4. Physical Security—These are the bullet-resistant barriers, windows, panels, doors, and frames that integrate your access control, awareness, and training into a cohesive security response

(Wondering where to start with physical safety in schools? We've prepared a comprehensive introduction to An All-Hazards Approach To School Safety.)

Best Barriers for Physical Safety in Schools

Over the past several decades, Total Security Solutions has helped nearly a thousand schools to improve physical safety by installing high-functioning physical barrier solutions.

Because every school is unique, TSS has found that creating these security solutions always involves a fair bit of custom tailoring. But that's in no way to imply that every school needs to reinvent the wheel in order to improve safety. TSS has consistently found that schools can reliably improve safety and security by focusing on access control, containment, and a multi-level "defense-in-depth" approach focused on the building point of entry and hallways.

School Door Security at the Front Door and in the Halls

Becoming familiar with common ballistic solutions will help you be more prepared for your next project. Options such as bandit barrier horizontal or vertical sliding windows provide another layer of customization. These sliding transaction windows can be kept open during the day and closed during higher-risk hours, allowing workers to adapt convenience store security to changing needs and trends. Baffle/Arch transaction windows offer ballistic and forced entry protection in the busiest of spaces, creating a safe environment for employees to interact with customers. Non-rated acrylic louvers can be implemented above the transaction windows to fill open space.

4. Accessories Provide Accessibility

Most schools already funnel all traffic into and out of the school through a single main entrance. This is an excellent practice by itself, preventing many of the most common threats in schools (e.g., child custody conflicts, conflicts with or between family members, spillover violence from community disagreements, etc.)

TSS often helps schools further enhance this security measure by converting entryways into “secure vestibules” (a security strategy Total Security Solutions pioneered almost a decade ago). 

In a secure vestibule renovation, the existing exterior doors are generally left as is, while the interior doors are replaced with secured bulletproof doors. A ballistic glass transaction window is then added to the wall of the entryway, between the outer and inner doors. Visitors can freely enter through the exterior doors but must then check in with receptionists through the secure transaction window before being “buzzed in” to the building.

As mentioned above, the hallways are the most critical area where we need to address physical safety in schools. Roughly a quarter of all US schools—more than 34,000 buildings—cannot reliably lock their classroom doors. And even in the buildings where doors have working locks, are the doors themselves sufficient to provide meaningful cover?


Weak door security on interior doors is easily the most concerning lingering "soft spot" in schools right now.

Addressing the "People Problem" with Physical Safety in Schools

There is a truism among security integrators:

The greatest enemy of a $10,000 access control and security door system is a 99-cent rubber doorstop.

Awareness only improves safety if people say something when they see something. Training only helps if people do what they practiced when it counts. Access control doesn't work if people can sidestep it and there are no consequences or responses when they do. Physical security is impossible if doors are left open.

“We know that close to 90% of all public schools have a written plan for an armed intruder situation," explains Jim Richards, CEO of Total Security Solutions. "But with any security program, when you go back and look after an incident, you always see that there are processes that were ‘in place’ that just didn’t happen."

For example, following the recent tragedy in Uvalde, TX, the Texas House of Representatives noted in a 77-page report that Robb Elementary school was "one of the few Texas school districts recognized by the School Safety Center as having submitted a viable active shooter policy." Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, key elements of that active shooter response plans were not followed. This lent to an "atmosphere of chaos" that "contributed to the loss of life as injured victims waited over an hour for help."

"Physical safety in schools really starts with keeping the doors locked. Having a good check-in process at your secure vestibule means nothing if someone can come in the backdoor. Good school door security only helps if those doors are closed. You’re not going to have a good outcome in an emergency if people don’t follow your processes.”

Scheduling Physical Security Improvements for Schools

 Upgrading a school's physical security is a year-long project:

  • September: Schedule walk-throughs with security consultants and local law enforcement to evaluate physical security issues.
  • November–December: Begin collecting bids from builders, security companies, and bulletproof barrier specialists. 
  • January-March: Begin working through plans and designs with your team builders and contractors. Make sure you understand the approval process, which can vary drastically by state and even school district. Some areas have added steps—such as second school board approvals or outside design evaluations—that can create significant delays, especially if any revisions are needed.
  • April: You want the design approved by the beginning of April and all purchase orders placed by the end of the month. Given current supply chain issues, some materials take extremely long to arrive. For example, the current lead time for finished glass-clad polycarbonate bulletproof windows is six to eight weeks. An order placed in April will be ready just in time for installation during summer break.
  • July-August: Installation!

Every school is unique—not just structurally, but also in terms of their culture and the surrounding community. Do you have questions about how to best address security where you live and work? Or a project in mind? Contact our ballistic security experts to discuss the right solution for you, your facility, and your community.

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