Constructing lines of defence

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Theft, as well as pupil safety, is a growing problem for schools. Gerald Haigh recommends a variety of measures to make your school a more secure place

School safety and security are higher up the agenda than ever before - put there by the dreadful events of the past year or so, and sustained by the manufacturers of security products.

The first duty of teachers and governors is, of course, the protection of the children in their care. They do, though, have other concerns such as theft. Last year, for example, teachers at a primary school returned to their classes after break to find that, while they had been having a quiet coffee, a pleasantly mannered intruder had toured the school looking for handbags; the thief found enough to provide a good haul of bank cards. Later, someone phoned the school with the good news that the thief had been arrested and the cards recovered, but for "security reasons" the police needed the pin numbers. These were then carefully dictated over the telephone - to the thief.

This story clearly illustrates that school security is not just about installing locks, bars and video cameras. Attitudes and awareness, supported by good management, are at least as important.

Doors and fences

Schools are not fortresses. It makes sense, though, to look at the strength of outside doors, especially in areas where iron-footed vandals might lurk at night. It may be appropriate to replace an ordinary wooden door with one made of steel that presents a blank face to the outside world.

Pensher Security Doors specialises in security doors and screens, and markets access systems to go with the doors. Pensher also makes hard-to-climb, welded steel fencing, which is suitable for securing a school perimeter. Everything is specially designed for the customer; the firm, though, was reluctant to give costs.


Of all people, educators should be thinking carefully about putting up cameras. There is a lot of evidence, for example, that even very young pupils are conscious of the vulnerability of schools, and are appreciative of efforts to improve their own safety. However, this trust could easily be lost if the cameras were used to catch students smoking behind the bike sheds. The arrival of digital systems, which make it easy to put tiny cameras in classrooms, is going to make these sensitive issues even more acute.

Closed circuit television (CCTV) has, up to now, consisted of cameras, video recording equipment, monitors and a "multiplexer", which enables several cameras to feed to one monitor. A digital system, however, uses cameras which can record to a computer. The wiring is simpler, the cameras can be very tiny, and there is no need for a multiplexer.

The idea of putting cameras in classrooms is to let teachers quickly draw attention to anything untoward: a suspicious visitor, a violent pupil, even a medical emergency. By switching on the camera, the teacher alerts a central control point - usually the school office - where a live picture of what is going on will appear on a TV or computer screen. Governors who want to put cameras in classrooms will, of course, have to take into account the feelings of the teachers, who may feel concerned about who is watching them, when and why.

I know of two systems (there may well be others) which put digital cameras in classrooms. Verifier from Status Alarms comes from the burglar alarm industry and can integrate video, intruder alarms and access control. The whole lot can be run from a computer which does not need to be on the school premises, and which might well serve more than one school.

The basic price is Pounds 3,650, plus the cost of cameras. The system will run on any existing 486 or Pentium computer.

The other system, Telecom Sciences Corporation's (TSc) Safety Net, uses small digital cameras which the teacher can activate by pressing a button on a telephone in her classroom. The cameras can be used in other places - the firm claims that they can be moved around easily - and for controlling access to the building. The beauty of this system is that because it is telecommunications-based it can extend to video-conferencing and internet access.

The cost of this is quoted as being "Pounds 1 per classroom per day". By my reckoning this means that a 10-classroom primary will be paying about Pounds 3,650 a year on a lease or deferred payment plan.

Though systems like this are expensive, once you have a computer-based system of digital cameras, all sorts of options are possible beyond simple surveillance. Any manufacturer selling such systems to schools ought to be pressed on the possibilities - the opportunity for a visiting speaker in one class to be watched by the whole school, for example.

TSc is well aware of the need to look at all the options. The time cannot be far away when digital cameras are linked to schools' central administration systems, so that pupils can be registered present simply by appearing in class and being recognised by the software. There ought, too, to be the possibility of a special needs pupil's physical progress being recorded straight into his central record.

Fire safety equipment

Inanimate objects, say some religionists, can have personalities. If so, fire extinguishers and fire alarms placed in schools must be decidedly schizophrenic. On the one hand, they have to be ready for genuine action, while on the other, staff are often in constant fear that they will be set off by malevolent youths.

The company STI (Safety Technology International) has come up with some good solutions to these problems. It makes, for example, an Extinguisher Stopper, which is attached to a fire extinguisher. If anyone picks up the extinguisher, a loud alarm sounds. The beauty of this is that, if there really is a fire, then the alarm is a bonus, whereas if there is no fire, the same alarm acts as a deterrent.

The firm also has a Stopper to put over break-glass fire alarm buttons, so that you have to lift the cover before breaking the glass underneath. This in itself can prevent the alarm being set off, possibly accidentally, possibly not, by a jutting elbow. "If a child is standing there with the cover open, " points out Gerald Wallace of STI, "people are going to see him." Additionally, you can have a loud alarm on the cover.

STI's third product which is useful for schools is an Exit Stopper. Says Gerald Wallace, "every school has fire exits, which by their very nature have to be easily opened. This makes them prone to misuse." The Stopper operates an alarm to let people know that the door has been opened. Here, too, the same principle applies: the alarm is a general alert when the door is legitimately used, and a deterrent when it is not. Stoppers from STI start at about Pounds 15 each.

Strong cupboards

The last line of defence against theft is to have valuables locked in a strong cupboard. A thief might be able to get into one of these eventually, but there will be lots of noise and it will take a long time.

For many years, schools have been using solid steel cabinets made by Portastor. At one time, many schools would put their computers into one of these cabinets every night - sometimes it was a local authority rule. The advent of networks and modems has, though, made this less practical.

However, the company now makes a cabinet with a built-in, slide-out workstation that might be worth considering for a stand-alone computer in a particularly vulnerable building. It has also recently introduced a Teksafe range of small security cabinets, designed to protect the individual parts of a network - particularly the file server or a processor under someone's desk - against the theft of chips. Its other cabinets are very suitable for storing audio-visual equipment and any other valuable items.

After a spate of burglaries in which many expensive items were stolen, Victoria special school in Birmingham bought some Portastor cabinets. "Items from ordinary cupboards were stolen," said deputy head Paul Stevens, "but the thieves failed to get into the Portastor cabinets." Portastor products start at about Pounds 300.

* Pensher Security Doors Felling Works, William Street, Gateshead, Tyne Wear NE10 0JP.

Education Show stand B5

* Portastor cabinets from Portastor High Security Products, Fulford Moor House, Fulford Road, York YO1 4EY

* Safety Net from Telecom Sciences Corporation Ltd, 26 The Forbury, Reading, Berkshire RG1 3EJ

* Stoppers from STI (Safety Technology International Ltd) Highfield House, 1562 Stratford Road, Hall Green, Birmingham B28 9HA.

Education Show stand F13

* Verifier from Status Alarms,Status Business Park, The Avenue, Holbrooks, Coventry CV6 4AF

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