While education facilities have a duty to keep students safe, there are no specific federal regulations about how to do this. Each state has its own school safety laws and recommendations, but every facility is different when it comes to safety planning and preventing everything from potential violence from outsiders to invisible health threats like COVID-19. However, in light of recent tragic events, many schools are looking into visitor management systems (VMS) as a way to identify and limit guests on school property, deliver timely emergency messages to everyone on campus, and track the flow of people on campus in order to build more effective school safety plans for the future.
In this guide, we’ll explore how visitor management strategies and tools can manage security risks and eliminate uncertainty on campus, while enhancing productivity and peace of mind for students, staff and parents.
Keeping school safe by effectively managing visitors
Hundreds or even thousands of people may walk through a school’s doors each day, including (but not limited to):
- Teachers and substitute teachers
- Support staff such as receptionists, cafeteria, and janitorial workers
- Parents and guardians
- Guest speakers and classroom visitors
- Delivery drivers
- Maintenance workers and inspectors
- Contractors and suppliers
- Government officials and child specialists
The vast majority of visitors to schools don’t typically represent a safety risk. Still, parents and officials are understandably concerned after recent events have revealed how vulnerable students are when violent people and weapons cross school boundaries. Since the tragedy at Columbine High School, over 311,000 U.S. children have been exposed to gun violence at school, which can cause lifelong health issues.
There are also less obvious ways in which a constant flow of people can affect the wellbeing of students and school employees. For example, an increase in the number of building occupants can pose a public health risk during COVID-19 surges, not just to children who may develop long-term health consequences from infections but also to teachers and staff who are more vulnerable to severe illness. The wellbeing of schools and school districts can also be affected by non-violent incidents such as theft, robbery, or vandalism from outsiders.
In light of these risks, it makes sense to manage who comes into schools, as well as track when and why they are present. Having a record of all visitors that cross a school’s entry point allows school administrators and other officials to both prevent and investigate incidents.
Why “old-school” methods like paper sign-ins no longer make the grade
In the past, visitors to a school were expected to make their way to the office based on an honor system and sign their names in a log book. Whether they were asked to record their purpose on the property or log out after their visit was up to the individual school. But it’s safe to say that no one with nefarious purposes is going to go to the trouble.
This paper-and-pen sign-in system also relied on staff constantly being present in the front office. It not only posed a risk to students, but was inconvenient to visitors arriving at busy times who often didn’t get the benefit of a warm welcome, instructions about school rules and regulations, or detailed directions or instructions about where to go.
A paper sign-in sheet simply can’t serve as a deterrent or even a way of adequately identifying guests. And even if it does, it relies on busy staff to know by face or name a person who may not be legally allowed on the property (such as a parent with no custodial rights).
That’s why we now have software capable of collecting valuable information, communicating expectations to guests, and monitoring their whereabouts while they’re on school property. Visitor management systems also control who gains access to schools and can bar entry or alert safety personnel to anyone who may threaten a school’s occupants.
By digitizing the “old-school” front office paper sign-in sheets using visitor management software, schools can now:
- Minimize paperwork and relieve the need to keep vague sign-in sheets in bulky filing cabinets.
- Digitize records for easy and accurate storage and retrieval
- Ensure visitor data is legible and complete, barring entry to anyone who doesn’t fill out the requisite information or provide valid ID
- Allow for a fast search through years of records to look for specific visitors, estimate busy periods, or identify other safety needs
- Automatically screen visitors against the nationally-compiled Sex Offender Database or other databases the school keeps of “red flag” visitors
School safety requirements for visitor management
The School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS) collected and processed a decade of K-12 public school safety and security data. It found that between 2009–10 and 2019–20, the percentage of schools using access control technology, such as visitor management systems, rose from 92% to 97%, while those who requested that faculty and staff wear photo ID badges rose from 63% to 77%.
School size, location, and type also have an effect on some safety measures. For example, elementary and middle schools are more likely to require faculty and staff badges or even ask students to wear uniforms. These serve many purposes, but one major function is to allow people to immediately identify who is a member of the school’s community and who is a guest on sight.
Visitor management software is most useful when paired with personalized ID badges, which allow school administrators and staff to identify visitors, and ask questions of anyone on the premises to ensure they have a valid reason to be there.
How visitor management systems can help improve physical safety in schools
Since the U.S. Department of Education opted not to create federal school safety laws in 2018, schools have increasingly relied on state and local bodies to create them. In the absence of federal guidance, technology companies have introduced tools to help schools monitor and secure their campuses. And it’s not just K-12 schools that require this type of access management – colleges and universities also utilize school safety technology.
Of course, not all visitor management systems are the same. Some rely on simple signage for wayfinding and discouraging people from entering specific areas, while others deploy high-tech biometrics and AI facial recognition to identify visitors. Visitor management software typically allows clients to choose the integrations they need and many can provide the following services to assist with school safety:
These can be printed or electronic and serve to identify guests as visitors, display their names, dates of their visit, host, and purpose on site.
iPad or app-based check-in technology
iPads and apps eliminate unreliable sign-in sheets, and apps can provide a touchless check-in journey for public health compliance and overall safety.
Welcoming and hosting visitors
Apps provide immediate assistance for visitors, such as contractors, so they can find their way around a site and stay where they need to be without getting lost.
These allow anyone on site to receive emergency notifications or allow administrators to select who receives alerts (an essential feature if you need to disseminate evacuation information without using a clumsy PA system to broadcast safe spaces to intruders).
Visitor screening and prescreening
This includes everything from tools for denying entry to suspicious or banned persons (whether it’s a former student who poses a threat or parents involved in a custody dispute) to recording the COVID-19 vaccination status of potential visitors.
Data collection and reporting
By recording the identity of people who enter the site, the time they did so, and their purpose for visiting, administrators can run reports on building usage, monitor safety, and investigate incidents.
Cameras give safety personnel added visibility and allow staff to respond in real-time when a suspicious person is on campus.
Geofencing helps establish a perimeter around the school to allow automatic check-in and check-out to frequent visitors. It can also help safety personnel send out messages to everyone within a certain radius, track movements on campus, and help notify personnel if someone tries to breach an off-limits area. Geofencing creates a virtual broadcasting boundary to let schools communicate with visitors who are on campus.
Compliance and liability
Allows schools to collect waivers, disseminate safety information, and inform guests of rules and regulations when entering the site.
The kind of visibility a visitor management system allows was previously unachievable with old methods. It allows safety officers to see new patterns, control the flow, and develop plans that prevent incidents before they happen.
Getting buy-in for a VMS from staff and parents
It’s normal for parents and guardians to have concerns about school surveillance, but the more significant issue is safety. Before investing in a visitor management system, it’s crucial to educate parents about a school’s new access control strategy, as well as the reasons for implementing these tools, how they will be used, and the importance of following the new instructions set by the school to maintain safety.
Implementing a VMS will also require schools to train all school staff so they not only stay aware of visitors but know how to effectively use the system to track potential threats and report suspicious behavior to a safety authority. While it does take more work to keep a school safe, the payout is well worth the effort.
Schools may be primarily used for education, but they are also places where people outside of the school community can attend sporting events, school plays, holiday services, town hall meetings, or even vote. People who enter a school outside of school hours can potentially leave the premises vulnerable on evenings and weekends when staff is not around to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior. A VMS allows K-12 schools to utilize safety technology without having to staff every inch of the property every time it’s being used.
What visitors gain from a school visitor management system
A VMS is designed to deter potentially dangerous people. However, it’s also useful as a way to welcome people to campus, give them a positive first impression, and help them find their way around.
School campuses are often confusing places for visitors to navigate. But everyone from parents to maintenance and cleaning personnel can benefit from VMS tools. Comprehensive visitor management software allows visitors easy access to:
- Specialized safety and risk management procedures, including warnings about areas that are off-limits or pose a threat.
- Detailed site rules or codes of conduct so expectations are clear up-front.
- Lockdown and evacuation instructions in case of an emergency.
- Site maps showing entry points, car parking information, room locations, restrooms, etc.
Protecting schools with visitor management software
There’s no evidence that school safety challenges will go away on their own, and there’s no one, universal way to protect all schools or students from every possible safety threat. However, we do have evidence that an increasing number of students are being subjected to and traumatized by school violence and threats.
While technology can’t take the place of mental health resources, it can help prevent the incidents that cause that trauma to begin with, prioritizing the need to keep all school members safe and healthy.
At Sine, our visitor management solutions help protect people and property across the education industry. Using state-of-the-art check-in tools and integrations that help school officials identify threats, send a warning, and allow for better communication in the case of an emergency, we can help prevent potentially dangerous events in schools.
Learn more about how Sine is helping educational facilities worldwide enhance safety and security.