As summer approaches its close, schools across the country will again be welcoming students back onto campus.  In some locations, great effort on the part of school administrators, teachers and security professionals has been undertaken to assuage the apprehension and fear of parents and students alike in regard to criminal activity within the confines of a learning environment.  However, one basic error concerning an overarching principle in security will repeatedly be made by administrators, despite their best attempts to secure our schools.  Schools will be thought of, and viewed, as anchor points, but will be treated as habitual areas. This contradiction leads to the establishment of security gaps, which create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by threats.

A habitual area is a location where people come and go with little inhibition or restriction.  It is a location where people are generally welcomed and frequent often and repeatedly.  People generally feel comfortable and move about in an inviting and relaxed environment.  Habitual areas are generally created by a proxemic pull into the area, allowing people to meet a need.  A shopping mall is a good example of a habitual area.  Generally, it is the attitudes and actions of people within the physical space that make a place a habitual area.

Conversely, an anchor point is a location where only a certain group of people are normally allowed to operate in and would feel comfortable doing so.  Individuals who are not a part of the pre-established group would not be welcomed in the anchor point.  Anchor points provide safe haven and a sense of increased comfort and security for those who are part of a specific group or subset, but only to the extent that the anchor point is secured and defended.  Anchor points are a “base of operations” allowing selected individuals or groups to operate in a controlled environment with familiar people with common goals and objectives.  There is also a proxemic pull for anchor points, but only for those who are a part of the group allowed in the location.  Unlike habitual areas, there is also a proxemic push away from the area for the unwelcomed that are not a part of the group. Like the habitual area, it is to a large extent the attitudes and actions of those within the anchor point that defines it as such.

The physical setting does also contribute to the establishment and identification of a habitual area or an anchor point.  Physical security measures such as fences, gates, the layout of walkways, lighting and entry points, help define the area and set the mood, tone, and expectation of those entering and operating within the area.  The addition of iconography (signage, symbols, markings and writings) communicating the belief, association and principles of those operating in the area can paint an accurate picture of who is welcome, what criteria must be met and the operating mores within the area.

Schools, perhaps more than ever, need to be anchor points.  Past acts of horrendous violence make this point undeniable.  However, simply believing or stating that a location is an anchor point doesn’t make it so.  It’s dangerous to declare a place to be an anchor point or have a belief that it is, yet operate it as a habitual area.  This creates false bravado, diminishes our situational awareness and impedes our ability to spot anomalies.

Patrick Van Horne talks about an experience that illustrates this point beautifully.  After the shooting last winter in Newtown, CT, Pat had scheduled a meeting with school officials to discuss training aimed at increasing situational awareness, and thus overall school security.  Pat was to meet with the school officials at the school in question.  The school officials, after meeting with Pat, boasted about the security measures they had already put in place.  They took great pride in explaining to Pat the high degree of safety, security and control they had implemented.  They questioned the need for Pat’s expertise and the training he could provide.

What those school officials did not know was that Pat had arrived early because he wanted to find the exact location of the meeting within the school and didn’t want to be late.  Pat was able to enter the school grounds, wander the halls and corridors in a number of directions, and essentially had full access to the school.  Pat went unchallenged, unencumbered and uninhibited throughout the school until finally finding the specific meeting place.  Whatever measures they may have taken to bolster security did nothing to make the school more secure against a potential intruder.  Their actions only caused them to believe they had created an anchor point, when in reality they had not.  As a result, they were lulled into a false sense of security.

A baseline can be much easier to establish in an anchor point, and thus, anomalies are more easily forced to the surface and recognized than in a habitual area because there are less variables.  Anchor points by their very nature are more controlled and regulated.  There is often a higher level of expectation in regard to appearance, behavior, customs and practices.  It doesn’t take a long period of time, or much observation, to spot the sisters from a local convent who wander into an outlaw biker bar.

The same principle applies to our schools, but only to the extent we are willing to truly establish schools as an anchor point and put the measures and practices in place that establish it as so.  Pat probably wasn’t challenged or even given a second look as he walked unfettered through the school because of the mistaken notion that anyone on the school grounds must belong there and / or someone has already  “cleared” the subject.  If we aren’t willing to defend schools as anchor points, and make clear through deeds, not just words, that only a preselected group of people are welcome, then there is no point in even considering it an anchor point.

Well-intentioned people will most times follow the protocol of school entry.  Those with ill intent certainly will not.  In fact, they will look for the gap in security measures caused by the incongruence between believing the school to be an anchor point, but operating like a habitual area.  Here are some key questions to ask to check for those security gaps.

  • Are check in and checkout procedures well established and followed consistently for every visitor?
  • Do teachers, administrators and other school staff feel empowered to challenge anyone they don’t personally recognize?  Are they required to do so?
  • Of those individuals that are personally recognized, do school staffers still inquire as to the purpose of their presence?
  • Are there requirements in place regarding what can and cannot be carried onto the campus by visitors?  Are there measures in place to check bags, boxes, etc.?
  • as the concept of defense in depth been employed HHasHas the concept of defense in depth been employed?  Has a buffer zone around and leading up to the anchor point been established?
  • Is there a means by which to quickly Is there a means by which to quickly and clearly identify bona fide visitors from strangers from a distance and upon first glance?
  • Is a consistent message being sent about how welcome a stranger may feel simply entering the school grounds by way of iconography, the physical setting and placement of fences, gates, entry ways, walkways, foliage, lighting, and the actions, attitude and demeanor of school personnel?

Perhaps most importantly, school personnel must be trained in how to quickly establish a baseline for their school for any given day, time of day, or special event, and then spot the anomalies that rise above or fall below that baseline.  School personnel must be able to spot those behavioral threat indicators displayed by an individual before a full incursion of the anchor point can unfold and develop.

The defense of an anchor point relies on being proactive, not reactive.  Too many schools rely heavily on reactive measures to preserve life and property after a dynamic event has unfolded.  A true anchor point exists because those that occupy it have made it clear that those not part of the group are unwelcome, creating a proxemic push from the area.

Schools need to be anchor points for our students, teachers and staff, so that teaching and learning flourishes in an environment of safety and security, absent of the threat of violence.  We must establish them as such.  Teachers and staff need to be adept at observing and searching for anomalous behavior. We must train them to do so.  Schools need to be operating left of bang. We must get them there, and keep them there.

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