When visitor management practices fail, students are left in a vulnerable position.
In the conversation surrounding threats to school security, there has always been a focus on bad actors, usually students, perpetrating violence inside their own campus. While this topic certainly provokes strong emotions, these attacks are still an anomaly, with 29 students being killed or injured in school shootings so far this year out of almost 50 million K-12 students. Although we shouldn’t tolerate any instance of violence at schools, these types of attacks aren’t as persistent of a threat as other dangers surrounding school safety, such as the vulnerability of many schools’ access points leading to instances where students can be taken without consent of the school or their legal guardian - or simply wander off campus. In this post, we’ll review five instances where deficient visitor management protocol led to a student being kidnapped or otherwise leaving campus erroneously.
Disclaimer: all victims mentioned in this article were found and returned to their rightful guardian(s), safely.
While being a child of separating or divorcing parents is stressful enough, their wellbeing is certainly impaired when the parents don’t have an unanimous understanding of their child’s custody. Unfortunately, if parents are at odds with their child’s custody, the school grounds offer an opportunity to disrupt the agreed-upon terms: at school, the supervision of the child is temporarily suspended from both parents, enabling a distressed parent to take control of their kid’s custody unlawfully. When a parent loses custody of their child and tries to take them from school, it is generally referred to as parental abduction or kidnapping. In some cases, the parent may have legal visitation rights, but attempting to take the child without permission can still be considered kidnapping if it goes against the court's orders.
In Pueblo, Colorado, a 6-year-old was picked up by her biological mother from South Park Elementary in an unknown vehicle. It was later discovered that the mother didn't have legal parental rights. An amber alert was issued and the child was found safe later in the day. These parental abductions aren't usually motivated by wanting to harm the child, but when it comes to a student’s whereabouts, there is no room for assumptions. A comprehensive visitor management system would house a database of criminal offenders and restricted visitors, which would include parents that have lost custody of their children. However, if this protocol isn’t communicated to parents and the rest of the community, parents will be much less likely to provide this information to administrators when custody changes occur.
A woman who had no relation to two children kidnapped them from a DC public school after staff failed to properly check her identification. In an effort to leverage the children to get in contact with their father, the woman used a fictitious name and claimed to be the mother of the 5 and 6-year-old, and the children were released to her, allowing her to take them without suspicion. The children’s actual mother was notified of her children’s departure after the fact, much to her dismay. This incident highlights the vulnerability of children attending schools with inadequate visitor management systems. The ease with which the child was taken away by an unauthorized individual underscores the risk of children being used as leverage by dangerous adults.
When protocol and procedure aren’t standardized and followed across the entire campus, instances like this are exponentially more possible. At least one person in this situation knew that something wasn’t right, hence the call made to the correct mother, but an oversight this severe indicates that the school doesn’t have much of an established protocol at all. New security tech innovations promise to eliminate the pitfalls of human error, but they will never eliminate the need for all faculty to have a confident understanding of their security standards. Nonetheless, all schools can benefit from having a system that necessitates a visitor ID input before the visitor is allowed into common areas. Identifying visitors is possibly the most crucial part of visitor management; this is a point in the process that must be impeccable.
When it comes to visitor management at schools, all situations need to be considered and evaluated in the effort to build a faultless system. Certainly one of the most troubling scenarios is a complete stranger entering campus and kidnapping a student. At least when a parent is involved, there is actionable information available to law enforcement regarding the suspected kidnapper - this wasn’t the case in Scott County, where a woman kidnapped a second-grade student from the playground of Austin Elementary School in Scott County, Indiana. The woman, who appeared to be undergoing a serious mental-health episode, hurled herself over the playground fence, grabbed the 2nd-grade girl, and ran while telling her “Come with me. Let’s start a family.” Police officers were flagged down by the woman’s husband and she would be apprehended after running down the street naked and threatening officers.
Parents of other students at Austin Elementary would express concern at the quickness that the kidnapping unfurled. These events underline how facilitating comprehensive visitor management is more than just securing access points, but needs to work in tandem with a school’s surveillance to account for every occupant on campus, including exterior areas. Current innovations in security tech allow schools to identify unknown visitors before they get on campus, allowing schools to alert first responders as soon as an incident occurs. If a school doesn’t have the resources to implement such a system, during the emergency planning process, the planning team needs to allocate the requisite amount of faculty to be present during outside activities and ensure that the school’s perimeter is being monitored.
In West Valley, Utah, a troubled 16-year-old student of a nearby alternative school approached a 9-year-old girl in her elementary school playground and tried to take her away. After being dragged around the corner by the older boy, the girl was able to escape the physical struggle by fighting back and screaming, which prompted the boy to flee. Police were able to identify and apprehend the suspect, who was placed into custody. The implications of what could have motivated this young man are disturbing, and it’s fortunate the girl had the situational awareness to react by making as much noise and resistance as possible.
While identifying people on campus is important, the very first intercept in visitor management is the campus perimeter’s access points. A cursory view of the elementary school’s campus reveals a break in the perimeter fencing, open to the sidewalk. This is an access point that is unmonitored and far from being readily visible to faculty, leaving the students playing in the schoolyard vulnerable to anyone walking by. Unfortunately, there is no Utah state law limiting access points in schools, nor are there any laws regarding safety measures such as cameras, entrances, or ensuring all doors are locked. While having a singular access point isn’t mandated in some states, all schools should be aware of the vulnerabilities associated with multiple access points, unmonitored access points, or areas that allow the public to simply walk onto school grounds.
After a mistake in a parent pickup, a young child wandered more than a half mile off school grounds near Rosa Parks Elementary school in Houston, Texas. The child left the campus after mistakenly thinking she was being called to the front office for early dismissal. Fortunately, the child was able to find her way home, but her parents were outraged with the possible outcomes of their child wandering by herself after faculty lost track of her. This is the second occurrence of an incident at Rosa Parks' campus, with the first incident taking place almost three months prior in which a 4-year-old wandered off campus after student release, only being found after ringing on a stranger’s door and asking for help.
Both of these incidents occured because of lapses in student departure protocol. While an innovative system can independently detect students leaving campus unannounced, schools without such a system cannot rely on practices that allow young children to be able to leave campus without the discernment of faculty. Not only can these incidents put these students in danger, it’s a surefire way to lose face with parents and cause disharmony in the school community. Parents need to be assured that the safety of their children is the highest priority, and the baseline of that trust is being assured that the children are where they’re supposed to be.
Visitor management protocol is an essential aspect of school security that cannot be taken lightly. The cases discussed in this article show that there are numerous threats to school safety, including parental abductions, strangers kidnapping children, and oversight in occupancy protocol. To address these concerns, schools must have an airtight visitor management system that standardizes protocol and procedures and ensure all faculty members understand and follow them.