Anglican Watch

Staying safe in turbulent times: Forty+ tips for church and school safety

Forty+ tips to keep your church or school safe

Years ago, before this blog even existed, our editor Eric Bonetti published an article on Episcopal Cafe on how to keep your church safe. In light of recent events, we are updating and re-releasing this information. We grant unlimited rights to reproduce or republish this piece.

Over the past several years, we have seen a vast uptick in active shooter situations and other security issues at churches and schools. With that in mind, here are some tips to ensure safety:

  1. Don’t think it can’t happen here. It can and does, often without any seeming reason.
  2. Think like a police officer. Even in the supermarket or other relatively safe place, think, “Where’s the nearest exit? Where do I go if something happens?”
  3. Know who is in your building. A best practice is a card-reader system at the entrance, so you can know who has entered and when.
  4. Use copy-proof keys, like Medeco or Asus.
  5. Every member does not need keys. Consider a small group of building hosts with keys or access cards so that you can better control access.
  6. If you have master keys, consider zoned master keys. Under this system, staff checks keys in and out with an administrator. While it adds some small inconvenience, it also prevents a situation where staff loses control of the keys and suddenly the whole building is accessible. And you know where people are, which is always good. Be sure to limit access to master keys—very few people actually need one.
  7. Limit late-night access. Other than housing the homeless, nothing good goes on in a church after 11 PM. And there’s nothing pedophiles like better than guaranteed time alone.
  8. Lock unused areas at all times. Doing so prevents predators and others from having private space to hide or engage in criminal activity. It also makes moving through the building more difficult for an active shooter.
  9. Rather than worrying about fortifying classroom doors, keep them locked while teaching. So far, we know of no cases where an active shooter has breached a locked classroom door. If you do decide on secondary locks, ask your fire marshal before putting them on—they are illegal in some jurisdictions.
  10. Follow the two-person rule. Not only should two unrelated adults always be with children, but there is safety in numbers.
  11. Say hello. Not only is it the Christian thing to do, but it can deter people who wander in from engaging in misconduct.
  12. Keep external doors locked whenever possible.
  13. Have a way for your rector, pastor, or school administrator to call for help quietly. For example, in one inner-city church where a staff member attends, the parish administrator knows that an intercom from the rector asking, “Would you tell Mrs. Smith I’m running late?” is his heads-up to call 911. “Is Mrs Jones here?,” is the cue to come in — someone is making the rector uneasy, or there needs to be a witness to something.
  14. Have a phone tree. In suburban areas, it’s not uncommon for aggressive panhandlers to go from one church to another. Thus, it’s a professional courtesy to give the next church down the road a heads-up that trouble may be headed their way.
  15. Walk the building before you leave. More than one priest has locked his church up after services, only to discover the following day that a toilet was overflowing. The result in one case was more than $25,000 in damage.
  16. Walk all parts of the building periodically. One priest at a suburban parish was surprised to discover a homeless person had been living in a furnace room for months.
  17. Check your windows before you leave. If you offer meals to people experiencing homelessness, kudos to you. But it is common to discover that folks looking for a place to crash for the night have unlocked windows, climbed through, and spent the night in the building. While you can’t blame them, imagine the shock your volunteers will experience when they discover a naked person sleeping on the church sofa. And yes, it happens.
  18. Be aware of leaving phones openly accessible throughout the building. More than one church has been surprised during food pantry or other community service programs when police have showed up to ask, “Do you realize someone’s using your phone to do drug deals?” Of course, not all homeless persons do drugs or present security risks, but there is a certain amount of baggage that comes with serving the most needy among us.
  19. Consider panic buttons. These are often at a reception desk, food pantry desk, and the organ. The organist typically has an excellent view of the nave and can summon help without notice.
  20. Consider shatter-resistant film on full-length glass doors and windows. Ground floor windows too. Yes, a shooter can readily pierce the glass, but if it holds together it can buy you precious time.
  21. Beware the fire alarm. Yes, it is essential to evacuate if there is a fire, but it is common for active shooters to set off fire alarm systems to cause panic and pandemonium. Walkie-talkies for the staff or the PA system can be an excellent way to tell people to shelter in place rather than evacuate. You might also consider a pre-recorded message so that someone does not need to man the sound system controls during an emergency.
  22. Don’t go back in if there is a fire or other emergency. Nothing inside is worth your life.
  23. Use cameras. These can be a boon in small churches, where it may be challenging to have two unrelated adult persons with children at all times, especially in a nursery or other high-risk area. Multiple cameras may allow you to see the perimeter of your building and get an early heads-up of approaching trouble.
  24. Be alert to who’s in your parking lot. It is not unusual for active shooters to hang out, watching, before they attempt entry. If someone you don’t know is hanging out, call the police. They’d rather get there before something happens versus after.
  25. Allow your local police department to conduct active shooter training in your building. Yes, you may wind up with some paintball splatters that need cleaned, but the more familiar police are with your facility, the better. 
  26. Know the officers on your beat. Even better if you can offer a safe place after hours to cool off, use the bathroom, grab some coffee, and write reports. There is nothing better after hours in a ballistic vest than a cool room, a place to decompress, and being able to use the bathroom without looking over your shoulder. Police will love you for it, and it will reduce your risk if you get a reputation as a place where police hand out.
  27. Provide blueprints of your facility to the police. Better-equipped departments can call the blueprints of your facility up on their in-cruiser computers, making it easy for them to visualize what’s going on.
  28. Consider a buzzer entrance system with a camera. Even better is a two-entrance system, where someone is buzzed in, then has to go through a second locked door. This approach often is used in corporate C-suites and other high-risk areas, with the receptionist able to unlock the second door from his desk.
  29. Consider leaving one designated, supervised door open for police or providing the police with a master key to respond quickly in an emergency. If you have a designated entrance, make sure police know where it is, and when it is open. And make sure it really is supervised.
  30. If you number your doors, do it right. There is a convention to how this is done, and if you do it wrong, you may cause confusion or cause a police officer to waste time breaching a door that goes nowhere.
  31. Schools and other large campuses should consider giving police access to their video feed. At many major malls, for example, police dispatchers can see every inch of the common areas, allowing them to tell officers exactly where an active shooter is and what he is doing.
  32. Rekey periodically. More than one church has experienced theft from keys that “got into the wild.”
  33. Keep stairwell doors closed and locked. Not only is propping them open a fire code violation, but requiring a key to ascend the stairs places whole swaths of your building beyond the reach of criminals. Panic bars permit egress during a fire while maintaining stairwell security.
  34. Keep meeting room doors closed. Many churches prop open auditorium or other doors to big spaces during meetings and events. But a fast-spreading fire can generate smoke so quickly that you may not be able to close the doors fast enough to prevent deadly smoke inhalation. Doubt it? Read the excruciatingly painful story of the Our Lady of Angels fire.
  35. Consider your elevators. More than one church locks all the interior doors at night but leaves elevators operational. Elevators should be called to the top floor and locked to prevent intruders from using the elevator to access closed areas, or climbing the elevator shaft. (Don’t laugh–many have a built-in ladder.)
  36. Have an alarm system. A well-designed system includes door sensors and motion detectors. It’s also possible to monitor high-risk outdoor areas. For example, some churches use outdoor motion sensors behind the building to send a page to custodians, who can drop in or call the police if the motion is consistent with an intruder. And don’t worry–most outdoor systems can differentiate between small wild animals and a human intruder. 
  37. Consider a motion sensor near the altar. Even if there’s nothing valuable there, its proximity makes it a magnet for vandals.
  38. Use unique alarm codes or key fobs. Modern systems can accommodate dozens, sometimes hundreds, of access codes. Individual codes allow you to determine who turned off your alarm system and when.
  39. Consider a silent duress code for your alarm system. Most professional systems support this with minor programming, but it allows early-arriving clergy and others to get help if someone forces their way in behind them.
  40. Have good internal controls. That includes credit cards, handling cash, access to keys, and more. Publish budgets and audits, including line-item details.
  41. Don’t keep cash in the building. While you want to vary your deposit times and routes, there’s no reason to leave cash in the building overnight.
  42. There’s an old saying among good police officers: “The friendlier you are, the safer you are.” If you must confront an uninvited guest, be as friendly and helpful as possible. Same for parishioners who may be mentally ill. In fact, we know of a case in the US postal service where an obviously troubled employee told the one person who was kind to him, “Don’t come to work tomorrow.” That person took the next day off, only to discover his coworker had come in and killed multiple coworkers, then shot himself.
  43. Ask police to do a free security survey. Many departments have specially trained personnel who will do this for free. And they don’t have a financial interest in the outcome, so you don’t have to worry about being sold a bill of goods.
  44. Don’t cry wolf. More than one church has called the police when they discovered a protestor outside. Sidewalks are public fora and protestors have a First Amendment right to be there. So, if they seem reasonable, invite them in for coffee and a snack. Who knows? You might find you agree with them. And while police welcome calls involving truly questionable things — like unknown, occupied cars in the parking lot — they get grouchy when you deploy the entire tactical unit just because someone is protesting. And yes, we know a particular church that did just that. And yes, we know of churches where members leave Mass only to flip off nearby protestors. 
  45. Speaking of, obscene gestures or comments are an invitation to trouble. Don’t. Just don’t.

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