Unauthorized access by intruders onto school premises is one of the greatest threats to school security. While efforts have been made and different tools put in place to improve school security, they are unlikely to work if schools don’t take measures to control who can access school grounds and how they go about doing so.
For that reason, some security experts have recommended installing fences around school property. Proponents suggest that fences, if installed well and maintained, can be beneficial to a school for a number of reasons. Not only for boosting surveillance and improving security but, perhaps unexpectedly, for the morale and well-being of the students.
However, opponents argue that fences are unsightly, and don’t lend to a positive environment for students. They suggest that fences can create too much of a prison vibe for children and teens alike.
Hanover Research published a paper in 2013 called “School Fencing: Benefits and Disadvantages” The report looked at school fences in-depth, and laid out the pros and cons of having them. A link to the full report can be found below, but here we summarize the key points of their findings:
- School fencing and CPTED
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Materials and their merits
- Selecting the right fence
School Fencing and CPTED
Hanover Research evaluated the effectiveness of school fencing using the principles of CPTED, or Crime Prevention through Environmental Design. As stated in the report, CPTED is a “research‐based design methodology that seeks to create ‘a climate of safety in a community by designing a physical environment that positively influences human
This design standard is commonly referenced in literature, and is a popular design standard when creating safe public spaces. There are 3 core principles of CPTED:
- Territoriality: Using buildings, fences, pavement, sign, and landscaping to express ownership of a space.
- Natural surveillance: Placing physical features, activities, and people to maximize visibility
- Access control: The placement of entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping, and lighting.
How does school fencing hold up when analyzed with these principles in mind?
Fencing is a key element of territoriality, marking ownership of a space using architecture. When discussing security in schools, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) observes that territoriality extends to the upkeep of campus grounds, since people tend to treat well‐maintained buildings and grounds with greater respect.
With that in mind, Hanover Research states that “maintaining property line markers such as fencing, other architectural features, and landscaping may serve to establish ownership of school grounds and increase respect of school property.”
The Departments of Education for both the State of Florida and the State of California agree with these findings. Fences help to establish the perimeters of school grounds, and it can also have an additional bonus: creating a sense of community and belonging among students. Having set perimeters creates a sort of community within the community, which can further bolster respect for the property.
School fences can also be used to maximize natural surveillance, or the ability to easily keep watch over school grounds and monitor the flow of individuals into and out of the campus. The DHS emphasizes that fencing should be designed and placed strategically so as not to obstruct lines of sight. After all, fences that obstruct visibility are counter-intuitive in relation to surveillance.
Other elements that may conflict with natural surveillance include walls, shrubs and trees, parked cars, sculptures, and large signs. Appropriate fencing choices can help to overcome some of these obstacles. Schools can increase visibility by installing openings or windows in solid walls, for instance.
Alternatively, they could replace solid walls with wrought iron fencing, which still bolsters safety while providing a lot of visibility. Hidden areas on property can also pose a threat to visibility, so it is recommended that fences are used to block access to those areas.
The Florida Department of Education also noted that recreational areas pose unique safety concerns for natural surveillance. Fences around play areas should be considered, in order to monitor access points to these areas, while not obstructing natural surveillance.
Access control is closely linked to natural surveillance and territoriality, especially when it comes to school fencing. The amount of access points – such as gates – that are placed in a fence, as well as where they are placed, will have an impact on the first two principles discussed.
For example, having the main entry point to the school grounds lead directly to the front doors of the school, especially school administration, will greatly improve surveillance. All visitors to the school need to check in at the school’s offices, so visitor management and monitoring would be improved if the main access point funneled to administration offices.
Fences also help to establish exclusive and non-exclusive zones, for instance, what is accessible to the public and what isn’t. Non-exclusive areas would include areas around school property that allow public right-of-way, such as sidewalks, footpaths, and streets. It may also include areas open to the public after hours, such as soccer fields and basketball courts.
When it comes to marking and monitoring these zones, fencing is an obvious choice.
Advantages and disadvantages of school fencing
As outlined using the CPTED principles, fencing can provide a number of benefits. Walls can provide robust physical safety, even serving as a bulletproof barrier. Fences can provide access control, enable natural surveillance, and regulate foot traffic while establishing a school’s perimeters.
All of that being said, Hanover Research also acknowledges that there are also disadvantages that could potentially undermine CPTED, especially if the right fences are not selected, or they are improperly installed. For example…
They could negatively impact surveillance
While solid walls made of brick or concrete are strong and do wonders for access control, they can mean obstacles to visibility. After all, none of us have x-ray vision. Not only does it effect surveillance, but it can also create opportunities for bad behavior. Solid barriers obscure certain locations from view, which can mean hiding places for intruders or attackers, and opportunities for vandalism and graffiti.
Fences could create safety hazards for students
The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) notes that tall, continual fencing can block student pathways, forcing students “to take a longer route where they are more exposed to traffic, crime, or environmental hazards.” Gates of course will help with this, but the amount of gates must be balanced with the need to control and monitor access to the ground.
It’s also important to note that any gates, especially lockable ones, must be easily operational from the inside. Otherwise, it can make it hard for students and faculty to escape the premises in the case of any internal threat.
May exert negative influence on atmosphere of school and community
Students should never feel like they’re stepping off the school bus into Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately in some extreme cases, some students have remarked that the fencing in their school has caused them to feel “imprisoned.”
If the materials and design are too robust and harsh, they could resemble the local jail, and negatively effect the morale of those inside, as well as the support of the local community. So with that in mind, schools need to strike a balance between security and aesthetics.
Selecting Fencing For School Grounds and Play Areas
Which type of school security fence is best? That question is a lot like asking “What type of footwear is best?” The reality is that it depends on the individual circumstances (am I relaxing at the beach or hiking a mountain?), and also the materials being used (a mesh rain boot and a rubber rain boot would have drastically differing levels of effectiveness…).
Similarly, selecting the right fence means taking into account the individual circumstances of the school, as well as the materials being used to build it. Thankfully, the report from Hanover Research also includes a valuable overview of the merits of different types of fence materials, and their potential negatives. As well, it includes some helpful suggestions for which fence type may suit you better.
The Relative Merits of Selected Fencing Materials
The characteristics of a certain type of school fence, as well as their security features, largely depends on the materials being used. The figure below from Hanover Research illustrates some of the advantages and disadvantages of different materials.
You may already notice that some materials are more expensive than others. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that fences need to be maintained in order to maintain their effectiveness. Thus, the maintenance costs of fences should be considered when making decisions. For example, a more durable material may cost more up front, but may also have lower maintenance costs.
Let’s discuss the materials listed in the above figure in further detail.
Chain-link fences are some of the most common; you can find them just about everywhere. They’re usually quite affordable, and relatively easy to install, which explains their popularity. They also can be coated to be more reflective at night and look a bit more attractive.
One downside is that they aren’t the most secure fence. One study showed they slow intruders for only around 4 seconds. They have fairly easy footholds, ad can be cut with wire or bolt cutters. That being said, small changes can make them more effective, such as using thicker wire and heavier posts.
ASIS International, one of the world’s leading security organizations, suggests using a tension wire on top, and a rail on the bottom of the fence, rather than the other way around. It eliminates a foothold at the top, making it harder to scale, and also makes it harder to pull up from the bottom to crawl under.
Expanded Metal and Welded Wire Fabric
Expanded metal is more expensive than chain-link fencing, but it’s stronger and more durable. It’s also available with different materials, such as aluminum, stainless steel, painted, and galvanized steel.
There are also several options available other than standard, such as grated, flattened, or decorative.
Welded wire fabric is a good middle ground between chain-link and expanded metal. It’s cheaper than expanded metal, and slightly stronger (and frankly, more attractive) than chain-link. If your particular school needs a more high-security option, expanded metal is the recommended option.
Ornamental fencing is available in wrought iron, steel, or aluminum and are highly secure, since they can’t be easily scaled or vandalized. For example, ASIS International’s assessment showed that on average, it took around 1 full minute for an intruder to scale a fence of this type.
They can be customized based on how much security is needed, such as the amount of space between the vertical rods, and how much of the rod extends past the top rail. On top of this, they are usually aesthetically pleasing, especially when using higher-quality materials. One fair warning, if using low quality materials, maintenance costs may be quite high.
The picture above shows two types of ornamental fences, one with the vertical bars extending from the top for added security, and one with a top rail that covers the bars.
Because they may be easier to damage in comparison to a metal fence, wooden fences are generally recommended for lower-risk, minimal-security areas.
The ideal wooden fence is one that is strong and hard to climb. For this reason, the horizontal support pieces should be located on the inside of the fence. As well, as stated in Hanover Research’s report, the vertical pickets should ideally be no wider than 1.75 inches.
As you can imagine, wooden fences will likely result in decreased visibility, making natural surveillance more difficult. As a result, they are easier to vandalize. However, they can also be used as a canvas for a bright, visually interesting design, such as illustrated in the picture above.
Selecting perimeter fencing
Now that we have taken a look at the different kinds of materials available, the next step is to review some guidelines that will help when deciding which fence would best serve your school and community. Again, the rules of CPTED are good principles to follow when selecting a fence:
- A fence should establish ownership of the premises, and promote respect for the school property. This means having a design that is aesthetically pleasing to both those inside as well as the community outside.
- It should allow and even enhance natural surveillance. The materials chosen should not negatively effect visibility for staff and security officers. The fence should not create hidden blind spots that encourage vandalism or provide cover for potential attackers or intruders. If materials are chosen that make visibility difficult, use cameras and/or sensors to add a layer of surveillance and security.
- It should improve the school’s ability to control access to the grounds and facilities. The fence design should have a minimal amount of access points, so as to effectively monitor them. The main entrance to the grounds should be visible from the main entrance of the school and it’s offices.
Part of an ongoing process
A school security fence can go a long way in boosting school security and safety. However, different schools have different needs and each should do a proper assessment before installing a fence. School security fences should also be used in collaboration with other security measures for maximum effectiveness.
Deciding on school fencing is a good opportunity for schools to act on something that should be done regularly: evaluating the security of their school. Just as has been encouraged by the DHS and the Federal Commission On School Safety, schools should regularly assess their security needs and current measures in place, and see if there are ways to improve.
If deciding on installing a fence or replacing an existing one, create an assessment team to use the info found in the report we’ve discussed in this article in comparison to your own school’s plans. For even better results, seek out a member of law enforcement and the local fire department to help in your assessment. They have valuable insights that could save lives.
The first line of defense may be a fence, but the first step to school security is active planning on the part of school administration.