What It Takes To Be Successful In the K-12 Security Market
Security integrators, manufacturers and school security experts share what it takes to be successful in the K-12 security market.
As the list grows longer, it gets harder to remember the names. Columbine, Newtown (Sandy Hook), perhaps even Littleton, Colo., or Paducah, Ky., stick in our memory. But what about Marysville, Wash., in 2015? Just in the few weeks that it took to research this article, a statewide threat to schools in Wyoming failed to make the national news, and a shooting at an elementary school in Townville, S.C., that left two dead was quickly eclipsed by the latest political exploits. School shootings have now become so commonplace that they no longer even command a 24-hour news cycle.
But each and every time an incident occurs at a school or university, the communities surrounding it do sit up and take notice. Consequently, across the nation, K-12 school security has become top of mind, and school districts are making it a priority to raise money for equipment that can prevent or limit the damage of such tragedies.
“Parents are afraid; there is so much going on in the world that it isn’t ‘we need a new turf field,’ anymore,” says security integrator Buddy Mason, president, American Digital Security, Liberty, Mo. “Security is right up there now.”
Given the nature of the environment today, there is absolutely more attention being paid to security budgets, says integrator Michael Ruddo, vice president of business development, Integrated Security Technologies Inc., Herndon, Va. (featured on this month’s cover). “There is more state and federal funding available for them through grant programs.”
Mark Berger, president and chief product officer, Securitech Group Inc., New York City, and vice chair of the ASIS International School Safety and Security Council, says there are very specific things schools are spending money on. “We are seeing many proposals to increase funding for cameras, perimeter security hardware and locks in classrooms, both mechanical and electronic.”
He also points to a general trend he calls the “airportization” of schools. Schools and other public buildings no longer promote the expectation that they will be open to the public. Instead they are locking their doors and requiring visitors to buzz in using an intercom, often with a camera incorporated.
Byron Thurmond, vice president, school and campus security, Napco Security, Amityville, N.Y., spent nearly 30 years in charge of security for a large metropolitan school district in Texas before recently joining Napco. He says that schools have by and large been “reactionary” when it comes to security. But that is beginning to change.
“We are gradually moving away from convenience mode and education is adapting to that. Budgets are increasing each year. Educators realize they cannot have a safe and pleasant learning environment without investing in security.”
Tragic incidents have been the motivator, but there are also two other trends that have caused school security to become increasingly desirable.
First, many school districts have taken advantage of the tax-funded E-Rate program for schools, which has provided discounts and other incentives to upgrade the networking infrastructure. This has had a positive impact on security initiatives, as well.
“Schools are one of our largest verticals now,” says James Marcella, director of technical services, Axis Communications Inc., Chelmsford, Mass. “It is a growing market.... Frankly, network infrastructure is very important for our type of technologies to be successful.” This has enabled schools to finally take advantage of video and access control in a more integrated way, he says.
“Fortunately security technologies have migrated to the IP/IT infrastructure,” Ruddo adds. “Since this has already been built for collaborative and educational reasons, it is getting to the point where everything is IP-based, from the computers to the AV systems with smart boards.”
Second, as security technology has come down in price, it has also become generally more available on a school budget.
Both of these trends mean that security integrators have a greater opportunity than ever before to become a more valued resource to school customers, instead of the one-off bid process it has often been in the past. “We used to call ourselves integrators when we really weren’t,” Mason says. “Now, finally we are becoming true [school security] integrators because the pieces are starting to work together. Before, a lot of those products wouldn’t do it.”
When it comes to this technology, while it is important to address the needs of the most critical events such as an active shooter, it is just as important to make sure that schools are solving their everyday problems, says Paul Timm, PSP, president, RETA Security Inc., Chicago, a security consultant specializing in the education market.
“I think everybody lives in fear of an active assailant situation. No one wants that to happen on their watch. That causes a lot of K-12 districts and private schools to think about what they can do. Mostly they think about systems first because they want to do something and check the box and feel safer. The problem is that doesn’t take into account the culture of the school.”
The secondary school market is a different type of sale and process for the security integrator, Timm adds. Not only can the process take much longer — sometimes years — but it is even more consultative than other verticals. And that is just the start.
Following are some of the key lessons integrators and others have learned in working in the K-12 security market.
PLAY NICELY IN THE SANDBOX
Working with schools is a constant process of managing a wide variety of interests and personalities, from the local principal, all the way up to the school board, IT department, and the outside architects, engineers and consultants that are very frequently involved.
Schools are very compartmentalized, Ruddo says. “There may be a department of technology that handles the IT infrastructure; facilities is responsible for the doors; the security department; HR that handles credentialing and ID management; and the educational staff themselves. The key is that you have to get everybody on the same page.”
It is very common for school districts to utilize the services of a consultant or engineer to help determine the types or even specific brands of security technology they should use. It then goes out to bid, and the winning integrator is brought on board at the end of the process, putting them in the position to either accept the recommendations as-is or try to suggest changes. This can be a challenge.
“If it is a typical big project and there is a design engineer, you as an integrator want to be with that customer forever,” says Mitchell Kane, president, Vanderbilt Industries, Parsippany, N.J. “You don’t want to be stuck with servicing something that isn’t the best. There is an opportunity to make things right, even if the bid didn’t quite make sense. Speak to the end user and find out what they are trying to achieve. Either you are going to realize it is actually engineered properly; or you will have the opportunity to tweak it.”
This can be easier said than done, however. “In a school environment you need to know how to walk through some of the landmines that are the personalities and fiefdoms,” says Billy Nichols, instigator, Huser Integrated Technologies, Portland, Ore. “A principal of a high school has their own kingdom. However you may not know that the superintendent or security director doesn’t necessarily share the same thoughts as the principal. You must weigh those things and speak judiciously and cautiously.”
Integrator Antonio Foley, sales, Video and Sound Service Inc., Northlake, Ill., agrees. “There have been multiple times where something is put in the project that I don’t recommend. There are a million ways to skin the cat, and there are times that I didn’t agree but in the end it was working beautifully. Other times it is the opposite. What I usually do is give my reasons why and they either tell me they love it or shove it.”
Some integrators prefer to do the best job they can in hopes they will gain the school’s trust for the next time around.
“We are working with a district that was building a high school and we had talked to them to some extent about their systems,” says Matthew Ramey, security and technology solution manager for Montana and Wyoming, LONG Building Technology, Littleton, Colo. “Through the architectural process an engineer wrote up the specs and they put out a bid. We bid to that spec and got that job and worked through the project. But in the long run we have looked at their other seven schools and as time has progressed we have it to the point where are now able to say, ‘You need something different.’”
Others are happy to have a school first turn to an independent, outside resource such as a good consultant.
“I have been in the security industry for close to 30 years and I have school districts that are very comfortable consulting with me and talking with me and letting me help them design their systems,” says Steve Stumpf, vice president–security solutions, LONG Building Technologies (Wash., Ore. and Alaska), Seattle, Wash. “But normally I do recommend school districts reach out and hire a quality security consulting firm to work directly with them, put out products that meet their needs, and align them with integrators who are qualified in their marketplace.”
Timm says he prefers to work closely with the integrators from the beginning and that it should be a give-and-take process. “More often than not I will work with the district and say, ‘Here is what you are going to need and here are three or four integrators who can get it done.’ Or I will see what they already have in place and ask them who their integrator is. I don’t want to stomp on a relationship that is good; but if they are dissatisfied I will recommend one.”
Timm adds he will also bring integrators in at the beginning to look over the equipment that is there and give advice based on their general knowledge. But, he cautions, the role of the integrator, particularly at this point in the process, is to not be a salesperson.
“Let’s face it. Any time we see a salesperson coming into our arena, we put up some sort of a guard because we know they have a funnel. Integrators have done a really good job in general in becoming more of a consultative sales force. I am seeing [integrators] come in and wanting to learn about more than just the systems side. They may recommend some door or vegetation solutions. That trend is going to help them. A school administrator lets down their guard when they do that.”
Most integrators today do have a goal of becoming a true trusted advisor to any client. When it comes to schools, not only does this mean working well with others, but also keeping in mind the bottom line, always. Schools almost always have to raise the money by bonds or grants, and this process can take some time.
“You need to have the ability to be an expert and a trusted advisor in that compartmentalized environment,” Ruddo advises. “You can’t just go in and sell the security folks. You have all the groups you have to be able to talk to, and they are all going to have some say in what takes place and what that money gets spent on.”
For Mason, this means putting in a lot of up-front legwork, even if it doesn’t always result in a sale. “We, as an integrator, approach schools very differently. One of their biggest problems is if they don’t know what a complete system will cost, how can they go to the school board and ask for money? We do a lot of the front-end work so they can go out and get an RFP. We will do that for free because they don’t know if what they want will cost $800,000 or $5 million. They have no clue.”
Most states also have programs similar to the GSA schedule that integrators can participate in, which can help them win contracts. For example, the PEPPM technology and purchasing program in Pennsylvania is recognized in most states, says Karen Evans, president and CEO, Sielox, Runnemede, N.J.
Mason says his company does participate in state contracts, but says these only help after you have gained the trust of the school district. “What happens is a lot the school districts say, ‘No, we bid everything out.’ But we have one where we were always in the RFP process with them and just last week they told us they are going to start buying on the state contract because ‘We only want to work with you.’ That is where it really comes into play.
“If they love you, they will want to get you for the business. But you have to build up that trust first.”
The K-12 market is all relationship-based, Timm concludes. “You can’t just waltz in and everybody buys from you because you are slick. You have to earn trust, demonstrate consultative sales and be patient — because they may not be able to buy now, but six months from now they will. The ones that win are the ones that stay.”
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Any integrator who wants to successfully navigate the tricky waters of K-12 security must be prepared to do a thorough research job — both of the school district’s needs and potential technologies to solve its problems. While fear of an active shooter may drive funds and interest, most schools’ needs are much more day-to-day. Often the process involves more than just which technology they are implementing. And while this kind of “homework” is not unfamiliar, when it comes to schools it may be more akin to a group study session.
“We take a very holistic approach,” Ruddo says. “We want to understand, ‘What are your risks? What are your problems? How do you operate on a day-to-day basis?’ Maybe locking that door will have a huge impact.”
David Teague, director of Ednetics Protect, Ednetics Inc., Post Falls, Idaho, is an IT integrator who began offering physical security when the IT/IP infrastructure made that a more attractive item for schools. “One thing we have worked hard to do with our offering is to make sure we are not putting in devices that are the ‘doomsday device’ and the only time you touch the system is when it is a bad day. The more useful you can make a tool, the more people are going to use it. We try to deploy security that is interactive on a daily basis, and we have really tried to focus on what our customers’ safety and security policies are, how they want the school to look and the culture to be.”
Most schools face concerns that involve the common problems of custodial issues, bullying (including cyber) and fighting, Berger says. “The active shooter scenario [may be] driving that, but if you are allocating funds, make sure you are doing it in a way that is covering not only the high-visibility problems, but the everyday concerns.”
Kane advises, “Don’t ask what they are trying to do; find out what the issues are first. Maybe there are other things that could serve them better but they didn’t know to ask. If you educate the end user, you are a lot more important to them. If you just ask what they want, all you are doing is handling the logistics.”
Thurmond adds that learning the everyday routine and issues can even help the school ultimately get more of what they want, while also solving for the bigger, but rarer problems. “When you talk access control, often people talk about active shooters and I applaud us responding to that. But I am also concerned about the special ed kid or the preschool child that walks out unannounced. We are preparing for the one-in-a-million situation but not always the one-in-100. No level of security is unwanted or unneeded, but the way we phrase it to the community can make a difference.
“Things happen and we jump through hoops for [a while], but I think the community would support us more if we focused on the one-in-100 events. These are opportunities; and while solving for these, we are also hardening the building for the active shooter scenario.”
One person who knows first-hand about going through both the one-in-a-million and one-in-100 events is Guy Grace, director of security and emergency preparedness for Littleton Public Schools, Littleton, Colo. Located in a neighboring district to Columbine, Littleton began preparing for the worst shortly after that 1999 tragedy — something that turned out to be sadly necessary as the district’s Arapahoe High School had its own shooting incident in December 2013. Grace credits the preparation and technology implemented in the intervening years with keeping loss of lives and injuries to a much lower number than would have been possible otherwise. (For more on this story, see related case study on page 104.)
Even having gone through a tragedy, however, Grace stresses the importance of looking at the bigger picture to also solve for the events that happen on any given day. “My responsibility is to allow teachers and staff to feel safe and provide a quality education. I hope that is always our ultimate goal to have a program that collaborates with teachers, staff and the community to feel safe.”
This collaboration is something Bruce Czerwinski, U.S. general sales manager, Aiphone Corp., Redmond, Wash., strongly recommends integrators be a part of — even including talking to the ultimate users to ask questions about their daily routine. “A lot of times it may not be the principal or superintendent, but the secretary or office people that have a better feel for what is going on and how [a given solution] will disrupt the flow of the school, whether that is locked doors, intercoms, paging systems or cameras.”
Sometimes that means thinking outside the integrator’s technological comfort zone, adds Richard Brent, CEO, Louroe Electronics Inc., Van Nuys, Calif. “A good integrator has to be a really good listener and talk to them about getting outside of the box.”
This may involve the integrator doing more homework on their own, says Benjamin Williams, senior product manager, HES, Aperio and Cabinet Locks, ASSA ABLOY EMS & OEM Group, Phoenix. “The best examples I have seen are integrators who can bring in not just a single solution, but three or five, and let the school districts express what their wants and needs are.”
End customers are also doing their own homework, and if the integrator doesn’t bring to the table solutions they have identified on their own as something that could be beneficial it can have negative consequences, he adds.
That is why the collaborative approach is so key, Timm adds. “It’s always easier to do the things we already know. Yes, you should be getting information from trusted manufacturers; but you have to also be looking at new applications and rubbing shoulders with consultants and asking, ‘What are you hearing?’ Because the first time you miss something that could have been a good solution, you are in big trouble.”
It is a lot of work but well worth it in the end, Stumpf says. “The investment of time could be a year or more, including consulting with them, designing, and collaborating. But if you are successful and can get a school district to pass the levy, it is a great experience.”
Ultimately, the point of all this “homework” is to present a plan that takes into account both the current and future needs of the school district.
Schools are places of education and also place a high value on being educated, Mason says. He even coined a term for it: “Educate the educators.” It is important for integrators to be in it for the long haul, he adds. “Typically safety and security directors end up with so many pieces they have to deal with that they need companies like us to educate them. We have to fit pieces together to get to where it will work for them now and 10 years down the road.”
While it is important to consider new technology, Mason also stresses the need to implement technology that can be adapted over time. “We will put in product that happens to be Mercury hardware, which [several] of the top card access manufacturers OEM with. The customer loves that. Schools know they can switch if they don’t like it — or us.”
Thurmond is also a fan of standardization for schools because it helps with both forward thinking and backward compatibility. When he was in charge of a school district himself, Thurmond says he spent over three years standardizing on a solution that was forward compatible and recommends others do the same, with the help of their integrator. “It is very important that they find a trusted integrator in their community that can lead the charge with multiple solutions.”
Even when budgets are tight, integrators should do their best to make sure that schools are at least informed that the technology they are considering has limitations that could hem them in later, Czerwinski says. “Don’t put yourself in a hole by putting in the very lowest end technology because that is all they are asking for. Schools are notorious for putting [intercoms] on one door and six months later wanting to add another door.” If they haven’t put in a model that can be easily upgraded, they are looking at a rip-and-replace situation, he cautions.
Whatever the technology that is desired, another part of planning ahead is understanding that with sometimes long sales cycles, the technology may have evolved or changed by the time the school district raises the money, Teague says.
“Projects get bid but the school may not install anything for eight to 18 months and technology can change very rapidly,” he says. “We do the best we can to make use of what was put on the bid but sometimes change orders are a necessary evil.”
Teague points to open and non-proprietary systems as one way to help with this scenario. His company also routinely refreshes its quotes as the installation time gets closer. While not always the case, very frequently the newer technology is either the same price or even less expensive than what was originally quoted, he says.
BE A GOOD FRIEND
Integrators who are successful in becoming the trusted advisor to a school have one thing in common: the relationship doesn’t stop with the installation. Beyond just servicing equipment, the opportunities to educate, inform and help the school customer are what provides the integrator with the staying power and ensures they are not replaced with the next lowest bidder when the contract is up.
“Training was always a No. 1 concern [for me],” Thurmond recalls. “How well will you educate my staff? What is your commitment to me? The level of dedication required is huge. Software can change every six months and we are trying to keep up but many times schools are behind. It is very important to train, train, and retrain.”
This training is very important, Timm stresses. “The effectiveness of systems rests precariously upon a foundation of practices and people. I frequently go into schools that got their systems two or three years ago and they thought they were finished. They plugged a gap and they got it. Now they are light years ahead in features, but no one knows how to operate it.
“That is low-hanging fruit for integrators. An integrator who has made a sale and shows up 60 to 90 days later to say, ‘I just want to make sure you know how to use it,’ that person is going to win.”
This is a strategy Foley employs. “We always want to make sure the preventive maintenance is there. We offer quarterly checks and a tech is there every 90 days. I try to visit with the tech so I can be in front of the customer to make sure I share ways to continually improve their security.”
Ramey recently experienced first-hand the type of care that is sometimes required with school clients. “We are a little shook up right now. In Wyoming yesterday someone made several broadcasts through anonymous emails that Wyoming was going to be turned to dust, and listed bombs and devices in schools, and sprinkler systems filled with napalm. Practically every school district we maintain went into lockdown as a result.”
While the incident thankfully turned out to be a hoax, Ramey says it served as a wake-up call to practice procedures and processes. “They have not tested those things and those practices got a little rusty.” Ramey spent the next days helping his school clients fine-tune or tweak these, he says. Even if it isn’t part of their usual purview, he views it as his responsibility to make happen.
“When I am not the expert on something we will help bring somebody in to work through those processes and procedures and testing. We like to see them do their lockdown tests and know that things are functioning properly.”
Many of the integrators who work in schools report that the business is often hard-won, but rewarding, and not just monetarily. Nichols calls it a labor of love. “These are clients you will be married to for a while. They look to you to be their expert and go-to, so there is a degree of responsibility there I find satisfying.”
A School Shooting From a Security Director’s Perspective
Helpful security and emergency planning practices in place December 13, 2013:
Options-based lockdown training for staff
Incident command system training
Pre-incident planning program
Integrated security system
Source: Guy Grace, director of security and emergency planning, Littleton Public Schools
When Arapahoe High School in his district had an active shooting incident in 2013, Guy Grace credited a combination of security technology, training and procedures with preventing it from escalating further. The incident left one student dead, plus the shooter.
Advanced Degrees of Technology in Schools
There is no single winning solution for any school or school district. While access control, video, intrusion and lockdown capabilities are the more common technologies and solutions that schools across the country are either implementing now or planning for, other technologies are just coming into their own and may play a bigger role in the future of school security.
“Wireless access control is becoming more and more relevant,” says Kevin Anderson, vice president of sales electronic access control and strategic accounts, Stanley Security. “For schools it is a more affordable option because it can do everything a hardwired door does, but at half the price.”
Many schools are locking down their perimeters, across the country. In several areas they are incorporating vestibules, which allow visitors to come in and call on the intercom, but not get into the school unless verified, often using an electronic visitor management program that checks against databases such as the Sex Offender Registry.
“On the intercom side, they are starting to use the network more,” says Bruce Czerwinski of Aiphone. “It allows more flexibility and freedom of who can answer that door.” In some cases they are even incorporating apps and allowing authorized individuals to unlock the door using a mobile device or tablet.
What’s more, Benjamin Williams of ASSA ABLOY EMS & OEM Group sees schools potentially looking to lock those mobile devices down electronically with wireless or wired cabinet locks that can be centrally managed.
As security systems become more and more integrated, analytics are poised to play a larger role, says Richard Brent of Louroe Electronics. Audio analytics such as gunshot detection or picking up angry voices could help schools with both the extreme events and issues with bullying, for example. “There is a bill in Texas that will require schools to pick up sound in special education rooms,” he says.
“Most cameras deployed over the last five or 10 years have built-in capabilities for audio,” adds James Marcella, Axis Communications. “If we add analytics to that, we can alert a school resource officer to aggressive voices as a way to proactively alert them to look at that video.”
Another big area of interest for schools is emergency communication. Michael Ruddo of Integrated Security Technologies recently integrated a city-wide solution that allows emergency personnel to immediately be notified of a problem and work directly with the schools to respond.
“We have an emergency communication system that goes to the next level,” says Buddy Mason of American Digital Security. “Let’s say there is a shooter on campus and they have five buses picking up at 3:15. This can hit the radios of the bus drivers to get that message through.”
Some schools may need to piggyback emergency communications onto other solutions to implement it more quickly, says Kevin Lehan, manager of public relations, EMERgency24, Des Plaines, Ill. The company provides an emergency communication system that can also be used as the school’s daily communication with teachers, students and parents, he says.
Cloud is another technology that could greatly benefit schools, says Jeff Perri, president, ProdataKey, Salt Lake City, Utah. The company’s cloud-based access control is being used in schools now, he adds. “In the future it will make the school’s life easier when two clouds can talk to each other.”
From the commonplace to the futuristic, Guy Grace of Littleton Public Schools is extremely optimistic about the way technology is going and how it can help him now and in the future. “I feel like it is a renaissance period in technology. I feel more empowered to do our jobs with the technology and protocols we have in place now.”
Hidden ‘Gotchas’ to Avoid
Schools are constrained by budgets, and typically put out new budgets every one to two years. This can lead to some hidden issues that integrators need to make sure the schools are aware of so they can prepare.
For example, some — but not all — video management systems require license fees annually, says Ed Hamilton, product management leader, Americas, video solutions for UTC, Lincolnton, N.C. “Schools expect to have the money every year, but then unexpectedly they don’t have the budget. That is a pain point.”
If you are going to sell equipment that requires licensing fees, make sure the schools are aware of it and budget for it, he recommends.
Billy Nichols of Huser Integrated Technologies sees this as an example of a larger problem. He points to a local example of a city jail that was built within the budget. “But nobody thought at the time about how to staff and maintain it and there was zero money left.” The jail has sat empty for the past seven years, he says. Schools, too, risk falling into the trap of the shiny new toy. “Yes, you are going to get a lot of cool new widgets, but you need to think about how you are going to feed the beast afterwards. It may be camera licensing or door hardware with moving parts that will eventually wear out. The budget for maintaining the system can be more than what they spent on the initial installation.”
Another video gotcha is bandwidth, adds James Marcella of Axis Communications. “Typically when you deploy cameras they don’t stay at the number you started with because schools quickly find that all those activities that used to happen in those areas are now moved somewhere else. For every camera you add you are also adding storage requirements.”
Another common issue is schools that can’t afford to implement lockdown systems and instead purchase products that bar the door from the inside, which are against the fire and life safety code, says Securitech Group’s Mark Berger, who also chairs the Codes and Government Affairs Committee of the Builders Hardware Manufacturer’s Association. “The great concern there is the misallocation of funds towards barricade devices that can be misapplied.” These devices are thought to be a stop-gap measure that will allow a teacher to bar the door in an active shooter scenario, but can be dangerous to life safety or even allow a student to lock the teacher out of the classroom, he warns.
Lastly, watch for over-engineering or under-collaborating, says Benjamin Williams of ASSA ABLOY EMS & OEM Group. “I was on a school district project last year where they had funded a whole school upgrade, including mechanical and they ended up $3 million over budget as a result of how the system was designed.” In this case it was due to a lack of collaboration between the consultant for security and the mechanical engineer, he says.