What approach to visitor screening makes sense for your school? I’d suggest you have four basic options, each progressively stronger than the previous option listed, as follows:

1. I have no worries about who is coming in. We’re such a small, tight knit community that we know everyone, 100%. On the rare occasion that a stranger shows up he sticks out like a sore thumb and is easily stopped. Besides, the site is tighter than Ft. Knox most of the day. No one can get in without asking at the reception window. Screening visitors is not worth the trouble and alienates our families. I’m skeptical that any school is truly this secure, but if you’re absolutely convinced, nothing is needed. (I should point out that I once did drive onto the Fort Knox military base unchallenged.)

2. We do want visitors to at least stop in at the office and pick up a visitor badge, especially to make it easier to spot intruders who don’t comply in the hallways and to challenge them if they don’t have stickers. As with option #1 above, on the rare occasion that a stranger shows up he sticks out like a sore thumb and is easily stopped. In that case a self-service set-up might be acceptable, no screening, pick up a sticker. The best I can say about this option is: it’s better than the first approach. You might get away with this if the physical site is so secure that visitors have no alternative to checking in at the office. Remember, the point of visitor screening is to stop the bad guys — and the bad guys have a consistent track record of not cooperating with school rules, even if they’re posted!

3. We don’t know everybody, and keeping up with custody disputes and restraining orders can be challenging. So we want all visitors screened at a basic level, even if only to track visitors during fire drills for liability reasons. In this case, office staff should ask for picture ID of any unknown visitors and check them against an internal list of barred visitors, including non-custodial parents and known gang members. Staff should also chat with visitors enough to ascertain if they are in a highly agitated or disturbed state that requires intervention or lockdowns.

4. We don’t know everybody, we’re a large school, we’re in a highly populated area where all kinds of people are passing by, we have gang problems and we had a noncustodial parent cause a scene last year. Alternately, we’re a posh school in a good neighborhood, but our families could be targets for terrorists and they expect top notch security measures. As a result, we want to be scrupulous, very hard core about visitor screening, and we want that fact to be well-known throughout the community. In this case you will want to put more measures in place, such as an online data base to check against barred visitors or registered sex offenders. It’s unavoidable–staff tie will have to be committed to screening, and a data base professionally maintained either in-house or by an outside agency. Once a school decides it’s ready to go full bore on screening, commercial products are often the most thorough and cost-efficient way to go.

Before parsing this further, I want to reinforce that no matter which option is chosen, its effectiveness will still be compromised if access into the school is uncontrolled. If the building is so secure that visitors cannot physically enter without checking in at the office and being buzzed through, it’ll be far easier to screen, even if only at a very casual level. At the other end of the spectrum, if the building is a sieve, in terms of access control, even the most rigorous screening will be a largely wasted investment – offenders will circumvent the screening point, entering through a back door. A highly vigilant staff may mitigate weak front office screening, (and may have to), but there comes a point where time spent policing cuts into time available for other important functions, including teaching, conferencing or connecting. Also regardless of which option is selected, signs should be prominently on display outside all school entries and in the lobby, instructing visitors to check in at the office.

Another pre-emptive comment – historically, has your district had problems with inadequately screened visitors? Have there been specific problems with unscreened visitors lately in the news that have you concerned? If the answer to both is a resounding “no,” then a heightened investment in screening and related equipment might not make it to the top of your priority list. But if the answer is yes, screening truly is important.

That being said, the key here is to get real. Persuading staff to screen visitors can be challenging. If it’s a lost cause, so be it – go with option 1. But if you want to be prepared for law suits it might be worth pushing on a bit.

Option 2 is commonly used, and if it works for you, great, but keep your fingers crossed. If going this route, there’s no need to install fancy equipment – if visitors self-screen, offenders won’t likely run themselves through a data-base. A simple “My Name Is ____” sticker may suffice. Some schools use blanks, color coded for the day – for example, on Mondays all visitors must have a blue card, or they should be challenged. Other schools use self-destruct badges that fade out within a day – a sensible feature, since so many visitors fail to turn in or discard badges after their visits have been completed. Conceivably they could use them again another day, or  intruders could fish them out of trash bins for their own use another time.

Some positive features of computer-based self-check-in systems include the ability to tally the number of visitors and the number of volunteer hours.

If your school chooses option 3, you’ll need to make a realistic assessment of person-hours needed to staff the front desk. Without actual screening, I’ll still be able to sign in as Hannibal Lecter without being stopped. (Credit goes to Michael Dorn for suggesting this test maneuver a few years back. I’ve done this a lot since and never been challenged.)

Option 4, in addition to all previously discussed measures, will require investment in on-line screening services.

For any option that includes signing in, the sign-in sheet should ask for the visitor’s name, date, time in and out, and who they are visiting. If the staff member can call ahead to advise a teacher regarding a visitor, that provides another opportunity to communicate about a possible threat, and for the teacher to decline the visitor for whatever reason.

For any option that does require name tags, you might as well make them worth the trouble, addressing the following considerations:

The important information on the card is the visitor’s name. You can easily recognize your school logo, even if it’s small. So write visitors’ names large.

Lanyards flop about, and as a result the cards are facing the wrong way half the time. Solutions include either writing the visitor’s name on both sides of the card, or

Use clip-on tags so that they always face front. Encourage visitors to wear them up high, where everyone can see them. The alternative is to force staff to stare at visitors’ waist bands or chests, which can be uncomfortable for all involved. If names are easily spotted, staff can call visitors by name, appearing friendly. With some finesse, they can even appear to remember visitors’ names from previous encounters, boosting connectivity.


Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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