Front-Line Security Begins With Front Desk

by Larry Johnson

School districts are on high alert these days to the possibility of dangerous individuals creating an unsafe and possibly life-threatening situation. While school leaders have taken steps to reduce the risk of a crisis on school grounds, many districts have overlooked a basic resource in their prevention plans: the front desk receptionist.

During my career as a law enforcement officer and as director of security in the Grand Rapids, Mich., schools, one of the state's largest districts, I have found the most important individuals at any school are those assigned to the front office and reception area.

In some cases, these individuals have been associated with the school longer than anyone else who works in the building. They know the children who attend the school, and often they live within walking distance. These staff members may be responsible for opening and closing the building and sometimes can be found working during holiday breaks.

When a parent or community member appears at a school with a real or imagined grievance, front desk personnel are often the first authority figure the visitor encounters. The initial moments of contact between a disgruntled individual and the receptionist may determine whether a tense situation will be defused or will escalate into violence or other negative conduct.

A Sentry Post

The front desk receptionist is vested with the responsibility of being the school's unofficial information and communications clearinghouse. Few school-related concerns escape a receptionist's attention. This is a positive reflection on the central role that such an employee has in a well-run school organization. Such expertise needs to be encouraged.

School districts should consider the role of support personnel in helping to maintain a safe environment.

Front desk receptionists must be trained to identify potential problems. Some incidents that have occurred in districts around Michigan could have been avoided or minimized had the front-office staff been included in the school safety training to identify signs of gang activity, drug use, domestic violence and strangers on campus.

Perhaps the most critical training deals with what to do about a stranger on school grounds. Receptionists should consider what a visitor might do if allowed unmonitored access to the school. The answer is alarming: theft, assaults against staff or students, false fire alarms, arson, even murder. These can be prevented through effective front desk contact with visitors.

Simple Steps

Some simple procedures can help front-office staff in this responsibility:

* Require all visitors to sign in at the front desk.

Visitor logs should require some basic information from all visitors. Require the person to sign their affiliation and the name of the student or staff member who will be visited. Record arrival and departure times and the purpose of visits.

* Avoid plastic or permanent visitor identification cards.

With permanent cards, you run the risk of a visitor walking out of the building with the card and gaining access to another school in your district. Require the display of a badge or identification card at all times while the visitor is on the premises. If possible, escort all visitors to their destination or ask the staff member involved to come to the front desk. Avoid having the visitor meet the staff member in a separate room.

*Develop good visitor policies for the building.

All visitors to the building should be required to follow the procedures, including staff from other schools. Former students, teachers and parents of former students, as well as delivery people and vendors, also should be held to the policy.

Hostile Visitors

With some regularity I receive calls from front desk receptionists seeking my help because of a problem with an irate parent. I find that a few simple training ideas could prevent tensions from rising higher.

I tell front-office personnel that when dealing with hostile parents and visitors, they should remember that the individuals are visiting your office. You must maintain control of your area by showing confidence and competence. You cannot allow visitors to your building to take over your office through shouting and yelling. If visitors sense you are afraid, they could easily intimidate you.

The receptionist must maintain eye contact with the individual at all times and try to listen. Always be pleasant and courteous, allowing visitors a few minutes to vent. Many times, visitors to schools who are disorderly are upset because they feel they have been given a run-around. They want answers but more importantly they want someone to listen to them and to help find what they are seeking.

Front-desk receptionists also should be trained to recognize anger cues in individuals. They must be able to express authority with their own non-verbal communications skills. One of the most important techniques is identifying frustration in others—the inappropriate smile, the shoe scuffing and clenched fists. Identifying these cues correctly can put a receptionist in a better position to deal professionally with the angry visitor.

Preventing Leaks

Front-desk security measures also must prevent confidential information from getting into the wrong hands, meaning the receptionist must learn to outfox the building snoop.

Front-desk employees should be on the lookout for employees who fish for confidential information. They must be careful in their handling of private information regarding staff members and students.

Because the front office serves as a center for conversation, receptionists must learn not to participate in gossip. They have to remain firm and consistent because those working in the building recognize that front-desk personnel often know details of confidential matters.

Finally, because front-desk personnel often arrive at the building prior to anyone else and may work after hours, their own personal safety must be considered. They should be able to park in a safe, well-lit area and should stay out of unfamiliar areas when coming to and from the building.

At the end of the workday, the receptionist should try to leave the stress of the job at the desk. If front-desk personnel leave the building with their heads down, they become potential victims of crimes. Because front desk personnel work in a position where they come in contact with diverse individuals, they must learn to pay attention to their feelings. If something feels wrong, they must respect those feelings and respond.

Larry Johnson is director of public safety and security in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, 1331 Franklin St., S.E., Grand Rapids, Mich. 49507. E-mail: