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Heightened School Security With a Friendly Feel

By William Scarborough
Heightened School Security With a Friendly Feel

When Singapore American School (SAS) opened its doors in 1956, students, parents, teachers, neighbors, and even dogs and chickens walked through the campus at will. Sixty years later, we live in a nation renowned for being safe, clean, and law-abiding. However, we at SAS are aware that Southeast Asia can be a turbulent region, and that these are turbulent times. Recognizing our visibility as a symbol of the U.S., in recent years we have worked to improve our security measures while maintaining our traditional welcoming atmosphere.
The current SAS security plans have developed since 2001. In response to the September 11th attacks, the Singapore government stationed Gurkha Contingent police officers at international schools. Complete with guns and traditional kukri daggers, they were a visible and impressive symbol of the government’s commitment to its foreign residents. To supplement the Gurkhas, SAS hired extra guards for day-to-day security. After several years, decreased threat levels in Singapore caused the officers to be withdrawn, and the school enhanced its security in response.
Our physical security precautions now include a fence and barrier system, upgraded substantially between 2004 and 2006 with support from the U.S. State Department. While we know that high fences, car barriers, and turnstile pedestrian gates are necessary, we try to keep them as unobtrusive as possible, using plantings, awnings, banners, and other decorative features to soften their visual impact. We also have security cameras throughout our large campus, giving us inconspicuous extra “eyes” to spot problems. When the threat level is low, we keep our security relatively discreet, but if it rises we can respond by tightening access control, barring vehicles from campus, and raising security barriers or closing gates.
For most in our community, the guards staffing the school’s access points are our most obvious security component. These guards are carefully chosen and trained by their company and by SAS’s security manager, a retired Singapore Armed Forces Major with much relevant experience. In addition to their security duties, guards are instructed in how to interact appropriately with students, parents, and staff. As the first and last people visitors see at the school, their calm, friendly, patient demeanor is extremely important in creating positive impressions. Many students greet them as friends, and parents appreciate that they are helping to keep the children safe.
In 2011, the rollout of the SASCard proved a major security improvement. Every SAS staff member, student, and parent was issued a chip-based identity card, which is tapped on a sensor to allow entry through pedestrian gates. Vehicle access control uses a linked system of vehicle decals. Working with our bus company, we also ensure that students tap on and off their school buses. Access information is kept in our system, so at any moment we know who is on campus and where students are in their bus commutes. Visitors and vehicles without SAS identification must go through extra security procedures.
Although some at first saw the SASCard as intrusive or burdensome, the cards’ other functions quickly won them fans. When topped up by cash or credit card, they can be used to purchase food, school supplies, and uniforms. At this point, they have largely replaced cash purchases, saving our staff time and effort. They also serve as our library cards. Finally, they are linked to Singapore’s NETS electronic payment system, so they can be used for cashless purchases off campus, and even serve as smartcards for Singapore’s trains and buses. We found that because they offered a variety of useful services, the cards quickly became an integral part of school life.
In addition to day-to-day security, SAS pays close attention to the bigger picture. We solicit security advice from two independent firms, and we commission an annual security audit. The U.S. Embassy also advises us, with Regional Security Office personnel making on-site visits and U.S. government experts giving us feedback. The RSO also provides advice for overseas student trips. Additionally, we work closely with neighborhood police, particularly when school events are open to the public. On school days, police cars drive through the school, and officers may conduct perimeter foot patrols. In the event of a known security threat, the Singapore government provides us with information and helps us craft our response.
At SAS we aim to balance the warm and open feeling of a neighborhood school with the security precautions necessary in our place and time. By emphasizing friendly interactions between guards and visitors, keeping security as unobtrusive as possible, offering user-friendly features with our identity cards, and creating strong links with outside advisors, we have been able to balance our security needs with the welcoming atmosphere that has characterized our school throughout its 60 years.

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