Child Care Centers and Security Vulnerabilities

Photo: GSA Child Care Desk Guide

The title of a new report by the US General Services Administration (GSA), issued on January 30, 2020, speaks volumes: “Child Care Centers in GSA-Controlled Buildings Have Significant Security Vulnerabilities.”

The 30-page report that follows, drawing on audits conducted between September 2017 and August 2018, is heavily redacted. However, the text that is not blacked out reveals that a GSA audit of eleven child care centers in federal facilities found significant security vulnerabilities in all of them—and that where these vulnerabilities had been previously identified, the responsible agencies had not taken steps to put countermeasures in place.

Because the child care center level of protection template that contains these countermeasures and other standards is classified and for official use only, we can only guess at some of the specifications involved. However, the National Institute of Building Sciences notes that among its components are measures to protect public buildings from human aggressors (such as, say, lone shooters, disgruntled employees, and terrorists). Among these methods are the establishment of a protected security perimeter that blocks unchallenged entrance to those buildings, as well as structural standards that prevent buildings from progressive collapse in the event of a bombing—and, let us not forget, 15 of the 168 people killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 25 years ago were children in a federal daycare center. After that event, federal buildings were surrounded by Jersey barriers and other security barricades, with deep setbacks from streets required for all new construction. Other mandated measures include the use of human security guards, closed-circuit television monitoring, and hardening of building exteriors to increase resistance to bomb blasts and minimize flying debris in the event of an explosion.

As the federal Interagency Security Committee (ISC) acknowledged its 2016 report “The Risk Management Process for Federal Facilities,” the risks thus addressed are manmade; natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes are largely outside the scope of the rules developed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Under the terms of this assessment, federal facilities are evaluated on several measures, including the “mission criticality” of the facility and its symbolic value. The former relates to how important the building is to the normal functioning of government, the latter to such matters as tourist visitation and expression of federal power or authority or representation of national values or heritage. Thus, the US Capitol is both central to the federal enterprise and highly symbolic of national values, to say nothing of being heavily visited by tourists, while the Statue of Liberty has an important symbolic value but is not seen as being central to government. Both structures are considered to be at high risk.

Threat to tenant agencies is another consideration: given widespread animus toward the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, buildings in which they are located are given higher security designations than those housing agencies that have little public contact or that are located in areas with traditionally low crime rates. The guidelines recommend that agencies with similar levels of security needs be co-located in order to avoid the cost that a low-threat-level agency might otherwise incur if housed with one that presents a more likely target to would-be evildoers.

All agencies are responsible for making risk assessments, although the ISC has not developed a single standard or methodology to use toward this end. The ISC does note, however, that “the threat to Federal facilities is very real, and the decision to accept risk could have serious consequences,” adding that it is incumbent upon decision makers to gather as much information about security risks as they possibly can.

The GSA report notes that there are more than 100 child care programs in federal facilities nationwide, caring for some 7,000 children daily. While the report states that funding for increased security measures has not yet been allocated, it is a GSA priority. The report adds that the provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 allow it to direct funds earmarked for “repair and alterations” to this end. On that note, the report concludes that Congress has underfunded the GSA R&A fund by about $3.5 billion since 2011. Even so, the report states, while GSA is responsible for making final decisions about security questions, the agency or agencies housed in a building under review must pay for security upgrades.