School security: Is it ever enough?
After recent tragedy, area school officials reassess facilities.
LEANDER — During school hours at the Leander district’s Wiley Middle School, visitors must enter through a security vestibule, outside a second set of doors that blocks access to the rest of the school. Before passing through those doors, they are routed to the school office, where they must present identification to be run through an instant electronic criminal background check.
At IDEA Allan, the East Austin elementary school, visitors can’t get into the front doors until they are buzzed in. The school office has a view of the front door to see those standing there.
In the days since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, such measures have been put in place as districts across the country beefed up security and changed the way they design new schools. Local school officials and architects say even more changes could be on the way after the mass
murder of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut this month.
“We’re all in the process of taking a look at that, to evaluate what we’re doing now and see if there are other things we should do in light of what happened,” said Paul Turner, the Austin district’s executive director of facilities.
Local schools have flooded parents’ email inboxes, expressing sorrow over the Sandy Hook incident, reassuring them of their commitment to safety and spelling out security measures and campus emergency plans.
In a letter to parents, Austin’s Murchison Middle School interim Principal Sammy Harrison said that, as a result of a safety audit done earlier this month, she will ask the district for upgrades and expansion of surveillance cameras, a buzz-in entrance intercom and additional exterior lighting. She also plans to host a community meeting early next year.
District officials say it’s a balancing act between providing a school environment that feels inviting to parents and the community — schools are often used for community classes, clubs and churches — while keeping it safe.
“It’s not like when we grew up, when it was free flow in and out of schools,” said Jimmy Disler, the Leander district’s executive director of capital improvements, who has overseen the building of 27 new schools during his tenure.
“The community wants it to be inviting and open, but society is causing us to go the other way,” Disler said. “It’s a balance between making a prison of everyone on campus, but still maintaining security to keep everyone as safe as we can.”
Unlocked schools have long been a thing of the past. Without an employee security badge, visitors to Austin area public schools can gain entry only through the main entrances. The number of exterior doors has been reduced.
Throughout Central Texas schools, concealed security cameras, affixed to the ceilings, scan the hallways and common areas. Many area high school courtyards are surrounded by iron fences, or can only be accessed from the building.
More security officers — typically from Central Texas police departments or the county sheriff’s office — are posted at secondary schools. Other schools have installed metal detectors.
Angela Whitaker-Williams, a senior associate with the Austin office of Perkins + Will, an architectural firm that has designed schools across the country, said she had been contacted this week by districts pondering what more they can do to make their schools safer.
Whitaker-Williams said the firm currently is working on a San Antonio school that is in an area of the city where officials are concerned about the risk of drive-by shootings. They designed all windows seven feet above the floor, so that direct gunfire would be above everyone’s heads. One district she previously worked for wouldn’t allow windows below 20 feet, she said.
She said other options could include bullet-resistant glazing on windows, shutters that close electronically when district personnel see an alarming situation, and panic buttons in every classroom. But such costly features could be out of reach for area districts grappling with recent state funding cuts to public education. Whitaker-Williams said she priced bullet-resistant glass at $100 to $150 per square foot, which would add millions to construction costs.
A less costly protective feature, she said, might be to reinforce restroom doors. School restrooms often are built of concrete blocks, to help prevent water damage, and could be used as safe rooms in the event of an emergency.
“In the forefront of architects’ minds, in terms of school design, safety is always at the top of the list,” Whitaker-Williams said. “Those types of issues will always be part of the discussion and have been for quite some time. But the real solu- tions for campus security are going to come from an intersection from the architectural design and the school security procedures.”
Despite security, risks remain
Many districts are reluctant to divulge security measures, seeking to prevent the general public from having access to the information.
“Within the past 10 years we have made safety and security changes in our school designs,” said JoyLynn Occhiuzzi, Round Rock district spokeswoman. “We do not release detailed information regarding our security measures because the information could be detrimental to student and staff safety.”
Kenneth Trump, president of Ohio-based National School Safety and Security Services, said he’s received more than 100 calls a day from districts and the media since the Sandy Hook shooting. He recommends on his website that school officials work closely with architects and construction personnel when designing buildings, and to also include school security officers and outside safety specialists in the process.
One key consideration is placement of common areas, such as gyms, libraries and auditoriums that often are used after hours, to control access to the rest of the school. Despite the best efforts to make buildings secure, school designers said the reality is that someone intent on finding a way in to cause damage will sometimes succeed.
“This sounds pessimistic, but, honestly, if someone wants to get into any building, if they don’t shoot down the window, they can drive through a wall,” Whitaker-Williams said. “The bigger issues are how do we respond? How do we create ways where the building can be configured so it can be more safe? Just like fire drills, there is going to have to be safety and security instruction for kids in any event.
“The safety feature cannot simply be to turn it into a prison and lock people in. You still have to inspire students ... while putting in place the mechanisms to control extreme violence.”