School se­cu­rity: Is it ever enough?

Af­ter re­cent tragedy, area school of­fi­cials re­assess fa­cil­i­ties.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Melissa B.Taboada mtaboada@states­

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.”

Locked schools

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.”

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