The U.S. has averaged 10 school shootings each year since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. When the problem hit close to home last spring with the shooting at Noblesville West Middle School in Noblesville, Indiana, the number of states that experienced school shootings grew to 37.
“It doesn’t just happen somewhere else anymore,” said Dr. Del Jarman, Director of Education and Business Development Executive for Odle McGuire Shook Architects (OMS) in Indianapolis. “Before we can teach children, we need to secure their safety.”
Many schools have taken steps with security cameras, motion detectors, or increased lighting. “But that doesn’t mean the focus on elementary and middle schools has been as high on the list as high schools,” Jarman said. “We tend to think incidents are more likely at high schools, but we’ve seen that’s not always the case.”
Security improvements often happen first in large, urban settings. However, of the 292 Indiana school districts, the average district size is below 2,000 students. “A lot of the large township schools are doing these things, but I’d say two-thirds of the state in rural settings and some urban situations aren’t there yet,” said Matt Mayol, President/CEO of OMS.
Each community must buy into the value of increased security measures. “The problem with any of the changes is it adds additional cost to a project,” Jarman said. “That’s one of the biggest issues that affects schools – budget-wise, how much are you and your community willing to spend? Reconstruction on school facilities used to be an easier process. Now the legislature requires voters to approve the funding.”
Depending on their budget, schools can choose from a variety of options ranging from metal detectors to bullet-resistant window film, new technologies, and structural solutions like wider corridors and more secure entrances.
Who Can Enter?
When OMS began designing the $6.67 million addition and renovation at Delta High School in Muncie, Indiana, in August 2017, the main safety issue was the way visitors entered the building.
With administrative and student services offices in the center of the building, “Every visitor walked to the center of the school,” Mayol said. “Really, they could walk through the front door and take off down any corridor. One of the goals right out of the gate was to relocate that administrative area to the perimeter of the building in order to create a new, safe and secure main entrance.”
That required moving the entrance from the west to the south side of the school. “Visitors will come to the outside entrance door and staff members will release them into a secure vestibule area, which still doesn’t allow them access into the school,” Jarman explained. “In the vestibule, they’ll scan their picture ID through a system that automatically alerts law enforcement if that person should not be in the school building. The interior doors stay locked until school personnel let the visitor in.”
Despite the increased security at the new entrance, “We wanted that front door to feel warm and welcoming with finishes, colors, and transparency,” Mayol said. “Lighting, wall paneling, and proper location of glazing – some of it bullet-resistant and some just impact-resistant – make all the difference in the world in these spaces.”
The project at Delta High School also includes six new science labs/classrooms on the second floor of the 12,125-square-foot addition that houses the new main entrance. General Contractor Mattcon Contractors of Indianapolis began construction in June and expects to finish the addition by next March. Crews will then start renovation of the 24,500-square-foot space that previously housed the administrative offices and old science labs, finishing that phase by August 2019.
Classroom doors in the renovated area will feature impact-resistant glass and a quick-release locking system. “In the event of a security breach, teachers can just thumb-turn the lock, rather than having to find a key before taking cover,” Mayol said.
Nowhere to Hide
Other projects took different approaches to safety and security. In remodels and additions at Lebanon High School and Greenfield Central Junior High School (both in Indiana), OMS focused on eliminating spaces where conflicts are more likely to occur.
“We created open, wider corridors with better sightlines,” Mayol explained. “We wanted to lose the nooks and crannies and obstructions. That allows security to have better camera visibility, as well as providing better visibility for teachers and emergency responders.”
At Mt. Vernon Middle School in Fortville, Indiana, OMS designed a glass-enclosed cafeteria and six classrooms with glass walls. “You can see what’s happening in those classrooms and teachers can actually write on the walls like a whiteboard,” Mayol said. “We’re trying to connect the school visually as a community, and it also helps with first responders and security cameras. It results in fewer places to hide and makes it easier to assess what’s going on inside.”
Does Metal Detection Make Sense?
On the horizon, Jarman sees metal detectors becoming more common. “We think nothing of metal detection at airports anymore, but we’re not used to having those discussions about schools,” he said.
The state recently offered every Indiana school district one handheld metal detection wand for every 250 students in a building. However, Jarman foresees possible liability issues with those.
“There are loopholes right now,” he said. “The state gave out the wands but didn’t address how schools should use them. If a school employs them randomly, what happens if an incident occurs and they didn’t use it in that particular situation?”
Many districts assume the price of walk-through metal detectors is too high, but units with features best-suited for schools can be purchased for under $3,000 each, Jarman said.
However, adding metal detectors affects the flow of people in and out of the building. “It’s important to remember that the building’s entrances and exits – especially at locations like the gymnasium, pool, auditorium, and bus loading areas – were sized based on the State of Indiana’s and International Building Code’s egress requirements,” Mayol said. “If there are 14 doors and you put metal detection at two of those doors, limiting the exit capacity to 12 doors, have you taken a code-compliant condition and made it non-compliant? With fixed metal detection, someone needs to do the calculations to make sure your building still meets minimum egress requirements. You don’t want the fire marshal to show up and say you can’t block those doors right after you invest in metal detectors.”
In addition, schools need to consider the cost of personnel to monitor the metal detection process. As an option, “Bus drivers work only part of the day; maybe schools can do the same thing in hiring retired military or police officers to work the morning and afternoon rush hours,” Jarman said.
Evolving Safety Options
As school districts consider their options, a safety audit can help determine the most feasible upgrades, including design solutions and non-architectural choices like see-through backpacks.
During those discussions, “We think architects should be at the table,” Mayol said. “We don’t have to do a lot of drawings, but issues like determining whether the building is easy to exit in the event of an incident are what architects are trained to address. It’s good to have that dialogue prior to expending dollars to ensure you don’t create a new problem.”
For instance, 3M recently introduced a new bullet-resistant film. However, “If you film the exterior classrooms, you make it more difficult to get into those spaces in a first responder situation,” Mayol said. “You’re going to need a different plan to get out of the building quickly.”
Going forward, Mayol anticipates the growth of new technologies. For instance, “If I walk past your loading dock or the cafeteria door and stop to take a picture, that’s something a computer can recognize. Right now we’re asking one or two human beings to watch hundreds of thousands of square feet. Computer technology can help identify anomalies, but then a human needs to identify if it’s actually an issue.”
To add to the growing options that increase safety, “I believe we need to think more about how the public arena addresses security and whether schools should consider the same solutions,” Jarman said. “No one will say it’s easy and, depending on how a local community decides to deal with security issues, it may not be cheap – but it’s necessary.”
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