Six months after Sandy Hook shootings, schools seek secure redesigns
Six months after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre, schools around the country are considering security upgrades.
June 10th, 2013
10:05 AM ET

Six months after Sandy Hook shootings, schools seek secure redesigns

By Paul Caron, CNN

(CNN) - When Alissa Parker first heard there was a shooting at her 6-year-old daughter’s school, she immediately thought of the building’s security weaknesses and wished she’d spoken up.

“Knowing the location of where Emilie’s classroom was, if anyone gained access to that building, I knew that my child was very vulnerable,” she said.

Parker’s daughter, Emilie, was among 20 first-graders killed in the December 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Six months since then, parents, school leaders and lawmakers around the country have raised questions about how to make schools more secure. Many schools reacted by immediately increasing security personnel and hiring consultants to assess their security plans. An Education Week analysis found nearly 400 bills related to school safety filed in the months after the deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history; legislators proposed arming teachers and adding guards or police officers. Many proposed shoring up the security of school buildings.

Parker and other Sandy Hook parents started the Safe and Sound, an initiative to help communities improve their school security plans.

As parents gathered information after the shooting, they realized schools all over the country are vulnerable, said Michele Gay, whose 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, was also killed at Sandy Hook.

“One line of defense is all they had, and once that is penetrated, anything can happen. That is the problem with most schools,” Gay said. “We are about empowering folks … gathering everybody at the table - local police, fire, custodians, teachers and when appropriate, students. Everyone needs to be at the table to make it work.”

After the Sandy Hook shootings, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed new gun regulations into law and created the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a 16-member public safety panel set to make recommendations about school safety, mental health and gun violence.

In its preliminary recommendations, the commission suggested:

- Requiring that all K-12 classrooms be equipped with doors that can be locked from the inside by the classroom teacher.

- Requiring that all exterior doors in K-12 schools be equipped with hardware capable of a full-perimeter lockdown.

- Creating a panel of design and security experts to establish, within 12 months, recommendations for safe design.

But what might make those buildings safer?

It starts with the front entrance; two sets of front doors have become standard on renovated school buildings, architects said, while visitors use a door to the side immediately to access the main office.

Layers of hurdles can be designed for unwanted visitors, with corridors, entries and exits that are still clearly visible to teachers, said Robert Ducibella, a member of the Sandy Hook commission and founding principal of DVS Security Consulting and Engineering.

“We want to engage all in early detection. We try to see someone who isn’t authorized to go where they shouldn't be,” Ducibella said. “It's a relatively simple thing, but it’s more by design.”

But when a school’s security can be undone by one unlocked door, delays or hurdles for intruders can save lives. Enhanced security cameras and working radios help administrators and teachers communicate during crucial moments when an intruder penetrates school grounds.

“We look at each one of the phases to buy time, to keep the aggressor out of facility, keep students and staff away from threat and let police get to the threat,” Ducibella said.

Architects walk a fine line while trying to design schools without making them into fortresses, said James LaPosta Jr., chief architectural officer for JCJ Architecture, who  worked with the Sandy Hook commission after nearly 30 years designing schools.

Some security features can improve everyday life in schools. Adding doors that connect classrooms can make it easier for teachers to work as teams, and in a dangerous situation, makes it easier for them to move students to safer areas.

Glassed hallways allow teachers and other adults in the schools to see an intruder but also to combat problems such as bullying.

“If you create a building that has more areas with adults around and (visible), your building creates a strong community and cuts down on bullying,” LaPosta said.

But these glassed hallways probably won’t be constructed from bulletproof glass; it’s not helpful for emergency responders who might need to get through the window, LaPosta said, adding, “I’m not sure any district can afford it.”

The hard part might be paying for the improvements.

Schools across the country were already facing tough budgets before the Sandy Hook shootings. And today, even Newtown struggles to come to grips with the cost involved to make the necessary changes in security. In April, residents rejected a budget that included money for extra school security. Nearly 4,500 of Newtown residents voted and turned down a $72 million school budget by 482 votes. They also rejected a $39 million town government budget by 62 votes.

Afterward, local leaders suggested the spending and tax increases were a hard sell.

"It’s a fiscally conservative community and has been for a long time. If you go back, they have had a number of budgets turned down in the past,” said state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a Democrat. “We all need how to work together for what is safest for the children. We are back to the old battle lines in state budget.”

Schools and architects began to work together more closely after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and some schools established ongoing construction programs that address security improvements, architects said.

But it often takes a local tragedy to make security a priority. Security experts said lawmakers need to make safety upgrades mandatory, as they have in other areas.

“It’s terrible to say, but America is built around response management,” said Ducibella, the Sandy Hook commission member. “In most states in the country, we don't have a perfect security criteria document for school design, which the Sandy Hook commission is looking at. We don't have uniform criteria that is legislatively enforceable.”

Some Newtown parents said they hope their school security initiative will drive home that point.

“What we are trying to do is inspire other families and communities and schools. They need to realize how much power they have to push safety in schools,” Parker said.

Parents behind Safe and Sound said school security should be treated more like fire safety, which has long been addressed by standards and codes. Students regularly practice drills and know where to go during a fire emergency.

“We would like to see the same standards, the same thought process to making schools more secure,” Gay said.

In Newtown, a local task force has recommended tearing down the Sandy Hook school and rebuilding a new one on the site. The proposal now goes to the school board and ultimately to voters in a referendum.

Meanwhile, the Newtown parents said they're making a push this summer so parents and educators start the next school year with a plan. In July, they'll introduce "tool kits" with security activities and resources, experts available to answer questions and a donation program for security and safety projects, Parker said.

“Some changes can be done that are cost-effective, one-time investments,” Parker said. “We understand if … financially, they cannot do it all. But if minimally, it can be as simple as if teachers can lock the door from the inside, you are going in the right direction.”

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Filed under: School buildings • School safety
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