Securing school entrances is a delicate dance that involves protecting students without imprisoning them

Securing school entrances is a delicate dance that involves protecting students without imprisoning them.

Portals of Protection

School doors that are designed thoughtfully and maintained carefully are a key element in providing a safe environment for students and staff.

In October 2013, Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old boy with autism, disappeared from his school in the Queens section of New York City. Video surveillance showed that he had run out of the school building through an unguarded door. A few months later, his remains were found in the East River.

In response to the tragedy, the New York City Council enacted “Avonte’s Law,” which directs the city’s school system to evaluate the exterior doors in all its elementary and special-needs schools to determine which ones should be equipped with alarms, so school personnel can be alerted and react when someone is opening a door without authorization. By May 15, the school system must provide a timeline to the City Council for installing such alarms.

Avonte’s death is yet another example of the critical role that doors have in providing security for education institutions. Doors in school buildings often have to address contradictory needs: Let people in while keeping people out. And as Avonte’s case shows, they also must let people out while keeping people from getting out.

A guide from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Primer to Design Safe School Projects in Case of Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings,” recommends upgrading door security in the way that New York City is considering.

“Doors that are vulnerable to unauthorized use, when students open them from inside the building, can be made more secure by installing door alarms, delayed opening devices, or sensors or cameras monitoring doors from the central office,” the guide says.

Checking for Vulnerability

Having the right door systems can prevent intruders from getting into a school, or delay entry long enough to let students and staff find shelter while authorities are alerted. But poorly designed door hardware or badly maintained equipment can be an open invitation to thieves, vandals or others looking to do harm.

The Homeland Security guide includes a Building Vulnerability Assessment Checklist with detailed recommendations for selecting door systems.

  • Exterior doors should have as little exposed hardware as possible.Exterior doors should be equipped with hinges with non-removable pins.
  • Exterior exit-only doors do not need handles and locks protruding on the outside. However, there should be a way to open the doors from outside during an emergency, such as with a proximity card.
  • Exterior doors should be made of steel, aluminum alloy, or solid-core hardwood.
  • Exterior door frames should be installed in a way that deters vandals from prying them open.
  • Exterior glass doors should be fully framed and equipped with breakage-resistant tempered glass.
  • Door locks should be mounted flush to the surface of the door.
  • Exterior doors should not rely on key-in-knob or other protruding locking devices.
  • Exterior swinging doors should have a minimum 1-inch deadbolt lock with a 1-inch throw bolt and hardened steel insert, a free-turning brass or steel-tapered guard. If glass is within 40 inches of the locking mechanism, the doors should have double cylinder locks.
  • Panic bar latches on exterior doors should be protected by pick plates to prevent tools and plastic cards from releasing the bolt.
  • Exterior doors with panic push bars should have tamper-proof deadbolt locks to prevent easy exit. They should also be equipped with a metal plate to cover a gap between doors.

Interior doors also enhance school safety. Security experts recommend that classrooms should be equipped with doors that can be locked from the inside; if a teacher has to step outside the classroom into the corridor to engage a door lock, it could expose the teacher and students to a school intruder.

A 2014 guide, “Effective Solutions for Increased Security in New Hampshire Public Schools,” offers other suggestions.

  • Classroom doors equipped with glass panels should have shades that can block visibility into the room and thwart intruders looking for potential victims.
  • Exterior emergency doors should be covered by security cameras.
  • Glass features in or around the interior doors at the front entrance of the school, on the ground level or at the entry to a classroom should have reinforced glass, reinforced window panes or panes small enough to prevent unauthorized entry if an intruder is able to break through the glass.
  • Consider electronic door-locking systems that enable administrators to control access and avoid issues related to lost or stolen keys.
  • Conduct routine inspections to ensure that all exterior doors are maintained properly and working correctly.
  • The school building and its exterior doors should be laid out so that unauthorized vehicles cannot be parked close to any doors.
  • Doors, windows and other key access points to a school facility should be labeled with identifiers to help emergency responders find their way around the school in a crisis. “Critical exterior doors/windows should be marked on the outside with a number or letter that is clearly visible to first responders,” the guide says.

Kennedy is a contributing writer for American School & University.

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