Aerial views of the damage to Plaza Towers Elementary School after an F5 tornado touched down in the Moore Okla area on May 20 2013 Photo courtesy of Jocelyn AugustinoFEMA

Aerial views of the damage to Plaza Towers Elementary School after an F5 tornado touched down in the Moore, Okla., area on May 20, 2013. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Seeking Safer Schools

Re-evaluating security measures and preparing for emergencies.

With the shock of the fatal shooting deaths of students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., still resounding, officials throughout the nation formed task forces and convened summits to re-evaluate the security systems in place at education institutions and look for ways to prevent a tragedy of that enormity from recurring. 

In Oklahoma, a Commission on School Security issued recommendations to make schools better equipped to respond to safety threats, and by April, the state legislature had enacted four of those proposals into law. Only a few weeks later, violence of a different type swooped through the Sooner State. A deadly tornado ripped through the city of Moore and destroyed two elementary schools, killing seven children at one of the schools. The deaths of children in Connecticut and Oklahoma were a sad reminder for schools that natural catastrophes can strike just as quickly and unexpectedly as a violent intruder’s attack. Education institutions must assess their risks and be prepared to respond to crises of all kinds.

 “Between the shootings and the tornadoes, school safety is at the top of everyone’s discussion list,” says Darrell McAllister, an Oklahoma City architect.

Better protection

Since 20 children and six adults died by gunfire on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook, much of the public debate has been consumed by arguments over gun control. In general, gun-rights advocates, represented most prominently by the National Rifle Association, have advocated for increasing the presence of armed personnel in the nation’s school facilities. Proponents of greater restrictions on guns have argued that school safety improvements should focus on prevention, counseling and crisis preparedness.

In the meantime, hundreds of pieces of legislation have been introduced in state legislatures in the first half of 2013, and state agencies and school districts also have pursued numerous measures to make schools safer for students and staff. Among the proposals: additional security patrols, video surveillance and access-control systems; identification badges for staff, visitors and students; fewer building entrances; more safety drills; updated crisis-preparedness plans.

In Virginia, legislators have approved 12 new laws that stem from recommendations made by a school safety task force formed after the Sandy Hook shootings.

Among the provisions:

•School systems are required to include anti-bullying procedures in their student-conduct policies. 

•A fund will be created to provide grants for security-related school facility upgrades; requiring school superintendents to establish violence-prevention committees and threat-assessment teams.

•Several state agencies are directed to develop a model critical incident response training program for school personnel.

•Schools must conduct a lockdown drill at least once a semester.

•School principals are given the authority to share juvenile law enforcement records with threat-assessment teams.

•Civil immunity is extended to people who in good faith report information that an individual poses a security threat anyone on school property.

 “The legislation … will help make schools and campuses in Virginia safer and will provide for training and resources our educators, first responders, and mental health professionals need in order to provide the safest school environment possible,” says Gov. Bob McDonnell.

In West Virginia, the state’s School Building Authority, reviewing its school construction guidelines after Sandy Hook, has amended its regulations so that new schools incorporate more elements that bolster campus safety.

•Exterior doors with windows must have shatterproof glass; exterior doors that are not meant to be used for entering a school must be equipped with panic alarms and have no exterior hardware. A school’s security system must monitor whether any exterior doors are opened or closed and alert administrative office staff if a door has been left open.

•School entrances accessible to vehicular traffic must have bollards installed that are able to stop a passenger vehicle traveling 25 miles an hour.

•Administrative offices must be adjacent to the main entry vestibule with a direct line of sight to the main building entrance and parking areas.

•School facilities should have a separate visitor entrance and waiting area that is adjacent to the main entrance. The facility should have a pass-through window (with shatterproof security glass) from the waiting area to the general office.

•Cafeteria and commons areas shall be separated from the main entrance and the administrative office with mechanically operated access doors. All academic spaces also should be separated from common spaces in a similar fashion.

•Schools must add video-monitoring software to the computer workstations of administrative staff so the facilities may be monitored at all times.

Marshaling forces

The Douglas County (Colo.) district has had school resource officers serving in its nine high schools and their feeder middle schools for many years, but after Sandy Hook, educators and law enforcement officials agreed that elementary schools also would benefit from the visible presence of police.

“We have a very strong safety program in place for our students,” says Elizabeth Fagen, Douglas County school superintendent. “However, we believe in and are committed to continuous improvement. We have learned a lot from recent events.  Along with our partners in law enforcement, we are committed to providing the best security to our students and our staff.”

In partnership with local police agencies, the district has updated its security plan and created what it calls the School Marshal Program. The effort is modeled on the federal air marshal program that places law enforcement officers on airplanes to make air travel safer.

“In light of recent events, we have realized the need to expand armed police presence into our elementary, middle, early childhood and alternative school locations,” the district’s safety plan says. “Beginning next school year local law enforcement will be present every day at all of our neighborhood schools. Deputies and police officers will be assigned to schools in tight geographic proximity, so they can patrol each school frequently and respond to incidents when needed.”

In another effort to have a more visible law enforcement presence at Douglas County schools, the district will give police access to school Wi-Fi connections. That will enable officers to complete paperwork while parked in school lots and help deter would-be troublemakers.

Officers also have been invited to develop connections with students by interacting in the school cafeteria.

“We encourage deputies and officers to stop by and have lunch with our students for free,” the safety plan says.

Storm safety

While schools were still sorting out the pros and cons of potential security changes in response to Sandy Hook, other safety concerns took precedence in the Midwest as another tornado season arrived.

In Moore, Okla., seven third-grade students at Plaza Towers Elementary School were killed last month when a tornado destroyed the facility; another Moore school, Briarwood Elementary, also was leveled in the storm. The destructive power of the tornado has placed renewed focus on the benefits of schools’ installing tornado-safe rooms in storm-prone areas.

“Around here, we haven’t had to convince too many schools that they should have safe rooms,” says Jim Stufflebeam, vice president of Sapp Design Associates Architects, Springfield, Mo., a firm that has designed numerous school safe rooms. “This is tornado alley.”

A typical tornado safe room in a school is an enclosed, windowless area made of reinforced concrete to withstand the force of high winds and airborne debris. In most cases, a school will want to use the space for other needs when no storms are threatening, so safe rooms can be classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums or even corridors. Because of the special requirements, the easiest way to include a safe room is when a school is being built.

“Adding a safe room to an existing school facility can be done, but it’s difficult,” says McAllister. “It can be disruptive.”

McAllister, founding principal of McAllister & Associates Architecture, has been an architect in Oklahoma for 26 years. Safe rooms were not as prevalent when his career began, but as Oklahomans have seen the destruction tornadoes can inflict—including a deadly 1999 storm in Moore—more schools have been incorporating safe rooms. McAllister has been involved in the design of safe rooms in the Edmond (Okla.) district, but many school systems decide the cost is beyond their reach.

“Money is an obstacle,” says McAllister. “It’s tough to pass bond issues. As catastrophic as a tornado can be, there are those who would ask, ‘Is this the best use of money we have?’”

Some of the many districts that would like to build safe rooms can afford to do so with the help of grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The funding covers 75 percent of the basic shelter cost of a safe room, but districts must come up with the rest of the cost.

“Even with the FEMA grant, a lot of small rural districts can’t afford the costs,” says Stufflebeam.

If, as is true in most districts, a safe room is to be used for school functions other than short-term shelter, FEMA will not cover the costs associated with enhancing the space. 

Sidebar: Becoming more resilient

Seven higher-education institutions will take part in a Department of Homeland Security pilot program that will help colleges and universities become better equipped to prepare for and respond to crises on their campuses.

The schools taking part in the Campus Resilience Pilot Program will bring together campus officials, students and members of the local community to discuss innovative approaches to campus resilience and emergency planning.

“These colleges and universities will help us further develop best practices, resources and tools needed to assist campus communities nationwide in their efforts to reduce gun violence on campuses and bolster resilience and emergency planning processes for all types of hazards,” says Janet Napolitano, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security.

The Homeland Security Department defines resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”

“A resilient campus fully addresses the needs of its members during natural or man-made disasters and crises by following the phases of national preparedness: protection, prevention, mitigation, response and recovery,” the department says. “Additionally, a resilient campus will need to incorporate the unique needs of distinct student populations.”

The pilot schools will hold a series of campus community engagement sessions to assess and improve the emergency and resilience plans on their campuses; the lessons learned by those institutions will be made available to other colleges and universities.

Colleges and universities selected for the program: Drexel University, Philadelphia; Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic; Green River Community College, Auburn, Wash.; Navajo Technical College, Crownpoint, N.M.; Texas A&M University, College Station; Tougaloo College, Jackson, Miss.; and the University of San Francisco. 

Click here for an exclusive sidebar about how Institutions have been paying more attention to bullying on campus

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. Follow him on Twitter: @SchoolhouseBeat.

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