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Choosing doors for safer classrooms and school facilities

April 2, 2021
The right kinds of doors can provide safer classrooms for students and teachers.

Before countless violent episodes forced schools and universities to view visitors as potentially dangerous intruders, building security was not a constant concern, and doors were considered a means of ingress and egress, not necessarily a first line of protection from threats.

If a classroom door was closed, it was probably because of too much noisy traffic in the hallway; if an exit door was propped open, it was most likely to bring some fresh air into a stuffy building. But in the 21st-century reality that has made the names Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland instantly recognizable symbols of unspeakable school tragedies, a door propped open or left unsecured is a safety breach that could lead to a deadly attack on students and staff. And a closed and locked classroom door could be the factor that slows down or halts an intruder’s attack and saves lives.  

Locked on the inside

Following the 2012 attack that killed 20 children at six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the investigation found that the school’s classroom doors could be locked only from the outside. Teachers had to go into the hallway to set the lock, and that made them and their students more vulnerable to an intruder’s attack.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, formed in the aftermath of tragedy to study how to improve school security, addressed door security in its first recommendation—a standard requiring all classrooms and other safe haven areas in K-12 schools to have doors that can be locked from the inside.

“The Commission cannot emphasize enough the importance of this recommendation,” its report stated. “The testimony and other evidence presented to the Commission reveals that there has never been an event in which an active shooter breached a locked classroom door.”

The National Association of State Fire Marshals endorsed that recommendation and has compiled a checklist to help schools make sure their doors are properly equipped to provide adequate security.

  • A door should be lockable from inside the classroom without requiring the door to be opened
  • Egress from a classroom through a classroom door should be accomplished without the use of a key, a tool, special knowledge, or effort.
  • For egress, unlatching a classroom door from inside the classroom should be accomplished with one operation.
  • A classroom door should be lockable and unlockable from outside the classroom.
  • Door operating hardware should be operable without tight grasping, tight pinching, or twisting of the wrist.
  • Door hardware operable parts should be placed between 34 and 48 inches above the floor.
  • The bottom 10 inches of the “push” side of a door surface should be smooth.
  • If a school building does not have an automatic fire sprinkler system, a classroom door and door hardware may be required to be fire-rated, and the door should be self-closing and self-latching
  • If a door is required to be fire-rated, the door should not be modified in any way that invalidates the required fire-rating of the door or door hardware.

Unwanted barriers

As school administrators have been convinced that classroom doors need security-minded upgrades, some have been tempted to acquire additional equipment to make it more difficult for someone to force a door open from the outside.

These barrier devices are attached to doors and make it more difficult for someone to enter. But many of the devices can’t be quickly disengaged from doors, and that makes it harder for occupants to quickly open a door and get out of a classroom.

The devices also may interfere with the efforts of firefighters and other emergency responders to gain access to a classroom in a timely manner. Because a fire in a school is much more likely than a school shooting incident, the barriers may end up doing more harm than good.

Those concerns are what prompted the state fire marshal’s association to discourage the use of such devices.

“When selecting hardware which allows classroom doors to be lockable from inside the room, consideration must be given to the risks and potential consequences of utilizing a device which blocks the door from the inside, potentially impeding or preventing immediate egress by occupants,” the association stated in 2018. “Devices which prevent classroom doors from being unlocked and opened from outside the classroom may place the inhabitants of the room in peril.”

The Door Security & Safety Foundation also has come out strongly against the use of barrier devices to enhance door security.

“While these devices are perceived to provide additional security, they have the significant potential to facilitate unintended consequences when incidents of bullying, harassment, or physical violence take place,” the foundation says.

The foundation has a campaign, “Opening the Door to School Safety,” that seeks to raise awareness about securing classroom doors while adhering to building and fire codes.

“Safety isn’t just about closing the door, it’s also about opening the door,” says Jerry Heppes, CEO of the foundation. “Security should never take priority over life safety; they must work hand in hand, especially during an emergency situation. Classroom door barricade devices violate building, fire and life safety codes and can easily be misused by someone inside the room intending to cause harm.”

Stop the prop

The habit or tradition of propping open exterior doors in education facilities may have seemed harmless in an earlier time, but the need for more secure campuses takes precedence over the momentary convenience of a faster way to go back inside a school.

To enhance safety, schools should reduce the number of entries; the entries that remain should be part of an access control system that sounds an alarm if an opened door doesn’t close in a reasonable time. Many schools also have boosted their security by having the entry doors of a school building locked; access to the school is controlled by central office personnel, and surveillance cameras are in place so staff members can see who is seeking entry.

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