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An Exit Strategy for School Safety

An Exit Strategy for School Safety

To ensure the security of an education facility, administrators need to select the appropriate kinds of doors.

When a new school facility opens, most of the staff and students are eager to get inside quickly and check out the new surroundings and all the cool stuff that will make their days of teaching and learning more comfortable and enjoyable.

In their excitement, they are unlikely to pay much attention to what every one of them has to pass through to get to their destination: the doors into the school. And, really, why should they? When technology-laden classrooms and labs are waiting with their new-building smell, who has time to think about doors?

In a well-designed school, administrators and designers have given a lot of thought to doors—the ones that let people in and out of the building, as well as the ones that separate spaces inside the facility.

In deciding what kind of doors will be installed, schools and universities have to consider who will be coming in and out of them; how much control they want over those comings and goings; what level of monitoring is necessary and desirable for each entryway; what amount of technology can be included to assist that monitoring; how much wear and tear the doors are expected to endure from a constant flow of students and staff; how much protection they are expected to provide from fires, hurricanes, tornados or external contaminants; and when and how they can be locked or unlocked. Oh, and they also should look nice.

Seeking security

The need for greater school safety and security at education institutions, along with the ever-widening selection of technological products to bolster that security, have added several layers of decisionmaking to selecting doors for a school campus.

Federal statistics state that from 1999-2000 to 2007-08 school years, the percentage of public schools that had controlled access to buildings during school hours increased from 75 percent to 90 percent; the percentage of schools that used controlled access to school grounds during school hours climbed from 34 percent to 43 percent; and the use of one or more security cameras to monitor school facilities rose from 19 percent of schools to 55 percent.

The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) has compiled numerous tips that can help facilities managers choose the right kind of doors:

•Exterior doors. A school should have the fewest possible number of exterior doors to deter unwanted intruders from gaining undetected entry. These doors should have as little exposed hardware as possible and be protected with pick plates (to prevent prying or other vandalism that could lead to unauthorized entry). They should be made of durable material—steel, aluminum alloy, or solid-core hardwood. For doors where monitoring by staff is not feasible and students are able to open doors and admit unauthorized visitors, schools should bolster security with door alarms, delayed-opening devices, sensors or video surveillance.

•Entry areas. Schools should consider a remote-entry system controlled from the school officer or a reception area. The doors should be situated so that visitors are guided to report to the school office before going elsewhere in the building. School safety is key.

•Access control. Because keys can be easily lost or stolen, and replacement can take a long time and be labor-intensive, education facilities should consider controlling access electronically through swipe or proximity cards, keypads, biometrics, or some combination of them.

•Interior doors. The hardware for these doors should be designed to prevent vandals or criminals from locking them and slowing or stopping security officers from pursuing them. (In the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, the gunman used chains to lock himself and his victims inside the classroom building where most of the shootings occurred.) In spaces where students can lock themselves in, school officials should have a way (e.g., a master key or a proximity card) to unlock the door. When interior doors are opened, they should not project more than 7 inches into a corridor. When openings are not wide enough, students are more likely to trip and injure themselves, and the congestion created by narrowing the passageway can lead to heightened tensions, shoving and fighting among students.

•Classroom doors. The hardware for classroom doors should enable staff members to quickly lock down classrooms from the inside without having to step into the hallway. The NCEF recommends dual-cylinder ANSI F88 locksets; they enable doors to be locked from either side to prevent entry from the hallway, but in accordance with fire codes, they can’t be locked to prevent students or others from exiting a classroom in an emergency.

Vigilant about visitors

Instead of relying on secretaries to recognize all parents, relatives, vendors and whoever else comes through the door to a school facility and determine who is an appropriate visitor, technology has enabled education institutions to monitor the comings and goings more efficiently.

The Waterloo (Iowa) district is one of the latest to install a computer-based visitor-management system. The system was installed in Waterloo schools over spring break this year. It requires visitors to show a government-issued identification (a driver’s license in most cases) and checks if the person appears on a sex-offender database or a building-specific list of people not allowed in the building for other reasons. If no match is found, the system prints a visitor badge with a photo of the person. Badges are turned in before the visitor departs.

After a person’s information is entered into the system, it can be retrieved on subsequent visits, so a visitor has to provide an ID only once.

Use of such systems has raised privacy issues in some areas. Yvonne and Larry Meadows sued the Lake Travis (Texas) Independent School District after Mrs. Meadows refused to provide her driver’s license information at Bee Cave Elementary School and was denied full access to the school facilities. The couple argued that the requirement that they must provide identifying information violated their right to direct their children’s education.

In September 2010, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling that rejected the claims of the parent, Yvonne Meadows, and her husband, Larry.

"We readily acknowledge that parents do have a constitutional right to direct their children’s education, but the Meadowses have put forth no case law for the proposition that this right extends so far as to include the unfettered right of a parent to visit all areas of a school while students are present," the court ruled.

Even if there were such a right, the court continued, the Travis Lake district still would be able to use the security system.

"The district obviously has a compelling interest in determining …whether a potential visitor to its school is a registered sex offender," the opinion states. The system "takes only the minimum information necessary to determine sex-offender status, identify the visitor and ensure the lack of false positives."

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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