School safety: it’s more than just drills

Mlive.com recently did what they believe was an extensive study of school safety procedures, even though their study was limited to a small percentage of Michigan schools. While our district was mentioned for having documented our state-mandated drills “properly,” it still concerns me that this study focused primarily on what to do after an incident is set in motion, not what we should be doing as a district, community, state and nation to prevent such incidents from ever happening. Or at least making it difficult for the perpetrator.

This, of course, requires the attention of politicians and additional funding to help make our school structures more safe and restrict access by someone wanting to do harm to students or staff. The political climate in Michigan right now is to bury our collective heads in the sand whenever there’s a price tag involved.

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Photo of Bath School House (Bath, Michigan) after it was blown up in 1927 by school board member, Andrew Kehoe. He was afforded unfettered access to the school, day or night, over many weeks and months, providing the opportunity to plant explosives that killed many students and staff. It was an era where anyone could walk into a school building at any time of the day and it still stands as the worst U.S. school homicide in history. What lessons did we learn from it and how did it impact school safety design? We’d be hard-pressed to trace anything back to that tragic day.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, established by the governor of Connecticut in the wake of that tragedy, recommended that school structural designs be improved to address safety concerns. Education Week (March 27, 2013 issue) reported on these findings and suggested that, “While state regulations already set school design standards for lighting and air quality…, ‘no standard exists for the baseline of safe school design.” The report calls for minimum safety standards for K-12 schools, day-care centers, as well as colleges and universities, “acknowledging that cost will factor into schools’ ability to improve security.” Well, there’s that dirty word” cost.

One of the seemingly simple recommendations is to require that classrooms have doors that can be locked from the inside by the classroom teacher. This sounds logical given the fact our homes or apartments all have that capability. But to retrofit all existing classroom doors (and offices, lounges, gymnasiums, etc.) with hardware that allows this is costly, especially in an era where state government continues to hack away at per-pupil funding for K-12 schools. It’s an important security measure but what important educational program are we willing to sacrifice to do this?

Other suggestions include modifying doors and entrances to schools that impede entry into the inner hallways, but even access to the main office can set off a series of tragic events before an adequate response is initiated. The most effective modification would be to install electronic devices that allow instantaneous engagement by an office staff member who has a primary purpose of keeping an eye on the exterior of the entrance. Perhaps even an alarm that detects metal, gunpowder, etc. and disallows the unlocking of an inner door until the situation warrants. And what about replacing all doors with glass of any kind since it can easily be shot out to allow the perpetrator to gain access to unlocking mechanisms? And that might include the need to either remove or strengthen all ground-level windows large enough to get through. But the removal of windows requires better ventilation and air-conditioning which is an exorbitant cost for older buildings like Lee Middle & High School and Godfrey Elementary.

Practicing drills is an important part of establishing a safe and supportive school climate while preparing for a potential emergency, but if Lansing is serious about school safety, our governor and legislative leaders need to wake up to the fact that most of our school structures, particularly older ones that date to an era where the doors were left unlocked and visitors could enter anywhere/anytime during the school day, are not designed with security in mind and require extensive — and expensive — upgrades.

We’ll be waiting to hear from you.

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About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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