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Architecture and simple fixes can help improve school safety

Architecture and simple fixes can help improve school safety

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When Pattonville School District leaders planned the transformation of an old elementary school into a revamped preschool, they thought of everything they could add to the building to protect their 3- and 4-year-olds from a potential shooter.

For example, all the classroom and office doors have new locks that will automatically engage during a lockdown. Pattonville officials wanted those locks because they knew that, during the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., people died because classroom doors were not locked in time, said Pattonville Chief Financial Officer Ron Orr.

To get into the building, visitors have to enter a small room lined with concrete blocks and speak with an office assistant from behind a window of bulletproof glass to gain access to the hallway. Pattonville officials wanted that bulletproof window because, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the shooter shattered the transaction window with a shower of bullets to force his way into the school.

“Every time a tragedy happens, we learn things,” Orr said.

Even before Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where at least 17 people were killed, even before January’s shooting at Marshall County High in Benton, Ky., in which two students were killed, Missouri educators and architects have been asking themselves: If a shooter were to come for our children, would our school buildings be able to stop them?

The frequency of school shootings in the United States has pushed building safety beyond simply having working fire alarms, locked front doors or an intercom to buzz in visitors.

Architects and safety experts are asking school leaders scores of questions: Do the first-floor windows and doors have bulletproof glass or film? Are there surveillance cameras and fences around the property? Are the bus drop-off lanes clearly separate from parent drop-off lanes?

Many educators will say protecting schools against potential shootings has become a necessity.

But some experts still worry that schools are not actively pursuing safety as a priority.

“I can’t tell you how many schools I just walked in the door,” said Clayton architect Art Bond. “It’s time to articulate this and bring this to the forefront … to put safety in schools without making it look like a fortress. We’re trying to do this in a way that is nonintrusive.”

Bond has visited what’s been called the “safest school in America” in Shelbyville, Ind., and the newly built Sandy Hook school to study how to build safe schools. He is designing schools to protect students not only from intruders, but also from bullies. For example, creating wide, open hallways without nooks or crannies, or bathrooms with open entryways, allows teachers to spot bullying more quickly.

Bond has incorporated those kinds of designs in schools such as the reimagined Ladue Horton Watkins High School currently under construction, the newly renovated Maplewood-Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center, Special School District’s new Northview High School and Pattonville’s new Early Childhood Center. Bond Architects has worked with 110 schools in 26 districts.

School safety can especially be an issue because many children attend school in a building that dates back several decades.

“Many educators across the country are dealing with buildings that were designed decades ago and not at a time when security was an issue,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “Many architects design schools with the goals of staying in or under budget, for aesthetics and educational purposes, and oftentimes those criteria are in conflict with some of the better practices with designing schools with security in mind.”

One issue is cost. Indeed, many school districts have had to launch multimillion-dollar bond issues to get the safety upgrades they wanted. Pattonville, for example, is spending $4.3 million from its recently approved $23 million, no-tax-increase bond issue on safety and security upgrades.

But Bond said some renovations don’t take a lot of money.

“These are things that can be done for a few thousand dollars, and not hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Bond said.

Bullet-resistant film on windows, for example, costs less than bulletproof glass. Simply posting number signs above every classroom door, making them visible to anyone looking down a hallway, as well as numbers on classroom windows facing outside, helps emergency responders to recognize immediately where to go. Groundskeepers can cut shrubs and trees that hug school buildings, to limit hiding places for intruders.

Experts say one of the riskiest misconceptions is thinking that a school shooting can’t happen here.

“Yes, school safety is very important in all school districts throughout the state … everybody says that. However, we don’t all necessarily show that that is a priority with our strategic planning,” said Amy Bledsoe, education safety coordinator for the Center for Education Safety in Missouri. “I still think there’s just kind of an underlying feeling or thought that it will not happen here in Missouri.”

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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