Communities in Greater Boston are starting to rethink how they build schools since the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
From the new Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical High School in Danvers to schools in Newton in Boston’s western suburbs and Carver south of Boston, security concerns have become an integral part of the design.
Massachusetts lawmakers have also taken up the issue, with at least eight bills that address school security introduced in the 2013-2014 legislative session. The proposals range from creating commissions to study the issue to requiring that students be out of school on election days when the public has easy access to buildings.
In the town of Carver, safety concerns since the Sandy Hook shooting have revitalized discussions about constructing a new elementary school. A few years ago, school officials had developed design plans for the school, but the project failed to get enough local support and was bumped off the state’s priority list for construction funding.
Since Newtown, even those design plans may be outdated, said Elizabeth Sorrell, superintendent of the Carver schools. The district recently resubmitted a request to the state for funding to help build the new elementary school.
Some Carver parents have suggested that any new school include smaller window panes to prevent an intruder from shooting his way in, Sorrell said.
And there may be further discussions about where to place the gym and the cafeteria, which are also used by the public, in relation to the classrooms, she said.
“I am sure we will look to incorporate the learning from the Newtown tragedy,” Sorrell said.
Just as the Columbine High School shooting almost 14 years ago ushered in changes to school building designs, with more cameras and complex lock systems installed, the Newtown episode has reawakened the debate on how to build a safer school.
“There was a big wave after Columbine. There is a wave now after Newtown,” David Finney, president of Design Partnership of Cambridge, an architecture firm that does work for school districts. “The general issue is a big one for everyone.”
At the new Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical High School, visitors will have to present their drivers’ licenses and will be quickly checked to ensure they are not sex offenders or otherwise barred from the building before they can enter. In addition, a security person will monitor cameras in a control room, and certain doors will automatically lock, said Daniel O’Connell, the superintendent of North Shore Technical High, which is merging with Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in a new building that is 25 percent complete.
“You need to do what’s safe,” O’Connell said. “It’s easier to address in new buildings.”
Architects say they are fielding questions about the feasibility of putting in bulletproof glass and installing double doors at entrances to control who comes into a school. There are also discussions about how much glass to include in buildings, so that students and teachers inside are safe and adults can still see what is happening in the hallways and classrooms.
It is a balancing act, architects and educators say, to make sure the building is both secure and welcoming.
“Introducing increased security measures has other implications that aren’t necessarily positive,” Finney said. “This is really a judgment that individuals and clients and school districts need to examine their own thoughts on. . . . I would want to advise school districts to think really hard about what they’re giving up.”
For example, bulletproof-glass doors at an entrance may offer a sense of security, but they can be extremely heavy, expensive to install and maintain, and still leave windows accessible to a dangerous visitor, said James LaPosta, a principal and chief architectural officer with JCJ Architecture, which has offices in Hartford and Boston.
LaPosta participated in a school safety commission that Connecticut’s governor, Dannel P. Malloy, put together after the Sandy Hook shooting. LaPosta and other architects and security consultants warned about the limits of architecture to stave off all the potential dangers to a school.
School shootings are still rare and these buildings also need be designed to protect children from more common internal threats, such as bullying and thefts, LaPosta said.
“It’s a major challenge that we fortify our schools, but don’t turn them into fortresses,” LaPosta said.Continued...