Officials study secure school design

Crosses dominated a roadside memorial on the day the Sandy Hook, Conn., schoolchildren began classes in a neighboring town following the shooting in their hometown school.
Crosses dominated a roadside memorial on the day the Sandy Hook, Conn., schoolchildren began classes in a neighboring town following the shooting in their hometown school.Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File 2013

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.

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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Since Newtown, even those design plans may be outdated, said Elizabeth Sorrell, superintendent of the Carver schools.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.

In Newton, plans for kindergarten classrooms at the new Angier Elementary School initially kept with tradition: They would be on the ground floor, providing easy access for parents and a short walk to the outdoors for the school’s youngest children.

After the gunman charged into the Sandy Hook school and killed 26 children and adults, many of them in classrooms close to that school’s entrance, the district started exploring other options.

Now Angier’s design calls for all students to be in classrooms on the second and third floors, above the cafeteria and gymnasium — and at least a flight of stairs away from potentially dangerous intruders.

“It works out, safety-wise,” said Angier’s principal, Loreta Lamberti, who also sees educational benefits to the new design.

For Emily Prenner, a parent of an Angier student and member of the school’s building committee, the new design will not detract from the sense of community at the school.

The principal, teachers, parents, and neighbors help create a tight-knit community around a school, not where the classrooms are located, Prenner said.

“We have an opportunity to start from scratch,” she said. “I would like Angier to be a secure building.”

For now, communities are taking their own lessons from Newtown and applying them in a variety of ways to new building projects.

Despite a robust school construction environment, there are few guides for districts looking for best practices on building security, LaPosta said.

While the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which partners with communities to build schools, specifies the size of classrooms and how much should be spent on construction costs, security factors are left up to each individual school district.

“Each district would have their preference of what they want,” said Matt Donovan, a spokesman for the authority.

Still, in Connecticut, the governor’s security panel suggested that the state develop a set of basic criteria for safe school buildings, LaPosta said.

“It doesn’t exist now, but probably should,” LaPosta said.

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