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In safety push, school districts look to more secure entrances

In safety push, school districts look to more secure entrances

'We plan for the day-to-day and also plan for the worst and hope it never happens'
In safety push, school districts look to more secure entrances
A visitor at Mont Pleasant Middle School enters through a front door last week.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

In the never-ending push to make schools safer, local districts in recent years have turned to capital projects and special technology money to add new security layers at school entrances.

Local districts have expanded use of cameras and have used capital projects to upgrade school entrances into spaces secured by two sets of locked doors controlled by school staff.

In Schenectady, where the district is engaged in a years-long effort to update buildings, all of the schools have been equipped with locked entrances outfitted with cameras monitored by staff.

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But about half of the school buildings have yet to be renovated to include the second layer of security offered by the secure vestibules, Superintendent Larry Spring said.

“That is the piece we are adding to buildings as we go through and do more significant renovations — that is what we are laying out as our standard,” Spring said Thursday. “Obviously, we can’t do it everywhere all at once.”

At Pleasant Valley Elementary, for example, visitors buzz the main office to be let in; once the door is unlocked, a visitor enters directly into the school, with access to stairs leading to the second floor before crossing paths with the main office. If someone wanted to dodge checking in with the main office, little would be in their way.

A second set of locked doors — forming what is called a secure vestibule — forces visitors to present themselves to the office before entering the main part of a school.

“When we do this work, major renovations work, top on the list of must-haves is a secure entrance,” Spring said Thursday, speaking the day following a school shooting in Florida that killed 17 students and staff, the deadliest since the 2012 slaughter of young children in Newtown, Connecticut.

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Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Duanesburg school districts both included the creation of secure vestibule entrances in recent capital projects, as have other districts. Schalmont is planning a complete reworking of their high school front entrance as part of a capital project approved by voters in 2016. The project, which Schalmont business official Joe Lenz said was expected to be done by fall 2019, would establish the secure vestibule entrance attached to a new main office located where the school library is now. The district’s middle and elementary school buildings were already upgraded to the vestibule entrances. 

Saratoga Springs City School District has secure vestibules at its schools and has used a portion of state technology funds to expand its use of security cameras and to further secure building access points. As part of a capital project the district will put up for voter approval in May are plans to invest in outdoor lighting and fencing. 

Scotia-Glenville last month added a buzzer system to the entrances at its high school and middle school, so visitors now have to be allowed in through locked doors, district spokesman Bob Hanlon said; before the change, visitors could enter through unlocked doors but would have to check-in with school staff. The elementary schools had the buzzer systems already in place. 

Districts in the past few years have also expanded the presence of school cameras both inside and out of schools. They are required by state law to practice a variety of different lockdown and lockout scenarios and adopt both public and private safety plans that spell out how district leaders and local law enforcement will respond to an emergency like an active shooter.

“We plan for the day-to-day and also plan for the worst and hope it never happens,” Duanesburg Superintendent Frank Macri said Thursday, adding that he is looking to gather this summer with state police, local sheriff’s deputies and district administrators to review safety protocols, which the new superintendent said had been in the works prior to Wednesday’s shooting in Florida.

In response to the shooting, Duanesburg and other districts shared tips for how parents can talk with their kids about what they are seeing in the news. Shenendehowa outlined the steps to improve safety the district has taken in recent years.

Designing for safety

The spate of school shootings that have unfolded across the country over the past two decades has forever altered the way that school buildings are designed and renovated, moving safety to the fore of conversations.

Shawn Hamlin, an architect working on Schenectady’s ongoing capital projects, said safety-focused vendors used to be a small part of school construction conferences he visited for his work; now, the safety consultants are omnipresent at the events.

As he walks in schools with educators, the threat of an active shooter or other threat to students are overriding concerns, sometimes conflicting with academic or aesthetic considerations.

“I can’t walk into a school and talk about beautiful light,” he said. “A lot of it is dominated by shootings and violence, and that’s sad. … It does affect every thought about how we design.”

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Hamlin said strengthening security at entrances is primarily a starting place in evaluating what can be done to improve the design and layout of a school. While there are consultants who specialize in school safety and security, that is not Hamlin’s expertise, he said.

But schools aren’t built to protect students from a gunman; they are built to teach students. Schools are also viewed as public community spaces and often play host to outside organizations and activities.

“It kind of works against having a secure fortress complex,” Hamlin said. “You have a building that wants to be open to the community, but conversely you have a building with the most precious parts of that community, the children, which sadly have been under assault.”

The nature of the active shooter threat also presents design challenges unlike those presented by the risk of fires or weather disasters, he said. Each school shooting offers designers and administrators a new set of facts to consider as they look to better secure buildings and mitigate the ever-present risks.

The shooter in Florida on Wednesday pulled a fire alarm, exacerbating the chaos in the school and drawing students into the halls.

“It is a twist that is taking a lot of time, it affects how the building is organized all the way to the selection of hardware that goes on doors,” Hamlin said of the active shooter threat. “It is unpredictable and it will remain that way.”

Hamlin and educators also acknowledged the limits of building in safety measures into schools and the unpredictability of the challenges they are trying to address. A secure vestibule, Spring said, can only do so much against someone set on wreaking havoc in a school.

“If someone is going to come up to school with a couple of AR-15s and thousands of rounds of ammunition and are looking to kill dozens of people, there are lots of ways for them to force their way into the school beside that secure vestibule,” Spring said.

Schenectady High School is among the district schools that have yet to be upgraded to a secure vestibule. The school’s front entrance is locked and monitored by camera and visitors are required to check in at a desk in the hall, but once buzzed into the school, visitors have direct access to hallways before moving through a main office.

The school is in line to get about $4 million from a broader capital project that has been approved by voters and is currently under design, but much of that money is already earmarked for improvements to the school’s basic utility and heating and cooling needs. Another project still a few years away is planned to fund far more extensive renovations at the high school. Spring said broader designs to upgrade the high school entrance would be part of the current planning process, but he said it was too early to know how much would be done to improve the entrance before the high school-specific project.

Upgrades to the security of entrances at Zoller, Woodlawn and Martin Luther King Jr. elementary schools are expected to be included in the current project.

“It gradually has continued to push school administrators thinking about what is it we need to do around these notions of safety,” Spring said of preparing for threats to schools. “There will never be an end to that, we will always have to be thinking about that next thing.”

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