In the months since the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been renewed efforts on the part of many schools to improve their security and better protect students, staff, and visitors.  While I’m very glad to see the focus on these improvements, I’m also very concerned about some well-meaning but misguided efforts that I’ve come across.  This post is not meant as an attack on any particular product or idea, but a reminder that as we secure these facilities, we must not forget about the other codes affecting the same doors that are being addressed.

Many people have contacted me, concerned about methods being used in their local schools or advertised online.  Here are some examples:

Several websites recommend products or homemade items which prevent the door from latching, so that the outside lever can remain locked at all times but will still allow access because the door is not latched.  If these doors are fire doors, disabling the latching mechanism will result in doors that won’t latch and compartmentalize the building if there is a fire.  This is a violation of the fire code.   Here’s a link to one such product, an “instructional video” on how to make your own hold-open, a website where you can order magnets to cover the strike, and a Youtube video explaining the DIY method.  These products must NOT be used on fire doors.

There are many proposed methods for locking doors using an added lock mechanism or other item which secures the door to prevent an intruder from entering.  Most of these products do not allow free egress from the classroom with one motion to unlatch the door.  Again, this is a fire code violation and could jeopardize lives in an emergency.  These devices could be used by unauthorized individuals to lock the door.  For products that are not permanently attached to the door, there’s also the possibility that the device won’t be readily available in an emergency.  Here’s a product designed by a locksmith, another one that looks like it was designed for residential use but is now called a “classroom lockdown security solution“, and a news story about a teacher’s invention to lock classroom doorsNone of these products meet code requirements for egress or accessibility.

Glass in doors and sidelites can be broken to gain access, as seen at Sandy Hook as well as the Red Lake school shooting in 2005.  One school system asked about replacing the existing glass lites with wood panels and installing viewers in the classroom doors.  But many of the state standards for public education require visual access to classrooms for accountability.  I wouldn’t want my child behind closed doors, with no way for anyone to see what’s going on inside the room.

I’ve heard mention of replacing existing glass with wired glass to provide additional security.  But traditional wired glass is not more secure – in fact it is half as strong as annealed glass, and is a hazard to the building occupants.  Today’s building codes require glass in doors and sidelites to be impact-resistant – traditional wired glass does not meet the current code requirements.  There are glazing products that can help to prevent unauthorized access, along with films that can be applied to existing glass, but facilities need to do their homework.

Several people have asked me about installing electromagnetic locks on cross-corridor and exterior doors throughout school buildings, to “trap” an intruder or prevent him from moving freely through the school.  It would be difficult if not impossible to use lockable doors to confine an intruder, and the hardware used would likely create an egress problem for the other building occupants.  Electromagnetic locks and other electrified hardware must be installed in accordance with the applicable code requirements, which ensure safe egress.

One of the scariest ideas I have heard was to equip each teacher with a wood wedge and a can of wasp spray.  If an intruder entered the building, the plan was for teachers to use the wood wedge to block the door closed, and shoot the intruder with the wasp spray if was able to get the door open.  This introduces a dangerous substance into the classroom, requires teachers to defend themselves and their students with what some consider the equivalent of pepper spray instead of keeping them relatively safe behind a properly locked door, and gives the school a false sense of security because they believe they’re well prepared.

I urge those of you who found this article by Googling “how to lock a classroom door” to consider code-compliant methods such as classroom security locks, which allow a teacher to lock the door from the inside without opening the door and risking exposure to the intruder.  This lock function allows free egress and is code-compliant.  A California law requires classroom security locks on rooms with an occupant load of 5 or more in schools, and a bill that is currently being considered by the Florida House of Representatives would include, among other safety modifications, doors that can be locked by a key from the inside without impeding egress – classroom security locks.

It may be tempting to consider using office function locks which utilize a thumbturn or button to lock the outside lever because the door can be locked immediately (although these wouldn’t meet the proposed Florida requirements).  Some facilities have suggested leaving doors locked on the corridor side at all times (others are still debating whether doors should be locked).  The reason facilities are considering these functions is because of the concern that a teacher won’t be able to find the key quickly enough to lock the door if a classroom security lock is used.  But an office function lock will allow anyone to lock the door and take control of the room.  If a storeroom lock is used, the teacher will need to keep their key handy just for access.  An official procedure which includes immediate access to a key at all times, reinforced with staff training and drills, combines immediate lockdown capability with free egress, and staff control of the door.

Here are examples of how a few school districts are handling security in a code-compliant manner:

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