Printed from the blog of Lori Greene, AHC/CDC, CCPR, FDAI
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Apr 15 2014

WWYD? Elopement in Schools

Thank you to all who commented on my previous post about school seclusion rooms…please continue the conversation by adding your thoughts.  Here is the second school-related issue I mentioned yesterday.

Most schools include classrooms for students with special needs – in our elementary school there are inclusion classrooms accommodating a mix of children, and separate classrooms which primarily serve children with disabilities.  I’ve been asked several times lately how to address the possibility of students “running” or “wandering”…leaving the safety of the school building unsupervised.

In October of 2013, a 14-year-old boy with autism left his school in Long Island City, and was found months later, deceased.  His story is detailed in the New York Magazine article: The Boy Who Ran: The Life and Death of Avonte Oquendo.  In this case, the child left the school through the main entrance, passing the school security officer who was distracted with another student and parent.  When the child was discovered missing, the school was locked down and searched, and an intensive exterior search was not immediately conducted.  Based on this evidence, the issues here seem to be more procedural rather than related to physical security.  But this case, and the increased accommodation of students with special needs, have led to recent discussions about how to keep these children safe in school.

ClassroomWhen considering the possible solutions for containing a student who might be at risk of “eloping”, there are different considerations based on the areas of the school the student might be using – the individual classroom, an assembly space like the cafeteria or gym, the main entrance, and emergency exits.  I have no doubt that a child could leave our elementary school unnoticed.  It’s easy to point fingers at staff and question the lack of supervision, but I spend a fair amount of time in our school and with 600+ kids it is very difficult to keep tabs on each one at all times.

Even if we only consider the space with the smallest occupant load – the classroom, the codes do not give us many options for preventing a student from eloping.  If the classroom has an exterior door that is required for egress, it can not be locked in the direction of egress.  Delayed egress is an option that is allowed by NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code, but delayed egress locks are NOT allowed by the International Building Code (IBC) on doors serving Educational occupancies.  (Note:  The 2018 edition of the IBC does allow delayed egress locks on school classrooms with an occupant load of less than 50 people.)  Alarms would be acceptable by code, but may not be effective considering the potential for false alarms which could affect staff response.

Each time this question has come up, we’ve explored many ideas from audible or visible alarms, to requesting approval for delayed egress locks, to the possibility of a wander prevention system.  For younger children, we’ve talked about hardware mounted higher on the door (48 inches is the maximum allowed by code) or increased opening force for the door closer (15 pounds is typically the maximum for exterior doors in most states).  Many of these alternative measures would require approval from the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).  I would really appreciate some insight from all of you into what has been done in your jurisdiction, or ideas you may have that would help keep kids safe.

  • How do we keep kids from leaving school, in a manner that is acceptable to the AHJ?

  • Does the proposed solution vary for classrooms vs. other spaces in the school? 

  • How do we balance the need for life safety and egress for all of the building occupants, with the need to prevent student elopement?

Photo: Lost and Tired

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16 Responses to “WWYD? Elopement in Schools”

  1. Dave C. says:

    With children that are risk of eloping, would it be too obtrusive or offensive to fit them with a tracking device that could be put into effect when there is a student missing?

    I know if I had an autistic child who was capable of operating locks and walking away from school, it would not offend me.

    • Lori says:

      Hi Dave –

      I don’t know the answer to that, but I know it has been discussed as an option. I’ve thought about the ethics of injecting a tracking device into my own kids so I know where they are when they’re teenagers. 😉

      – Lori

  2. RB Sontag says:

    This is a staff issue. Most of our districts have additional volunteer that assist with child observation & control. This isn’t a egress code issue, it’s staffing and staff education issue.

  3. Joel says:

    Tracking devices seem to be of use only after the elopement has occurred. There are a number of “wander guard” systems available for nursing and assisted living residents. These are unobtrusive and can alert staff when a wanderer is approaching an exit or when they have just left. It would be cost prohibitive for these to be offered to every student, but if limited to students at risk, perhaps it is something to consider.

  4. Chuck says:

    I wouldn’t want to see opening force or hardware mounting height changed as that would impede egress in an emergency. I would change to alarmed delayed egress devices wired in to the fire alarm to release immediately in case of alarm. If that is not acceptable to the AHJ, the school could post additional security guards at the exits closest to the classrooms.

    • Lori says:

      Hi Chuck –

      Increasing the opening force to 15 pounds for exterior doors would still be within the allowable force for the code, but would theoretically be too difficult for little kids to open the door. Same with the mounting height of the hardware – 48 inches above the floor would keep the shorter ones in.

      • King says:

        Wow Lori! your a genius! Use the rules we’ve got already, they may have been put in place by some engineer who actually thought this through. Yes, that would work perfectly for most of the situations described.

        It does assume knowledge of the codes, a little bit anyway. but thanks it will solve my problems because that’s what I didn’t know!

        • Lori says:

          Thanks! 🙂 Just an FYI…the 2018 edition of the IBC does allow delayed egress locks to be used in school classrooms with an occupant load of less than 50 people. I’m going to add a note about it in this post.

          – Lori

  5. Logan says:

    This is definitely a difficult and touchy issue. I am friends with two families with autistic children and running off is a serious issue. One of my favorite stories is when the 4 year old boy decided to just take off for no apparent reason and ran some 200 yards away, crawled under a fence, and started running around some random peoples party before the parents managed to catch up to them.

    I am not autistic myself, but once in elementary school I just got mad about something and decided to leave. I managed to make it about a mile away from school before another student told staff that they saw me hop a fence and then the principal got in their car and managed to stop me on the side of the road. I’m sure that’s not too common of an experience but it does show that this is an issue that affects more than just disabled children.

    As difficult as the issue is, I think that the default MUST fall to fire safety. How many times have we seen (on this blog alone) inoperable or disabled emergency exits, which during a fire could cost dozens of lives. It’s a hard decision to make, and I do feel as though some exceptions might be appropriate in specific circumstances. Even so, fire safety must be the rule rather than the exception.

  6. Adam says:

    I know I’m late to the party here, but what about door status alarms that report to a central security station with cameras available to verify whether it is an actual elopement or false alarm. Eliminates the need for more than 2 security personnel.

  7. Rich says:

    We are currently working on a similar issue in our school district.
    We have a 12 year old autistic boy who is a “runner” and are currently working on a project to decrease the risk of elopement for him and other students in what is becoming our district’s high-needs wing.
    This particular boy, in spite of having multiple aides recently managed to elope from the school and was tackled by the principal in the middle of a busy street. (They may both have a future in the NFL!) At that point it was obvious that a plan had to be formulated.
    We met with the local AHJ (fire marshal) and the local building inspector on site and currently have a plan under review which includes delayed egress Chexit bars on the exterior doors to the wing, as well as one on the boy’s single user classroom door. We have also proposed a system so that the boy’s teacher can close and latch the doors into the main school (They currently remain open to allow other special needs students to pass freely)for use when the boy has to be taken to the washroom which is adjacent to the doors. The plan is to use magnetic hold-opens controlled by a switch in the classroom, and closers.
    The plan is still with the code consultant and from there will go to the AHJ and the city building permit department for approval. They are both on board (no-one wants a special needs kid to be hit by a car!)
    When we get approval (or not) I will post the result.

    • Lori says:

      Hi Rich –

      Thank you for sharing this information. This is becoming an issue for many schools, which is why we proposed a code change so delayed egress would be an option. You may want to mention this change when you go to the AHJ…even though the 2018 IBC has not been adopted yet, knowing that it will allow delayed egress locks in schools will probably make the AHJ feel better about using them.

      – Lori

  8. Mike Elia says:

    Here in California, secured campuses, which are those with ‘legal’ exit dispersal areas on-site can be locked at the perimeter, and often are during school hours. This is often to keep people out as well as within the site. This does not prevent wandering students from moving around within the site, nor from scaling fences for those really determined to get out. The usual accessible route for ingress and egress [for parents, late arrivals, etc.] during the school day is through the main office, past the main desk, with any number of arrangements for control, short of locked doors from the inside, which are not permitted here in any public school. If the office staff become distracted enough to allow a student to simply walk through, there is very little designers or specifiers can do to prevent this action.

    For a smaller school I designed a relatively narrow passageway at the main desk so that anyone passing by would be visible and not be ‘lost in the crowd’, but this arrangement was specifically to control ingress by parents, and not egress, and thus the door INTO the campus was electronically controlled to keep people in the office area until vetted [door was not a required exit in either direction]. This was not considered to stop a shooter.

    As a total aside, the office manager at that facility who did most of the control was ironically one of the victims killed randomly at the Las Vegas concert.

  9. says:

    This article was forwarded to me as a result of a inquiry about a similar situation that came my way yesterday. The difference is that the classroom door in question is (assumed not for egress purposes) an in swinging door. What might be some potential options other than a door alarm for this situation might anyone have?

    • Lori says:

      Hi Paul –

      I wouldn’t assume that the door is not for egress purposes. An egress door can be inswinging if it is serving an occupant load of less than 50 people – typically a classroom less than 1000 square feet net. There are some cases where an exterior door is required for egress from a classroom, even when the occupant load is less than 50. I can dig up an example if you need one.

      If the new delayed egress exception in the 2018 IBC is acceptable, you could do a delayed egress mag-lock mounted top jamb. If the type with the built-in switch can’t be mounted top-jamb, the lever handle could have a switch to activate the timer. Or you could check with the AHJ to see whether the door needs to comply with the egress requirements. If not, there are other options.

      Here is a more detailed article on the IBC changes:

      – Lori

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