As I write this post, my heart goes out to the victims and families of today’s school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan.

It has been two years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  Security has become a priority for many school districts, and I do believe that schools are more secure now.  Added security won’t be able to prevent every school-related incident, especially when so many of the “intruders” have actually been members of the school community – often students, who were able to freely gain access to the schools.  With most schools now adopting policies of locked exterior doors, it is important to ensure a means of securing the classrooms and other interior spaces.

But how?  In the absence of a national standard or even an official list of recommended best practices, many school districts are making decisions on their own.  They may not know about the codes designed to protect life safety, or they may believe that in an active shooter situation, anything goes.  Popular training programs advise staff and students to barricade doors with furniture to prevent access to the classroom.  It’s a short hop to using retrofit security devices instead of furniture, even if those devices are not code-compliant.

A few weeks ago I read about a group in Ohio that raised $30,000 to invest in school security.  If any of you have ever tried to raise that kind of money through the PTO or other organizations, it isn’t easy.  This group sold candy bars, t-shirts, and bracelets.  They convinced parents and grandparents to sponsor a door for $100.  They solicited local businesses to get involved.  How can you say no when asked for a donation to help provide security for a community’s kids while they’re at school?

In a matter of months, this dedicated group of community members had raised enough money to equip all 307 classrooms in their district with a security device.  A device which does not comply with requirements for egress – it requires more than one operation to release, it is not mounted between 34 inches and 48 inches above the floor, it requires tight grasping, pinching, and twisting of the wrist to operate, and it may require special knowledge and/or effort (depending on who you ask).

But replacing every lock in the district was not feasible for this group, and they are excited about their solution.  For a code official I think it would be incredibly difficult to go into this situation and enforce the code requirements – saying “no” to the barricade devices.  In this case it seems that the code official has allowed the non-compliant devices to be used.

UPDATE:  A lot has happened since I wrote this post.  In January, the school district in Ohio was told that they could not use the barricade devices without a variance.  In February, the state board denied the variance request.  In March, bills were filed in the Ohio House and Senate that would prohibit the fire code from prohibiting the devices.  An article that I wrote for Doors & Hardware pulls together a lot of information about barricade devices, and I have collected resources on my Schools page (there’s a tab above).  There will be an initial hearing about the Ohio situation on April 17th, with another hearing in June and a decision expected in July.

Beyond the code issues, my other two concerns with this type of product are:

  1. Unauthorized Lock-Down – anyone can gain access to the locking device and lock the door to facilitate a crime or mischief, and
  2. Inability to Operate the Device from the Ingress Side – no key/credential access by first responders or school staff.

These two issues are not covered by the International Building Code or NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code, but some Board of Education standards do address them.  I recently received a document called State Requirements for Educational Facilities – 2014, a publication of the Florida Department of Education.  One of the requirements of this document is:

Locksets.  All doors shall be equipped with locksets that are not lockable from inside the space.  
Exception:  Individual toilet rooms may be locked from the inside, and may be equipped with privacy locks that are readily opened from the inside and that may be opened from the outside without a special tool.
Exception:  The classroom security function, which allows the outside lever to be locked with a key from either the inside or outside while keeping the inside lever unlocked for unrestricted egress, may be used.

The Florida DOE standard requires locks which do not allow unauthorized lockdown.  An office function lock which can be locked with a thumbturn or push button would not be acceptable, and neither would a retrofit security device.  The classroom security locks that are allowed by the standard meet all of the other code requirements for egress and fire protection as well as allowing credentialed access from the ingress side of the door.  Bravo Florida!

I’ve heard two objections to classroom security locks:

  1. They are too difficult for teachers to operate in an emergency situation.  To that I say PRACTICE-PRACTICE-PRACTICE.  Many retrofit security devices require a similar level of dexterity, and building a barricade of furniture seems like it would take more time than inserting and turning a key, even if it takes longer than usual to operate the lock because of the stress of the situation.
  2. It takes too long for teachers to find their keys.  Most teachers are required to wear an ID badge – the key should be on the same lanyard.  If an unauthorized person locks a classroom using a push button, thumbturn, or retrofit device, and the teacher doesn’t have the key (or the device doesn’t allow access from the corridor side), staff will be unable to intervene in whatever situation is occurring in the classroom.

In my opinion, the risks of unauthorized lockdown outweigh the benefits of quick/easy lockdown provided by an office function lock or a retrofit security device.  And the importance of authorized access from the ingress side of the door makes many of the retrofit security methods unsuitable for use in a classroom.

There was a reason classroom function locks, and then classroom security locks, were invented decades ago – to prevent a student or other unauthorized person from locking the door.  Let’s not trade the control offered by these functions for the ability to lock doors more quickly.

If your state’s  Department of Education has issued standards that impact school security and safety, please let me know!

Thank you to Brian Mead of Allegion for sending the Florida requirements.

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