Last Friday was the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School, where 12 students and 1 teacher were killed and 24 people were injured.  While working on an upcoming article, I realized that I knew much more about more recent school shootings than I did about what happened at Columbine.  I think that’s because it was the first school shooting of this scale that occurred during my career.  Although it was a horrific incident, I wouldn’t have expected other school shootings of this magnitude to occur, or for this to become such an important area of focus for me.

The only way to understand how to address physical security in hopes of reducing casualties in school shootings is to learn from what has taken place in past incidents.  Over the weekend I read a book called Columbine, by Dave Cullen and reviewed the information that was compiled by the author while conducting research for the book.  I watched videos and read articles.  It was tough, but I now know much more about the shooting.

Of the many things I learned about that day, one thing that struck me was that the assailants had access to so many areas of the school – the cafeteria, the library, the stairways, corridors, and classrooms.  The ability for them to move freely throughout the school almost certainly affected the number of casualties.

When considering physical security improvements for schools, the first points typically addressed are the exterior doors – the main entrance, secondary entrances, and doors that are intended only for egress.  Next, the classrooms – as those doors can help to create safer areas for students and teachers to wait for assistance if an incident occurs.  Doors serving large assembly spaces like cafeterias and gymnasiums are very important to consider because of the potential for many building occupants to be gathered there.

An additional point of security to consider is the use of cross-corridor doors to compartmentalize a building.  In the past, these doors were often used to deter the spread of smoke and flames in case of a fire, but current code requirements have reduced the need for cross-corridor fire doors.  However, these doors can serve an important purpose when it comes to school security.

I have seen several school projects that incorporate cross-corridor security doors to compartmentalize the building and help to prevent an assailant from moving freely throughout the school.  The least complicated way to equip these doors is to specify panic hardware that is locked on the access (pull) side, with wall-mounted electromagnetic holders.  The doors are held open most of the time, but can be released with the push of a button – typically in the main office – that cuts power to the magnetic holders.  Depending on the system, this could also be done automatically when the alarm sounds to indicate a security breach.  Since the access side of the hardware is already locked, the doors are automatically secure as soon as they are closed.  When budget permits, the panic hardware may be equipped with electrified lever trim which locks when the system is activated.

There are a few considerations when using cross-corridor doors to compartmentalize for security:

  • The school must have a means of immediately notifying building occupants that a security breach is taking place
  • In most cases, the doors must allow free egress from the push side and can only be locked on the pull side
  • Impact-resistant glazing should be used in doors and sidelights adjacent to the door hardware, to delay access to the inside lever or touchpad through broken glass
  • For some schools, magnetic holders with an increased holding force may be needed in order to reduce the frequency of students closing cross-corridor doors
  • Planned egress routes should lead out of the building through outer doors – preferably directing occupants away from lobbies and other congested areas
  • Periodic drills should address the use of cross-corridor doors and the planned egress routes
  • Keys or access-control credentials should be readily available to allow emergency access to secured areas

What do you think of this approach? 


The floor plan below illustrates an elementary school with the cross-corridor security doors highlighted, as well as doors which control traffic flow beyond the main office.  Locked doors at these locations would deter or prevent access to relatively large areas of the school, while allowing free egress and evacuation.  Doors to classrooms and assembly spaces would also be lockable on the access side.


Floor plan courtesy of: eppstein uhen : architects


The plan below is for a K-5 school where each wing and the gymnasium can be isolated by cross-corridor security doors.  In an emergency, egress could be directed out the ends of the wings to avoid passing through the central area of the building.  This plan also includes a security vestibule to limit access to the school.

Floor plan courtesy of: Emc2 Architects

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