By now we have all read or watched multiple news accounts of last Friday’s shooting at Santa Fe (Texas) High School, where 8 students and 2 teachers were killed and 13 people were injured. I feel somewhat helpless as I hear of yet another shooting, but all I can do is continue to learn and teach about the role played by physical security. Details are sketchy at this point, but some reports mention the assailant shooting through glass. More information about doors, locks, and access to the classrooms will follow as the investigation continues.
One headline that caught my eye was from the Washington Post: “Texas official says that fewer doors could mean fewer school shootings. We had experts weigh in.” In response to the shooting, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pointed out that the school had experienced the shooting despite having received a safety award from the state and having two police officers on site. He went on to say, “We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward and retrofitting schools that are already built. And what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits to our more than 8,000 campuses in Texas,” he said, citing security at office buildings and courthouses. “Had there been one single entrance possibly for every student, maybe he would have been stopped.”
The response to these comments was harsh. Could “too many entrances and too many exits” really be blamed for this senseless shooting? While reducing the number of exits is probably not feasible and will not solve the problem, schools DO need to limit the number of access points – preferably incorporating a security vestibule and access control at the main entrance, using access control at other entrances, and monitoring all exits. Not necessarily reducing the number of entrances and exits, but controlling and monitoring them.
With that said, this can be difficult for a campus setting like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where students and staff may move between buildings during the school day. And having all students enter through one access point might have led to the discovery of the weapons used in Friday’s shooting in Texas, but when the assailant is a student or another person who is authorized to be in the building, weapons may be concealed and go unnoticed until it’s too late.
I am completely in favor of securing perimeter doors to prevent unauthorized access, and supervising entry points. But exits are critical to maintain, as the ability to evacuate is an important part of each school’s emergency response plan. As with classroom doors, it’s crucial to consider all factors and the potential consequences of the security methods deployed.
A letter from a parent of a Santa Fe shooting survivor was published on CNN. Although it is not an official police report, it gives some detail about what happened in the art classroom, including mention of a locked door: “She said everything happened so fast and everyone is panicking and running around the room. There’s a door at the back of the room to which the kids are running…only to discover the door is locked and they are trapped.”
There will undoubtedly be a push to add classroom barricade devices to existing doors in Texas schools, but in a survey compiled by the National Association of State Fire Marshals, the Texas State Fire Marshal reported that classroom barricade devices are not allowed in Texas schools. The model codes require doors in a means of egress to unlatch with one releasing operation (all latches simultaneously), so adding a barricade device to a door with existing latching hardware is not compliant with the model codes.
Another news report mentioned the fire alarm: “Zach Wofford, a senior, said he was in his agricultural shop class when he heard gunfire from the art classroom across the hall. He said substitute teacher Chris West went into the hall to investigate and pulled a fire alarm. ‘He saved many people today,’ Wofford said of West.”
There has been a lot of discussion since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, about whether schools should delay evacuation when a fire alarm sounds, to give administrators time to decide whether to evacuate. If the fire alarm was pulled by a Santa Fe teacher and allowed students to safely exit, this will add to the debate about whether students should evacuate immediately upon fire alarm or shelter in place. I am doing some research into current state policies regarding delayed fire alarm notification in schools, and I will share this information in an upcoming post.