Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

Buyer Beware

Classroom security

PHOTO © DAVID BARREN/SHUTTERSTOCK

With every active shooter incident, individuals become increasingly desperate to address vulnerabilities. The combination of desperation and well-intentioned product development can sometimes produce buyer’s remorse. Items such as clear backpacks, bullet-resistant desk calendars and instructional videos that teach young students how to combat attackers may not be the best school security solutions. In fact, the formula of collaboration and consensus tends to produce the best solutions.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, school administrators have been bombarded with after-market devices designed to secure classroom doors. These devices attempt to address a facility design vulnerability. The vast majority of classroom doors open into hallways and have locking mechanisms that can be locked from the outside. As a result, teachers must step into the hallway and around the classroom door in order to secure it. Inventers of after-market devices seek to eliminate this potential exposure to hallway violence.

Despite the promise of greater safety and security, there are a number of reasons to be wary of these products.

The primary issue with these after-market products is the fact that many of them are not compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) egress codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some present more safety and liability risks than they solve. The desire to keep intruders out of the classroom must be balanced with the absolute need for egress.

Products which can potentially inhibit egress (or delay the ingress of emergency responders) are not viable alternatives to sound practices, such as keeping classroom doors closed and secured at all times, or an investment in better door hardware, such as locking mechanisms that can be activated from the inside. This point is made even more poignant in light of the fact that incidents, such as fires or criminal acts, are more likely to occur than an active shooter incident. Schools may be tempted to spend a lesser amount of money to show school boards and communities that they are taking actions to address security concerns, but should exercise caution in adopting quick-fix solutions that may just introduce new risks.

Collaboration means bringing in a group of experts to determine the best course of action to simultaneously reduce security risks without violating safety concerns. This group should include the local fire marshal, door hardware manufacturers/experts, and insurance companies. Ultimately, every school is unique in the risks it faces and must be treated that way. Convening a group of professionals to talk about how to improve security without compromising safety is the correct course of action. This approach will not always lead to the least expensive solution, especially in the short term, but is a necessary step to ensure that schools are balancing competing concerns of safety and security, both of which should be a priority.

First, it is useful to know what kinds of after-market products are available, how they work, and what kinds of risks they may present. Options range from low-cost devices, such as magnets, to more expensive products that block or restrain access from the hallway.

Magnets get placed over door frame strike plates to prevent door locks from latching. The classroom door is always locked, but not latched. As a result, day-to-day operations are not affected because students and staff can freely come and go. In a violence emergency, a teacher does not have to use a key to lock the door, that individual must only remove the magnet so that the door latches.

Unfortunately, a teacher can forget to remove the magnet. On a typical day, if the teacher vacates the classroom, the room is now vulnerable to theft or unauthorized activities. Additionally, a student or intruder can remove the magnet and prevent authorized individuals from entering, especially because teachers that utilize door magnets tend not to carry keys. In an actual incident, the room is readily accessible from the hallway. If the door is closed, the teacher must open the door to remove the magnet.

From a code standpoint, magnets prevent the automatic latching of fire-rated doors as required by the International Fire Code (703.2). Schools that have installed sprinkler systems may not have fire-rated classroom doors. It is common, however, to find schools that have both fire-rated rooms and those that are not required to be rated. From a consistency standpoint, magnets should not be utilized in those cases.

The next level of after-market devices involves products that block and/or restrain access from the hallway. Options include metal pieces that slide over the door closer arm, contraptions that drop bolts into the threshold, and widgets that hook onto door frames or handles. Of course, there are dozens of such products, but most fall into these categories.

Financial considerations and ingenuity are responsible for the advent of these products. After-market product suppliers market the financial disparity between a $50.00 door restraint device and a $250.00 lock. If the average school has 50 classroom doors, the multiplier presents a convincing argument. Some vendors even market the hope that insurance providers will offer premium discounts to those that purchase such devices. As mentioned, include your insurance provider in a collaborative effort to determine the best course of action.

Most of these restraining devices violate fire codes that require only one motion to egress a classroom. In other words, removing the device AND turning the handle requires two motions.

Another stumbling block to the use of these after-market devices involves the concept of “special knowledge” in egress. This revolves around the training, however brief, that it might take to become accustomed to these security products. NFPA Life Safety Code 101 specifies that all persons within the building must be able to exit all doors in their path to the outside without “the use of a key, a tool, or special knowledge or effort for operation from the egress side” (NFPA 101, 7.2.1.5.2). Unfortunately, many of these products violate that rule.

Additional problems arise, even if teachers are thoroughly trained on the new products. After all, those that have been trained may not be those who actually have to deploy or remove them during an emergency. A substitute, student, parent, or visitor might have to take on that responsibility.

Further, some of these products will encounter ADA violations if they cannot be deployed or removed by those with disabilities. For the ADA, “a means of egress” constitutes an unobstructed route that cannot be subject to locking from the side that people will be leaving from. Many of these products clearly violate this requirement. In addition, potential deployment and removal issues can further endanger those with disabilities.

The best mechanical recommendation for schools is known as the “classroom security lock” or the “intruder lock.” This solution involves replacing existing exterior locks with mechanisms that can be secured by a key from the inside. Ideally, the teacher should keep that key on an identification badge lanyard that hangs around the neck.

Electronic innovations grant teachers the opportunity to secure classrooms doors with the push of a button.

Schools that cannot afford to replace locks can adopt a practice that requires classroom doors to be closed and locked throughout class periods. This practice affords constant security at all times without the need to manually lock the door in an emergency. It also eliminates the need to enter the hallway to lock the door and, of course, completely complies with egress and ADA codes. This does, however, present a challenge of a different magnitude: inconvenience. If students are constantly moving in and out of the classroom during the school day, it could create interruptions in the class as the teacher or designee would need to let students into the room. The advantages of this practice are clear despite the inconvenience of opening the door when students occasionally report to the classroom.

Local law enforcement officials account for the stakeholder group most likely to endorse after-market products. But door hardware manufacturers would never endorse, let alone produce, these devices simply because they tend to violate NFPA and ADA codes. Products that are not attached to doors must be located and correctly deployed. Products that are attached to doors void door hardware warranties. Perpetrators can use these kinds of devices to keep authorized individuals out of the classroom.

While the installation of classroom security locks is probably the best universal solution to address the active shooter threat, every school is unique in the safety and security challenges it faces. For those pursuing alternative solutions, it is important to consider that some schools have installed after-market devices only to find out that code violations require their removal. Buyer beware! Be sure to involve fire marshals, door hardware manufacturers and insurance providers before investing in aftermarket products. Remember, the formula of collaboration and consensus tends to produce the best solutions.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

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