Safety & Security

Safe Rooms

There is a relatively simple yet important concept to improve not only the safety of school staff but survivability for all building occupants in certain types of school violence incidents. Though the concept has been around for decades, it is still not in use in many American K-12 schools. Fortunately, architects, school facilities, information technology and safety personnel can help to incorporate the concept in most current facilities and in future school construction projects. This concept is known as the safe or “safer” room. Since the term safer room is often used for tornado sheltering, many people use the traditional term of safe room for spaces utilized during security situations.

A safe room is a location where staff can rapidly seek refuge from a potentially violent person and order building-wide protective actions, such as an emergency lockdown and summon emergency assistance. While embassies and other high-risk settings are often equipped with safe rooms that are capable of withstanding rifle fire, moderate-sized explosions and other types of weapons, I do not suggest this level of protection for most American K-12 schools. The very real threat of school terrorism and other types of well-planned and deadly attacks are possible for any K-12 school. However, school officials should balance the costs of high levels of target hardening with needs relating to other far more common threats to human life. Over the past 50 years, terrorist attacks and active-shooter incidents have not been leading causes of death on K-12 school campuses. Focusing limited time, energy and fiscal resources too heavily on these rare, but catastrophic types of incidents can, and sometimes does, result in preventable deaths from more common hazards because they do not receive appropriate attention.

Schools should consider reasonable modification of key workspaces, such as main office areas, media centers, food service preparation areas and other locations where school employees sometimes face risk from aggressive people. By designing or modifying these types of workspaces in a manner that allows employees to rapidly move to a space with a lockable door, close and secure themselves, make appropriate emergency announcements and call 911, school employees can dramatically reduce the risk of serious injury and death — not only for themselves but for students and staff throughout the campus.

While more sophisticated attack methodologies can certainly be employed to defeat this level of protection, many aggressors in K-12 schools have been successfully stopped by ordinary locked doors. In fact, aside from the deadly attack at the Red Lake Reservation High School in Minnesota, no one has ever been able to provide any example where an armed aggressor has killed anyone by breaching a locked interior door of a K-12 school in the United States. While some vendors, using fear-based sales approaches, have claimed that many victims have died after locking themselves in various types of rooms, the facts do not support these assertions. School lockdowns have been successfully stopping attackers since at least 1900. In this case, a teacher in Danbury, Ct., locked the door of her one-room schoolhouse and stopped a man with a gun from entering her school to carry out an attack.

Rather than focusing primarily on what staff should do if someone breaches a locked interior door, my experience has been that we should focus on how we can implement school lockdowns more rapidly and reliably. Providing front office staff with the means to protect themselves, rapidly announce a lockdown, and to call 911 from a reasonably secure space is one important step. Simple design modifications can often dramatically improve the ability of staff to accomplish this without major fiscal cost.

In some instances, additional modifications are appropriate. For example, if an administrator’s office with large glass windows is the best available space for the school office, limited use of ballistic film or security film may be required. More typically, providing an additional microphone for emergency intercom announcements may be needed in older school buildings. A thoughtful evaluation of the situation by school facilities, administrative, local fire service and law enforcement personnel can often result in reasonable and cost-effective strategies.

As with any other safety approach, appropriate training and drills are needed for school staff to be able to effectively utilize this concept. I have found that most office staff can effectively secure themselves, order a lockdown and initiate a 911 call in less than 10 seconds once a safe room has been established for them and they have been properly trained and drilled in this concept.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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