Creating Safe Havens in Schools and Classrooms

Creating Safe Havens in Schools and Classrooms

Physical security decisions come down to two categories: Thou shalt and thou should. We must bear this in mind as we create safe havens across our campuses and schools. 

In the simplest sense, safe havens are locked buildings or areas which prevent unauthorized people from entering. We have gravitated towards their use in response to personal safety violations over the years. Now we must also think about group protection during active shooter events and the ability to deploy them quickly. 

The “thou shalt” category is one we all can probably recite. It has evolved over time but covers the very basics which the general public has come to expect as the bare minimum during this era of elevated protection requirements. “Thou should” is a call to action, reminding us that solutions cannot be created in a vacuum and speaking with interested parties is critical to creating a secure environment that will stand the test of time.

Moats, Drawbridges & Alligators

The age of the open campus has come and gone. Sadly, we have returned to the principles learned in the days of castles: the use of moats, drawbridges and alligators. While impossible to employ those exact elements today, we are indebted to those methods, as we try to recreate them through environmental design and modern technology. 

Recreating a moat means we follow the concept of preventing direct access to our buildings or spaces. In the academic world, we limit entry onto the campus using fences, natural elements and other barriers to direct human traffic to access points we can control. The science of CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) owes a lot to the moat. Anyone reviewing their existing campus or building and those designing new structures should be familiar with CPTED and incorporate the philosophy into their design and product selection.

Drawbridges were also very effective. Once they were lifted, they removed the direct access path and, when fully in place, could also be bolted to further repel armed attack. These were the days long before the creation of life safety codes, so protecting against armed intruders was the only concern, not ensuring safe exiting.

We have progressed to concerning ourselves with emergency exiting in addition to forced entry. Fortunately, product designers and manufacturers have risen to the challenge to create effective locking hardware that accomplishes both, as our doors and hardware provide the drawbridge function.

Selecting Door Hardware

When reviewing door hardware and solutions to both prevent unwarranted entry and protection against an active shooter on campus, we don’t have the luxury of time used to raise a drawbridge. We don’t have a combination of a drawbridge and moat allowing us to observe and slow down an attacker: We need to recreate the effectiveness of those elements in an instant. 

Perimeters of school buildings must face the new reality and be locked at all times, unless there is a school agent standing guard (think entry and dismissal times) or the perimeter opens into a locked vestibule. Certain buildings like libraries and athletic facilities face greater challenges. We are seeing the introduction of new scanning technology to allow groups to enter spaces, as opposed to individual screening.

New campuses designed with electronic security are incorporating individual space as well as building-wide lockdown technology. These powerful solutions can effectively protect students and personnel, providing a safe space during the precious moments before police arrive. The best solutions enable security officers and administrators, as well as those within individual rooms, to enact a lockdown. Generally, those in a room are only capable of securing the doors to their room, not the full school. 

Existing buildings and the K–12 environment are more likely to rely upon mechanical locking solutions to create individual safe havens. Empowering anyone in the room to enact a lockdown quickly and in a code-compliant manner (which never traps anyone in the room) is the basic level of protection expected by parents for their children. The ability to quickly block visible access to rooms through roll-down shades is very important to avoid detection by an active shooter. The reliance upon only one person in the room to secure the door (i.e., a teacher) can lead to delays in locking—or not locking the door at all—with disastrous results.

Changes in Lock Functions

This is a large change since the early days of classroom locking. Most schools were constructed with locks employing the “classroom” locking function. This function was designed to allow teachers to unlock their doors at the beginning of the day and allow free access (passage) into the room. At the end of the day, or if the teacher left the room for a lunch period, the key would be used to lock the door to restrict entry into the room.

This locking function was performed outside the room in the hallway. The lesson learned from Columbine was that entering the hallway placed the teacher in harm’s way, as they were unprotected in the hallway. The response was the “intruder” function lock, which added a key to the inside of the door, so the teacher could lock the door from inside the room. 

Sadly, Sandy Hook, Parkland and other events taught us that only empowering one person, the teacher, was not effective in turning a classroom into a safe haven. The tragic loss of life meant new solutions were needed. 

Enter Instant Locking to the list of locking solutions available to create safe havens. You are probably familiar with instant locking—it’s the use of a turnpiece or button to lock the door from the inside. We use it on deadbolts on our homes, and for privacy on bathroom door locks. 

Instant locking empowers anyone in the room to quickly lock down the space. Just as important, these locksets also permit campus and school staff as well as first responders to easily access the room by key. Getting back to “Thou Shalt” requirements, life safety codes (NFPA, IBC) demand the ability to always exit the room with a single motion and have keyed access. This means add-on devices that can trap students in rooms because they require a separate action to remove from the door (and do not offer keyed entry) should never be used. 

Instant Locking Options

There are multiple types of instant locking methods for locks and even exit devices. There are turnpieces as well as recessed buttons. The recessed buttons were designed to prevent accidental locking. Some exit devices can be placed in push/pull mode, which can be disengaged by a button on the end of the exit device for speedy conversion to locked mode. Rooms with multiple exit devices (labs, auditoriums, etc.) can use electric locking to lock all doors simultaneously. 

Another method, though generally frowned upon by teachers, is the continuously locked door. While they provide the drawbridge barrier, teachers are inconvenienced by the need to constantly having to open the door during class time to allow students to enter. It also sends the wrong message, reinforcing a security message, and reminding students of the need for security, which has been shown in many studies to interfere with learning. 

Paradoxically, the need to overcome a constantly locked classroom door can create a lockdown hazard. Many teachers use wedges on the bottom of the door or a bungee cord around the door lever to prop the door open. These become impediments to quickly locking down the door. 

It is important to understand how users access a space when selecting the correct locking solution. The constantly locked door is important for perimeter protection for school entrances and exits. It is a basic requirement for dormitory entrance doors, generally combined with an access control system.  But teachers must be involved in the selection of a classroom locking method to ensure it will meet their everyday needs. 

I haven’t forgotten about alligators. Those access restrictors have been replaced by security officers. And while you can’t train an alligator, well-trained security officers provide a lot more than just the access restriction. They are valued members of the school community, often the first set of eyes observing students who could become at-risk. 

Work with All Stakeholders

Creating safe havens is best accomplished by teaming with all stakeholders. The security consultant cannot bring a cookie-cutter solution. While there are principles to be maintained, these need to be adapted to work effectively to provide the needed ability to recreate the moat, drawbridge and alligator analogy, without creating an undue burden for educators. We know convenience is the enemy of security compliance; attention paid during the design stage can ensure everyone’s needs are met.

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2022 issue of Campus Security Today.


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