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Schools study more secure building designs

Communities in Greater Boston are starting to rethink how they build schools since the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

From the new Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical High School in Danvers to Newton schools west of Boston and a new-school plan in Carver south of Boston, security concerns have become an integral part of the design.

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Massachusetts lawmakers have also taken up the issue, with at least eight bills that address school security introduced in the 2013-2014 legislative session. The proposals range from creating commissions to study the issue to requiring that students be out of school on election days, when the public has easy access to buildings.

“You need to do what’s safe,” said Daniel O’Connell, superintendent of North Shore Technical High, which is merging with Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in a new building that is 25 percent complete. “It’s easier to address in new buildings.”

At the new school, visitors will have to present drivers’ licenses, and will be checked to ensure they aren’t sex offenders or otherwise barred from the building, before they can enter. In addition, a security person will monitor cameras in a control room, and some doors will automatically lock, O’Connell said.

“The general issue is a big one for everyone,” said David Finney, president of Design Partnership of Cambridge, an architecture firm that does work for school districts, including Essex Agricultural.

Just as the Columbine High School shooting almost 14 years ago ushered in changes to school building designs, with more cameras and complex lock systems installed, the Newtown, Conn., episode has reawakened the debate on how to build a safer school.

‘This is really a judgment that individuals and clients and school districts need to examine their own thoughts on.’

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“There was a big wave after Columbine. There is a wave now after Newtown,” Finney said.

Architects say they are fielding questions about the feasibility of putting in bulletproof glass and installing double doors at entrances, to control who comes into a school. There are also discussions about how much glass to include in buildings, so that students and teachers inside are safe and adults can still see what is happening in the hallways and classrooms.

It is a balancing act, architects and educators say, to make sure the building is both secure and welcoming.

“Introducing increased security measures has other implications that aren’t necessarily positive,” Finney said. “This is really a judgment that individuals and clients and school districts need to examine their own thoughts on. . . . I would want to advise school districts to think really hard about what they’re giving up.”

For example, bulletproof glass doors at an entrance may offer a sense of security, but they can be extremely heavy, expensive to install and maintain, and still leave windows accessible to a dangerous visitor, said James LaPosta, a principal and chief architectural officer with JCJ Architecture, which has offices in Hartford and Boston.

LaPosta participated in a school safety commission that Connecticut’s governor, Dannel P. Malloy, put together after the Sandy Hook shooting. LaPosta and other architects and security consultants warned about the limits of architecture to stave off all the potential dangers to a school.

“It’s a major challenge that we fortify our schools but don’t turn them into fortresses,” LaPosta said.

School shootings are still rare and these buildings also need to be designed to protect children from more common internal threats, such as bullying and thefts, LaPosta said.

In the town of Carver, safety concerns since the Sandy Hook shooting have revitalized discussions about constructing a new elementary school. A few years ago, school officials had developed design plans for the school, but the project failed to get enough local support and was bumped off the state’s priority list for construction funding.

Since Newtown, even those design plans may be outdated, said Elizabeth Sorrell, superintendent of the Carver schools. The district recently submitted a request to the state for funding to help build the new elementary school.

Some Carver parents have suggested that any new school include smaller window panes to prevent an intruder from shooting his way in, Sorrell said.

And there may be further discussions about where to place the gym and the cafeteria, which are also used by the public, in relation to the classrooms, she said.

“I am sure we will look to incorporate the learning from the Newtown tragedy,” Sorrell said.

How those lessons are carried out is likely to vary from community to community, however. Despite a robust school construction environment, there are few guides for districts looking for best practices on building security, LaPosta said.

While the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which partners with communities to build schools, specifies the size of classrooms and how much should be spent on construction costs, security factors are left up to each individual school district.

“Each district would have their preference of what they want,” said Matt Donovan, a spokesman for the authority.

Still, in Connecticut, the governor’s security panel suggested that the state develop a set of basic criteria for safe school buildings, LaPosta said, such as requiring emergency responders to participate in the design process.

“It doesn’t exist now, but probably should,” LaPosta said.

In Newton, plans for kindergarten classrooms at the new Angier Elementary School initially kept with tradition: They would be on the ground floor, providing easy access for parents and a short walk to the outdoors for the school’s youngest children.

Then in December, a gunman charged into a Newtown, Conn., elementary school and killed 26 children and adults, many of them in classrooms close to that school’s entrance.

Now Angier’s design calls for all students to be in classrooms on the second and third floors, above the cafeteria and gymnasium — and at least a flight of stairs away from potentially dangerous intruders.

“It works out, safety-wise,” said Angier’s principal, Loreta Lamberti.

Participants in the Angier building committee — including parents, school and city officials, and a professional team of architects — determined that keeping classrooms and common areas separated provided security and educational benefits.

While last fall’s plans placed the upper grades upstairs, now the kindergartners will join them. The district will present its design to the Massachusetts School Building Authority next month for formal approval.

Emily Prenner, a parent of an Angier student and member of the school’s building committee, said the new design won’t detract from the sense of community at the school.

The principal, teachers, parents, and neighbors help create a tight-knit community around a school, not where the classrooms are located, Prenner said.

“We have an opportunity to start from scratch,” she said. “I would like Angier to be a secure building.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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