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School designs focus on security

Architects, officials revisit safety issues

A makeshift memorial in Newtown, Conn., approximately three weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.

CARLO ALLEGRI /REUTERS/File

A makeshift memorial in Newtown, Conn., approximately three weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.

For most of last fall, plans for the kindergarten classrooms at Newton’s new Angier Elementary School 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 Connecticut elementary school and killed 26 children and adults, many of them in classrooms close to the building’s entrance.

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

“It works out, safety-wise,” said Angier’s principal, Loreta Lamberti, who noted that she sees educational benefits as well.

Communities are starting to rethink building designs since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. From Newton to Carver to the new Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical High School in Danvers, security concerns have become an integral part of designing new schools.

Massachusetts lawmakers have introduced at least eight bills that address school security for the current legislative session, from creating commissions to study the issue to requiring that students be out of school on election days when their building is used as a public polling place.

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

At his new school, O’Connell said, visitors will have to present identification and undergo a quick background check to ensure that they aren’t convicted sex offenders or otherwise barred from the building. Also, a security person will monitor surveillance cameras from a controlled room, and certain doors will automatically lock, he 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 several local school districts, including the merged Essex and North Shore system.

Just as the Columbine High shooting in Colorado almost 14 years ago ushered in new building designs, with more cameras and complex locking systems, the attack in Newtown, Conn., has reawakened the debate on how to build a safer school.

“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 bullet-proof glass, and installing double doors at entrances to better control who comes into a school.

There are also discussions about how much glass to include in buildings, so that students and teachers can be safe inside rooms, and school officials can still see what is happening in the hallways and classrooms.

It is a balancing act, architects and educators say, to make sure a 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, entrance doors with bullet-proof glass may offer a sense of security, but they can be incredibly heavy, cost much more 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 Boston and Hartford.

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 of 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 be designed to protect children from more common internal threats, such as bullying and thefts, LaPosta said.

In Carver, safety concerns since Sandy Hook have revitalized discussions about constructing a new elementary school. A few years ago, district officials developed design plans for the new school, but the proposal did not gain the support of the town’s residents.

Since Newtown, even those design plans may be outdated, said the Carver system’s superintendent, Elizabeth Sorrell. The school 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, and the building’s 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 may 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 administers the state funds earmarked to help communities pay for construction projects, specifies the size of classrooms and how much should be spent on construction costs as part of its oversight role, security issues are left up to local officials to determine.

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

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, 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 approval.

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

A school’s principal, teachers, parents, and neighbors help create a tightknit community for students, 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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