By Paul Timm, PSP
Schools are facing increasing pressure from school boards, parents and communities to address security vulnerabilities. That pressure is ramped up every time there is a school shooting.
In many ways, this pressure is a positive catalyst that nudges schools to take steps to reduce their safety and security risks. However, as with
most kinds of pressure, it can lead administrators to make desperate moves in order to appease stakeholders, especially when faced with significant obstacles like funding.
Funding difficulties, pressure and well-intentioned vendors offering unregulated security solutions can combine to influence school administrators to make decisions that can have detrimental effects on the students and teachers in their care. Aftermarket security devices designed to secure classroom doors are theoretically a welcome addition to the security industry. Unfortunately, ignorance of or blatant disregard for safety codes and unforeseen consequences makes nearly all of these products not only a poor investment, but also a dangerous one.
The problem is simple but widespread in schools across the U.S. Most classroom doors open into unsecured hallways; for the teacher to lock the classroom down in the case of an active shooter event, he or she must walk outside — into danger — use a key to lock the door, and then close it. Vendors of door hardware devices seek to protect teachers by allowing them to secure the door without going outside to lock it. They do this in a number of different ways, including magnets and various contraptions that inhibit entrance and exit. Schools should be wary of these products, though, for reasons that outweigh any potential benefits the devices provide.
The clear and uncontested solution to the problem that these kinds of devices present is the classroom security lock or intruder lock. This solution involves replacing existing locks with mechanisms that can be secured with a key from the inside. Ideally, teachers should keep those keys on identification badge lanyards that hang around their necks.
Cost and convenience
The reason that classroom security locks are not always adopted as the clear choice is two-fold: cost and convenience. Anyone familiar with the security industry knows that these two considerations often halt positive
and beneficial security solutions.
The primary issue with many aftermarket products is that they 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.
The need for egress should, from a sheer probability standpoint, outweigh security concerns over an active shooter event because fires, theft and vandalism are far more likely than lockdown-worthy threats. This is important to understand because schools are almost always limited in their funding.
Beware of silver-bullet solutions
Products that 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 investing in better door hardware, such as locking mechanisms that can be activated from the inside. School officials are tempted to spend money to show stakeholders that they are taking action to address security concerns, but they need to exercise caution when adopting silver-bullet solutions that can introduce new risks.
In cases in which difficult decisions must be made, school officials should collaborate with 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 faces unique risks, and this kind of collaboration allows experts and stakeholders to address problems together.
Convening a group of professionals to talk about how to improve security without compromising safety is a smart course of action. It will not always lead to the least expensive solution, but it is a necessary step to ensure that schools are balancing competing concerns of safety and security against funding and convenience.
What follows is a discussion of the problems and risks of some of the aftermarket solutions that school officials unwittingly choose for their schools buildings.
Magnets may be placed over door frame strike plates to prevent door locks from latching. In this way, the classroom door is always locked but not latched. As a result, day-today operations are not affected because students and staff can freely come and go. If there is a school lockdown, a teacher does not have to use a key to lock the door; he or she only needs to remove the magnet so that the door latches.
But what happens if a teacher forgets to remove the magnet? That makes the room vulnerable to theft, vandalism or other unauthorized activities. In addition, students or intruders can remove the magnet and prevent authorized individuals from entering, especially because teachers who use door magnets tend not to carry keys.
In an emergency incident, the room is readily accessible from the hallway. If the door is closed, the teacher must open the door to remove the magnet. Another consideration is that this product, while being the cheapest aftermarket solution, is not the longest lasting, as the magnets are often stolen or misplaced.
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 openings and those that are not required to be fire-rated. From a consistency standpoint, magnets should not be used in those cases.
Restricting access from the hallway
The next level of aftermarket devices involves products that block and/or prevent 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. There are dozens of
such products, and more are being created at an impressive rate, but most fall into these categories.
Financial considerations and ingenuity are responsible for the advent of these products. Aftermarket product suppliers market the financial disparity between a $50 door-restraint device and a $250 lock. If the average school has 50 classroom doors, cost presents a convincing argument. Some vendors even market the idea that insurance providers will offer premium discounts to those who purchase such devices.
Generally speaking, the majority of these devices violate fire codes that require only one motion to exit a classroom. Removing the device and turning the handle requires two motions.
Yet another concern associated with the use of these 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 101, Life Safety Code, 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” (126.96.36.199.2). Unfortunately, many of these products clearly violate that rule.
Consider the possibility that every teacher has been thoroughly trained on the new products, which seems unlikely. Even in this case, though, those that have been trained may not be those who actually have to use the devices during an emergency. Substitute teachers, students, parents or visitors
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 violate that requirement because potential deployment and removal issues can further endanger those with disabilities.
Should doors be kept locked?
Many schools are finding themselves in a difficult situation if their budget simply won’t permit replacing all of the locks, which is the ideal solution. There is a solution for these schools, as well, but like most other security issues, it isn’t very convenient.
Budget-strapped schools can adopt the practice of requiring classroom doors to be closed and locked during class periods. This practice affords security without the need to manually lock the doors in an emergency. It also eliminates the need to enter the hallway to lock the doors, and it
completely complies with egress and ADA codes.
However, if students are constantly moving in and out of classrooms during the school day, locked classroom doors might create interruptions in class because someone must let students into the room. Despite this, the advantages of this practice are clear.
While the installation of classroom security locks is certainly the best solution to address an active shooter event, every school is unique in the safety and security threats it might encounter. When looking into alternative solutions, school officials must consider the potentially hazardous elements of many aftermarket solutions.
Paul Timm, PSP, is President of RETA Security and a board-certified Physical Security Professional through ASIS International. He is the author of School Security: How to Build and Strengthen a School Safety Program and has 16 years of security consulting experience. He served on the Illinois Terrorism Task Force and is a four-time ASIS International Regional Certification Award winner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted with permission from Doors & Hardware magazine, March 2015.