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Districts redesigning school buildings to keep students safe

If school shootings are here to stay, maybe the buildings themselves can help save lives.
Districts redesigning school buildings to keep students safe
Posted at 1:59 PM, May 16, 2023

1999 was the start of a rude awakening: Columbine.

"So that was I think the nation's wake-up call to violence in schools," said Darrell Kingsbury, the assistant superintendent for Caledonia Community Schools in West Michigan.

"This is my 27th year as an educator and I remember all the way back to Columbine and the impact that that had on the psyche of public schools and safety," said Dedrick Martin, the superintendent for Caledonia Community Schools.

Back then, schools weren't necessarily designed to stop a shooter.

"The biggest pieces we thought about for safety was where is the exit in case of a fire," said Martin.

The reality is different now. In the past 5 years, more than 150 shootings inside schools have resulted in either injuries or deaths, according to Education Week

"We don't have the luxury of not getting this right because the stakes are too high," said Martin.

Martin's district in West Michigan, on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, shifted architecturally not long after Columbine. The district is changing the way it builds schools. 

Scripps News asked Assistant Superintendent Kingsbury what features of their high school they would like to see more widespread across the country.

SEE MORE: Citing safety concerns, Michigan school district bans backpacks

"One, the secure entries; two is having some secure film on the window areas, and really it's the staff that are in the buildings that are going to make it work," Kingsbury said.

More popular upgrades in schools include curved hallways, corridors divided by fire doors, and stronger locks. Other ideas impact classrooms themselves, like re-shaped rooms with student "safe zones" that are not visible from the door. Classroom door barricade systems can also be quickly installed. 

TowerPinkster specializes in upgrading classrooms. They do about $400 million of K-12 construction per year. Matthew Slagle leads the firm's design for K-12 schools.

We asked Slagle what some of the most noticeable differences are in the schools the company has worked on.

"Certainly the entry point that you mentioned, what we call a secure vestibule where once the bell rings, you can't get into the school any way but that front entry door, and you're guided into the office," Slagle said.

Schools around the country are also considering new social spaces to support students' mental health. They are balancing safety with social development. As the school resource officer at Caledonia High School, Patrick Stewart sees first-hand the difference those types of spaces can make.

"So as a school resource officer, yes I am a law enforcement official first and foremost to keep them safe. But I am also an informal counselor, a teacher, an educator," Stewart said.

Stewart says balance is important, especially now.

We asked Superintendent Martin if architectural changes to schools are going to be crucial to keeping kids safe, regardless of any other actions taken. 

"Absolutely. Regardless of other legislative action or what have you, we are in a time or were living in a time where we really have to think about function, form and security," Martin said.

It's a sad reality, resigned to the fact that threats of school shootings are here to stay. Maybe the buildings themselves can help save lives.

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