22 June 2022
Cary, N.C. — Wake County school leaders are looking at shoring up front-entrance security, school locks and visitor management policies to help keep schools safe from outside threats.
At the same time, leaders are weighing the costs, challenges posed by regulatory requirements and the somewhat conflicting desire for schools to be welcoming to families and the community.
The school board is mulling the changes to help protect its nearly 160,000 students as parents and students nationwide fear for the next school shooting, which could happen anywhere. School security has been top of mind since a gunman killed 21 people and injured 18 others at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last month.
Schools are required to provide training to staff who work directly with students on crises and mental health, though it’s unclear how much of that training focuses on preventing active shooters. School resource officers in Wake County conduct threat assessments, and school staff are not involved.
Wake County school leaders, during a Board of Education facilities committee meeting Wednesday, said they’ll consider their most effective — and most cost-effective — options and continue conversation with school safety contractors and the school board.
“We’ve made substantial strides of the last decade,” Facilities Committee Chairman Jim Martin said. “I think it’s a good time to do another assessment. Are there other facilities-related things that we should really be focusing on?”
Representatives of the School Safety Advocacy Council — a national group of former law enforcement officers that advises the school system on safety — urged the district to install “security vestibules” and restrict movement in and out of the school.
That could mean not letting upperclassmen leave the school for lunch and not allowing parents to visit their children for lunch, either.
Curt Lavarello, one of the representatives, said cafeteria workers could be desensitized to detecting threats if they see new parents in the cafeteria regularly. “I want them to see the one person who doesn’t belong and make the call right away,” Lavarello said.
At the front of a school, “security vestibules” retain school visitors while front office workers vet their fitness to enter the school.
The vestibules can be installed on a school building’s interior or exterior front entrance, as a three-side rectangular addition with a second set of locked doors. Those locked doors serve as a barrier between the visitor and the rest of the school, while a school employee speaks to the visitor through a secured window on the vestibule.
“The main goals are deter and detect and delay,” said Sean Burke, of the School Safety Advocacy Council. “We want people to come to the school and say, ‘Wow, it’s very hard to get in here. I’m not even going to try.’”
A front-office employee can check in a visitor, run their name through relevant databases and decide based on the visitor’s body language and other behaviors whether they may be a threat to the school. The process can take a few minutes.
“It’s a balance because we want delayed entry but we also want welcoming schools,” Martin said.
The vestibules often have protective layers to prevent breaking down the doors or even bullet penetration.
The vestibules are already in most new school buildings, and board members on Wednesday expressed an interest in adding them to old buildings. But they tripped up on their affordability in light of regulatory complications.
Although they’re billed as a simple retrofit to an existing school, the vestibules may constitute a major renovation, Martin said. That would trigger federal disability rights laws that could hamper their installation in schools.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public buildings and commercial facilities to be accessible to those with physical disabilities, requires buildings constructed before its passage in 1990 to become compliant if they are altered. Building the vestibules on buildings that old could trigger a host of other school construction requirements, such as accessible bathrooms. Many of the older school buildings are noncompliant.
“I want ADA compliance, definitely, but if it means we don’t have the money…then I think we need to have a really strong discussion” about what else to do, Board Member Roxie Cash said.
Martin said political discussion across the state and nationally suggest leaders want to take action to make schools safer. While Martin supports ADA compliance, he said a federal compliance waiver may be needed to make sweeping physical infrastructure changes to protect schools.
Burke said the school system should ensure all classrooms have locks on doors and that all classrooms are locked when in session.
Just how many and which schools don’t have security vestibules wasn’t known at the meeting Wednesday, and the school system has declined to release information on specific security vulnerabilities at specific schools.
But many schools, particularly older ones, don’t have them.