Is it time to lock classroom doors? How far should Wake go to make its schools safer?

·5 min read

A security consultant recommends that the Wake County school system take steps such as installing secured front-door entrance areas, locking all classroom doors and keeping students on campus during lunch.

The Florida-based School Safety Advocacy Council says the goal is to deter, detect and delay people who may have hostile intentions when they come to a Wake County school. It’s an approach, if implemented, that could be expensive, as well as changing the school day for the district’s 160,000 students.

“We’re looking at creating time, time to get people there that can prevent whatever incident may happen from happening,” Sean Burke, president of the School Safety Advocacy Council, told board members.

Wake initially contracted with the School Safety Advocacy Council in 2019 to do a security audit.

Board members said a review of the district’s safety measures is in order following May’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. A gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.

“It is such a balance because we want delayed entry,” said school board member Jim Martin, chairman of the facilities committee that heard the recommendations. “But we want welcoming schools.”

Adding security vestibules

One of the most heavily discussed recommendations was installing security vestibules in the front of every school. These are enclosed, secured areas that visitors must pass through before they can gain access to the rest of the building.

The Wake County school system is looking at adding more security vestiubles as a school safety measure.
The Wake County school system is looking at adding more security vestiubles as a school safety measure.

Burke said the vestibules are a way that school staff can talk with visitors to judge their state of mind.

“You can judge are they in an aggravated state,” Burke said. “Do they look like they’re under the influence of alcohol?

“If they’re pacing back and forth, squeezing their hands and they’re here to see little Johnny’s teacher, maybe we don’t let them into that school.”

Parents don’t mind waiting those extra two or three minutes to get through a security vestibule if they know that their child is going to be safer for it, according to Burke.

Costly to add to existing schools

Vestibules are part of the design for new Wake County schools. Some existing Wake schools have vestibules. But many do not.

Martin, the school board member, said the problem with adding vestibules to existing schools is that it becomes a major renovation.

Doug Congdon, program executive for Wake’s facilities, design and construction department, said major renovations at schools built before 1992 must include improvements to make them comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Congdon said the ADA upgrades can be expensive, especially when it comes to making the restrooms handicapped accessible.

“As the state and national political bodies are addressing issues of school safety, it may be that there needs to be a federal waiver,” Martin said. “Not that we want to get around the ADA compliance, but it may be worth highlighting that for this current need.

“There may need to be some waivers so that we can address this issue without addressing the whole problem.”

Board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said providing the vestibules and the related improvements may be worth the cost to provide peace of mind to the community now.

“So much of what we mentally want is a false sense of safety and security, but it still does allow us to function each day,” Johnson-Hostler said. “While I know that vestibules won’t meet all the needs, it certainly will address other issues.”

Lock classroom doors?

While there was general support for adding vestibules, it was unclear what would happen with some of the other security recommendations.

Burke said it’s a standard recommendation from his organization to lock all classroom doors during the school day. He said this step will help secure the inside of school buildings.

“Any time that the school is open, the classroom should be locked,” Burke said.

But it could lead to interruptions, with teachers having to unlock the classroom door for students who leave to use the restroom or for other reasons.

Lisa Luten, a school district spokeswoman, said they can’t share whether they’ll require classroom doors to be locked for security reasons.

Limit access during lunch?

The School Safety Advocacy Council is also asking Wake to close campuses during lunch.

Currently, most high schools let seniors and juniors off campus for lunch because the cafeteria doesn’t have enough room for all students. But Curt Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, said this opens up campuses that have been made secure.

“That creates a softened area for somebody to come in while other kids are coming back from their lunches,” Lavarello said.

Some elementary school parents like to come to the campus to have lunch with their children. But Lavarello said having so many different parents visit during lunch can “desensitize” cafeteria workers from realizing there’s an adult who shouldn’t be there.

Glass walls a security issue

In recent years, Wake has used an open-space design with all-glass walls and large open areas where students can work together. It wasn’t long ago that parents were proud of those features, according to board vice chairman Chris Heagarty.

“Now parents go in and view that and they see security threats.,” Heagarty said. “Where will kids hide? What happens if something happens where kids are spread out all over this space?”

Congdon told board members that film may be added to address security concerns with having full glass walls

Russ Smith, the district’s senior director of security, said some schools have requested curtains to go with the glass walls.

“Fortification of the glass is going to be key,” Smith said.