West Jefferson Hills will use secure door lock made by district maintenance worker
Jay Atkinson stood inside Thomas Jefferson High School after hearing about yet another school shooting and thought about the students.
His mind raced to: “What's going to happen if it happens here? We've got to do something to try to keep them safe.”
The custodial maintenance worker in the West Jefferson Hills School District began to look around. If an intruder gets into the building, what could be done to keep the students safe?
Then it hit him: a special lock, bolted to the bottom of the door. All teachers would have to do is kick it in place and the door would be secure. There would be no fumbling with keys to lock the door from the outside of the classroom and no barricading the door from the inside.
“Most of the time, they're going to come by and grab a door handle. If they grab a door handle and they can't get in, they're going to move on,” Atkinson said. “But if they can get in, then there's no telling what's going to happen when they get in.”
So, he got to work on the back of his pick-up truck. Knowing the ins-and-outs of a school building made it easier. And, with a grinder, welder and two pipe wrenches, built a lock — which he called the “AuxLoc,” to secure classroom doors from the inside at the tap of a foot.
That was nearly five years ago.
The father of a first-grader at Jefferson Elementary and two Thomas Jefferson graduates marketed the product in his spare time. Atkinson, 54, of West Elizabeth, received a patent for the lock in the United States and China. He now has two investors.
“It blossomed from there, overnight,” Atkinson said.
West Jefferson Hills School District will be the first to use the product. Board members in February approved the purchase of 315 AuxLocs for $16,380.
What makes Atkinson's product different from others on the market, he said, is there's a key that allows police or school administrators to unlock the door from the outside if need be.
“It has a patented unlocking feature. They can't trap themselves inside,” Atkinson said.
The West Jefferson Hills School District is in the midst of a security upgrade overhaul that began a year and a half ago, said Ryan Snodgrass, director of facilities. That has included bringing cameras in all of the five buildings up to date and adding a more robust radio communication system. The district hired James Modrak in September 2017 to serve in the newly created director of security position.
With that, leaders began looking at locking devices for classroom doors, Snodgrass said.
“This is probably one of the biggest pieces — protecting our kids in the classrooms and hardening our exterior and interior entry into the building and classrooms,” he said.
As the district's safety committee explored options for the device, Snodgrass kept it a secret that one of them was made by the district's own custodial maintenance employee. It finally dawned on someone after they had narrowed down their choices, “Wait, didn't Jay make something like this?”
“It's always been Jay's,” Snodgrass told them. “As much as we like Jay, it's the best product. It's nice because he cuts us a break on the shipping costs. He drops them off on his way to work.”
Atkinson's product was a good fit for West Jefferson Hills.
“The committee felt that the AuxLoc allows for the easiest use for the teacher ... to quickly secure the doors and it gives police officers and administrators the ability to access the locked classrooms through the use of specialized keys,” Scott Milburn, assistant superintendent of secondary education, said in an email.
The AuxLoc can be utilized for an intruder situation, or even during a lockdown when something is going on in the community, Snodgrass said.
Training for the devices will be incorporated into the district's already utilized ALICE (or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate) active shooter training.
The devices will be installed first in the elementary schools in the next few weeks, followed by the middle and high school buildings. Atkinson, as the vendor, then on the custodial maintenance staff, will help with the installation on both fronts.
“I make them. I assemble them. I deliver them and I install them,” he said with a laugh. “It's full scale. I'll switch hats somewhere along the line.”
While Atkinson will continue showcasing the device to other schools, what it's really about is saving lives, he said.
“It's just about protecting the kids,” he said.
Stephanie Hacke is aTribune-Review contributing writer.