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Pittsburgh-area schools remodel entrances for extra security

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, 7:41 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Students and their families arrive to Richland Elementary School Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 with a newly added security vestibule.

Two years ago, visitors could get lost after stepping into Stewart Elementary School in Lower Burrell.

“You walk through a doorway and up some stairs. Or around the corner to the office. Or you could skip the office altogether and head off into a classroom,” said Stephanie Dynka, parent/teacher association president. “It was a confusing entrance on a very confusing building.”

Used by law enforcement for decades, tactical crime prevention through mindful, environmental design started seeping into school architecture when disasters such as those at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary exposed the vulnerability of traditional, inviting facades.

Like Stewart, schools across the country are retrofitting lobbies to funnel visitors through multiple layers of locked, glass doors and office workers before gaining access to kids.

“There are so many schools in this country that were built 30, 40, 50 years ago when preventing a mass shooting wasn't even a thought,” said Kevin Quinn, former president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “Just making a school that looks pretty isn't OK anymore.”

Baldwin-Whitehall remodeled entrances at McAnnulty, Paynter, Whitehall and Harrison schools to allow for better visibility, and staffers get emergency training. Visitors must produce photo identification to enter.

Carlynton added secure vestibules at Carnegie and Crafton elementary schools. The district delayed the start of classes to accommodate the project.

Just about any school without a secure vestibule is getting one, said Dan Engen, principal architect with Valentour English Bodnar & Howell.

“You want to set up a mouse trap scenario, so at least one of the outside doors is controllable from the inside,” Engen said. “And plenty of glass. You want to see the person head-to-toe with one or two degrees of separation between office workers and anyone headed inside.”

Architects recommend operable windows wide enough to make a quick escape. Hardware on exterior doors gets removed.

“We want kids to be able to get out,” Engen said, “but from there, no one should need to get in.”

Joe Kozarian of Brentwood School District is a regional trainer for the National Association of School Resource Officers.

In a class last month, he told the group to replace metal keys with key cards, keep shrubbery low and maintain a clear view of the property's edge.

Consolidate visitor parking away from the entrance, he said. Security cameras help, but proper lighting and clear angles are crucial. For new construction, he said to suggest to administrators a curved driveway to limit speed and install obstructions such as columns or bollards to prevent a renegade vehicle from reaching a school's main doors.

There's a duality to designing a secure school that functions well while in session and still feels accessible after hours, Engen said.

Scott Layne, chair-elect for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, noted that same balance. In their zeal to protect, school officials can go too far, he said.

“You can design a building that's tough to get in and keeps everyone inside it safe,” Layne said. “We have those facilities now. They're called prisons. That's not where you want to send your kid.”

Kevin A. Hayes of Bridgeville-based Hayes Design Group said his team often suggests putting the school office some distance from the secured vestibule so there is no direct line of sight to the main office.

“The staff sees a visitor at the vestibule through cameras,” Hayes said. “And ... controls access by an electronic switch.”

Lightly tinting glass windows and installing low-voltage electronic contacts to prevent exterior doors from being propped open are other options, he said.

“There's been a lot of talk lately about bulletproof glass,” Layne said. “It's a good idea in theory, but you have to look at the cost. How often will this come up? How many more classroom resources could that money buy?”

Pittsburgh Public Schools invested more than $1.2 million last year to install 2,930 intruder locks districtwide. Officials haven't discussed retrofitting 54 schools with entryways such as those in Burrell or Seneca Valley.

The district employs its own police force. Metal detectors are common, spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, and guests still sign in by hand.

“Overall, I think it makes parents feel safer that visitors have to go through two locked doors before they can ever get into the office,” Dynka said.

Not that anything dangerous has ever happened at Stewart, said Tina Galli, whose 9-year-old son starts school there next week.

“Hopefully, nothing bad ever does.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815.

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