The Sandy Hook massacre is spurring efforts to address a basic weakness in school defenses: old classroom door locks.
At many metropolitan Omaha schools, a teacher must open the classroom door, and, in some cases, step into the hallway, to reach the lock and turn it with a key, potentially putting the teacher in the line of fire.
These locks were usually installed decades ago, before the threat of school shootings shadowed American schools.
Aware of this danger, some districts are retrofitting doors with new locks that fasten by turning a knob or key on the classroom side of the door.
The new locks cost $150 to $250 apiece, making the retrofit a pricey venture that districts must weigh against the risk of a shooting.
At least some of the older-style locks are found on doors in Nebraska's largest school districts: Lincoln, Millard, Omaha, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue.
In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommended that all classrooms have doors that can be locked from either side to prevent entry from the corridor side. The locks must not, however, prevent students from getting out of a classroom, a concern in the event of fire, the agency said.
“The capability to quickly lock the door from either side is the fastest solution for 'lockdown' situations,” it said.
Interior locks on classroom doors saved lives during the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado, the agency said, but such locks were not available in classrooms in Norris Hall during the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shooting. Although attempts were made to barricade the doors with furniture or live bodies, they were not successful and the death toll was much greater, it said.
At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., gunman Adam Lanza shot out the school's front entrance's windows to gain entry.
A school district official told the Hartford Courant newspaper that the district's policy was for teachers to set their classroom door locks, on the hallway side of the doors, when they arrived for work in the event of a lockdown.
During the attack, many doors were locked, and police responding to the shooting slid their badges under the doors to persuade teachers to open them, the paper reported.
The Millard district tentatively plans to use money from its likely May 14 bond issue to replace hundreds, possibly thousands, of older locks in the district's 25 elementary schools, officials said. It would also use bond money to install fortified deadbolt locks in new doors in 14 schools targeted for renovation to close open-style floor plans.
Paul Schulte, president of the Millard Education Association, said teachers don't want to go into the hallway during a security breach. “Having the chance to actually lock it from the inside and remain with the class would be critical from a teacher's standpoint,” he said.
Ed Rockwell, general manager for support services in the Millard Public Schools, said that although securing the perimeter of school buildings is the top priority, sealing off classrooms puts additional hurdles in the path of an intruder.
“It will buy you some time,” Rockwell said. “It will delay, confuse, frustrate your intruder.”
Fortified locks that can be operated from the inside grew in popularity nationally after Columbine, he said. Those so-called “classroom security lock sets” did not come into use in Millard until 2006, he said. Since then the district has used them in new projects.
But some of its schools date back to 1959, and the average age of its schools is 31 years.
The new locks would be difficult to defeat by someone shooting at them — unlike in the movies, where cops take one shot and a door pops open, he said. The deadbolts would remain in place even if the locks were damaged, he said.
In some districts, classroom doors have windows built either into the door itself or beside it. Those windows raise the possibility of a gunman shooting them out, then stepping through, firing in the broken window or reaching in to unlock the door.
They are typically designed to provide a line of sight so that someone opening the door doesn't smash it into someone on the other side, he said.
Architects and school officials will have to weigh the risks of a shooting against the risks of less serious but more common injuries from a swinging door, he said.
In the Omaha Public Schools, door lock styles vary, largely by a school's age.
All classrooms built since 1999 have the newer locks that can be locked from the inside, according to Mark Warneke, director of building and grounds.
Some locks, however, require a teacher to step outside the classroom or reach around the door to lock it with a key, he said. Most classrooms have an alcove where the door swings out, so the teacher doesn't have to step all the way into the hallway, he said.
Fourteen elementary schools and some middle and high schools have deadbolt locks that can be locked only from the outside, he said. Those are the greatest priority for replacement.
Those doors weren't designed for locking during the day, but rather for securing the empty room when the teacher and students were away, Warneke said.
The district has been trying to retrofit locks when money is available, he said.
Replacement can be expensive, requiring a new door or modifications to the jamb that can push the cost to nearly $3,000 apiece, depending on the complexity, he said.
“Most of our doors aren't even capable of taking the newer locks, they don't have the support in them around the doorknob areas,” he said. “So we have to go in and replace the doors.”
About 75 percent of the classroom locks in the Lincoln Public Schools are the old style. But all new building additions and renovations in the past five or six years have a newer-style lock that can be opened with a key from either side, according to district officials.
The district has been retrofitting as funds allow.
A replacement effort is also under way in the Bellevue Public Schools.
In the Papillion-La Vista Schools, nearly all classroom locks require a key from the hallway side. Spokeswoman Annette Eyman said that's “not a good situation.”
“A lot of our schools have gone to keeping the doors locked all the time and then propping them open, so if I needed to lock my door quickly, I just shut it and it's locked,” she said.
Keeping doors closed all the time inconveniences teachers and principals, who like to be able to come and go from classrooms, she said.
The district has no current plans to retrofit.
Eyman said the immediate priority is to wall off open classrooms in four elementary schools and the district's two junior high schools, funded by last year's bond issue. Open classroom designs are now viewed as a security risk because they can't be locked down.
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