Across the country, some students have returned to school to find their classroom doors and, in some cases, windows look a little more intimidating. In the face of alarm over the threat of mass school shootings, the barricades have gone up, literally.
Some of the more popular products stop school door movement at the bottom by using an anchor pin drilled into the floor. Others employ a bar that barricades the door in the center, while still more use a sleeve on the door’s closer arm at the top of most classroom doors. They all work by reinforcing the door, making it virtually impossible for an intruder to break through.
But the trend toward classroom barricades has many building code experts and school security specialists concerned and has spurred accusations of putting politics over safety. The issue has boiled over in Ohio, where an obscure state agency is butting up against the powerful legislature in a debate over the safety of such devices.
While no figures are kept nationally on how many schools have implemented the security devices, in addition to Ohio, legislatures in Kansas, Arkansas, Michigan and New Jersey have recently revised their building codes to allow for barricade devices.
The movement to install such devices — which usually cost less than $100 apiece — on classroom doors gained momentum in Ohio in 2012 after Thomas Lane, then 17, shot and killed three students and wounded three others in Chardon, a small community east of Cleveland.
Last school year, a parents’ group in the Columbus suburb of Pataskala decided to raise money for door devices. “We were approached by a parent who has a child in the first grade who said, ‘I have to do everything in my conscience to make sure the children are safe,’” said Debra Moore, the president of the local school board. One of the ideas suggested was to have door barricades. A parents’ group then raised over $30,000 to purchase 307 devices from Zanesville-based Bilco.
But concerns were quickly raised by fire officials that the devices violated existing building and fire safety codes. Other experts also believe there are risks in barricading classrooms.
Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school security expert who has spent over 30 years in the field, is critical of the various barricade mechanisms. He has testified before Congress four times in relation to campus safety. “I can very easily foresee these devices being misused by students or other individuals with ill intentions and creating a bigger security concern with day-to-day issues than what would ever arise in the rare situation of an active shooter in the school,” he said.
The Ohio Board of Building Standards (OBBS) also raised objections, and it issued a 20-page report outlining the reasons. The report warned that the devices could hamper escape during emergencies. “Fine motor skills are severely compromised in a time of emergency. Using devices that require specialized skill or knowledge will interfere with occupant egress or possibly even prevent it altogether,” it read.
The objections, however, were quickly quashed by legislative action. The Pataskala parents’ group asked GOP state Sen. Jay Hottinger to intercede. He and state Rep. Kristina Roegner, a fellow Republican, sponsored amendments to the state budget bill, passed in July, ordering the OBBS to rewrite the code to allow door barricade devices and develop criteria for code-compliant barricades.
Roegner did not return requests for comment. While unavailable for an interview, Hottinger gave this statement to Al Jazeera: “The new school year renews our effort to protect Ohio’s students. This barricade system is reliable, safe and effective. It’s up to the schools to decide whether to use them, and we believe it complies with building code standards during an emergency.”
“No politician wants to be seen as against school security, so of course these bills will pass,” Trump said.
Now, despite the warnings contained in its own report, the OBBS is drawing up rules for the installation of the devices. “In situations like this, we put out the report, which speaks for itself. The law was then passed, and now put we are going to put out good rules to make everything is as safe as possible,” said Michael Duchesne, the assistant director of communications for the Ohio Department of Commerce.
Trump said the OBBS report should have been heeded. “In Ohio it is bad public policy. It is politics ramming something through over professionalism. The building standards board is really the source with the technical expertise to make those types of safety decisions related to fire and building codes, not politicians. Now it’s a mess,” he said.
Bill Cushaw, the CEO of Door Bearacade, based in Hudson, Ohio, said that not all products are the same and that they should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. He insists his company’s product is fire code compliant.
He said his device takes less than 60 seconds to activate and that the concern at the core of the debate, complexity, is not an issue. “You don’t want to have a complex series of events to disable the device. And it shouldn’t have to have an undue amount of strength,” he said.
Cushaw’s firm employs a lobbyist in Columbus to help make the company’s case in the statehouse.
The Kings school district in southwestern Ohio has Bearacades installed in its classrooms. Logan Flinchum, 15, is a sophomore there. “Teachers take 30-plus minutes at the beginning of the school year to show and allow students to try out the barricade and show its functions. Since I’ve never been worried about someone entering our school unwanted, I’ve never thought about it by myself, but in those tragic conditions, I am fully prepared,” he said.
It’s that knowledge, while safe in the hands of Flinchum, that school security experts worry might be misused elsewhere. “For instance, a student getting access to an area after school and committing a sexual assault … after putting the device on the door,” Trump said.
He said a simple lock should do the trick.
“What this comes down to is security product vendors very aggressively lobbying state legislators to create laws that either fund or otherwise support the use of their products, and that makes it easier to sell them to school districts,” he said.
While the debate rages, the amendment created confusion among Ohio schools, with many seeing it as a green light to install devices. But the OBBS issued guidance last week urging campuses to hold off.
“Schools are being cautioned against purchasing and deploying the devices before the rules take effect, as some devices currently on the market may not be allowable once new rules are adopted,” reads a statement from the board.
Though the National Center for Education Statistics does not keep track of how many schools use such barricades, there is a clear trend toward tightening security. In 2011, 88.2 percent of surveyed schools had strict access control measures for buildings, up from 81.5 percent in 2003.
Further, 64.3 percent of schools are using security cameras, up from 32.5 percent in 2003. The percentage of schools engaging in active shooter drills with students increased from 51.9 percent in 2009 to 70.0 percent in 2013. All this comes amid declining school violence; the bureau shows a 9 percent drop in violent school crimes from 2009 to 2013.
But others think the whole debate over putting up barricades in schools is missing the point. Curt Lavarello is the executive director of the Florida-based School Safety Advocacy Council, which advises on school security measures. While he said some barricades on the market are better than others, the most effective measure schools can implement to prevent violence costs far less: contact with the pupils.
“Most of the things that you probably need to do in school safety you don’t need to write a check for — being present, getting to know the kids. I will visit a school and find metal detectors, door latches, bulletproof glass, and then I don’t see an administrator for three hours. You have to have administrators engaging and being present with the students. If kids know they are being watched and communicated with, they will know what is going on in a school,” Lavarello said.