After the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, schools across the country took a hard look at their own security and ability to avoid a similar massacre. The most recent shooting deaths in December of 20 children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut have revived the same questions about how safe kids are at school.
In Madison and the surrounding area, where only a handful of school buildings were constructed in the post-Columbine age of school security, many facilities have been updated to increase safety. And schools are now being built to new safety standards, including Madison's Olson Elementary, Sun Prarie High School and two Sun Prairie elementary schools, says Luis Yudice, head of the Office of Safety and Security for Madison's schools, and Sun Prairie Deputy District Administrator Phil Frei. All four schools opened between 2005 and 2010.
Such schools were designed from the beginning to channel visitors through one entrance, where they are carefully admitted inside. Both Yudice and Frei say it's been a challenge to implement such defenses in older schools, but that they have found ways of overcoming outdated school designs.
Keeping doors closed
Schools were once set up to allow for unfettered entering and exiting, but now that free-flow of movement is restricted to the morning, before classes begin.
"Our buildings were designed at a time when these tragic incidents we're seeing today were inconceivable," says Yudice. "Consider, West High School has approximately 78 exterior doors that we have to secure and they were built so that anyone at any time would simply be able to walk unrestricted into the building."
According to Mike Huffman, president of Cambridge, Wis.-based Huffman Facility Development, which helps develop construction projects and worked on Sun Prairie's newest high school and elementary school, it is still common for schools to allow access to the building through multiple points before school. But as soon as the bell rings, all exterior doors lock, save for one.
An electronic system would be desirable to streamline this process, where pressing one button can seal off a building's side doors. Implementing that kind of hardware is generally not difficult, Huffman says, but it is expensive.
"It may be that you're spending 6,000 to 12,000 dollars per door to make that happen," he says.
Nevertheless, Yudice says all of Madison's schools are equipped with such systems as of this past summer and all follow the pattern of free-flow mornings and a lockdown for the rest of the day. The same goes for all schools in Sun Prairie, according to Frei.
That calls for discipline among the staff and students to not prop doors open during the warmer months. Frei admits it is hard to completely prevent that from happening, but both he and Yudice say alarms are triggered when certain doors are left open.
Given this kind of security during school hours, Yudice has considered whether it is appropriate for school buildings to be used for other community functions, including polling places on Election Day, when the locking systems are disabled and anyone can walk inside.
Twenty-three Madison Metropolitan School District buildings served as polling stations for Election Day 2012, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
"This is a concern that has been raised before by parents," says Yudice, adding the district has never had any safety issues occur on election days in the past.
Frei says only one Sun Prairie school also hosts a polling place and the issue of discontinuing that has not come up.
Controlling the entryway
Once class starts and all doors are locked, visitors to all Madison schools must use an intercom system before gaining entry at the main entrance, where a camera is installed, says Yudice.
Maintaining control after entry is then key to security.
A typical way to manage an entryway, says Huffman, is for visitors to have to walk through one set of doors into a vestibule or office, where they would then communicate with school staff before continuing.
Recently built schools like Madison's Olson Elementary and Sun Prairie High School were built with that kind of system in mind, but retrofitting older schools to accommodate that kind of structure has proven difficult, though doable.
It usually requires the school's main office to be located near the entrance. If it isn't already, it can be a pain to move.
"That's what we're wrestling with," Frei says.
Two elementary schools in his district have yet to be retrofitted in this manner, but should be by next summer. He says costs for the same project on other elementary schools in recent summers reached about $300,000 and he expects the bill for the next two to be the same: "If districts are going to pursue that, they definitely need the budget for it."
Madison has focused on the construction of "welcome centers" in high schools. Once visitors use the intercom system and are allowed inside, they are met by a staffer at the welcome center and guided to their destination. Yudice says the welcome centers at La Follete and East high schools are finished, while Memorial's is "pretty much in place" and West's is in the process of being built.
"It's a change in the culture," Yudice. "You were able to walk into the building anytime you want and all of sudden you can no longer do that. There's certain inconveniences that go along with that, but over all we have found that the overwhelming majority of parents, staff and students understand that there's a need for these systems."