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Ohio schools 'harden' security while staying child-focused: 'This isn't the US embassy in Beirut'

A check-in system in the vestibule of a school in Northeast Ohio is among the building's security features.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A check-in system in the vestibule of a school in Northeast Ohio is among the building's security features.

After the mass shooting of 19 students and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas, there is renewed attention in Ohio to making sure schools are as fortified as possible.

Most school districts looking to enhance their safety features have to retrofit existing, often outdated buildings, but at one Northeast Ohio middle school built a few years ago, top-of-the-line safety features were built in right from the start.

Ideastream Public Media has chosen not to name the school or the superintendent at his request; he worries that identifying his school may make them a target.

At this particular middle school, you have to enter through a vestibule. Once you’re between two sets of shatterproof glass doors, you have to log in at a machine that runs an automatic background check. If you pass that, someone will buzz you in.

From there, you can enter the school. Little black security cameras follow your nearly every move - a security feed that’s available in real time not only to the administration but also to the local police.

There are bleeding control kits tacked onto the walls, the kind of first-aid kit specifically intended to treat the victims of gunshot wounds, not just your typical school yard scraped knees.

A bleeding control kit and defibrillator hang on the wall of a school in Northeast Ohio
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A bleeding control kit hangs on a wall next to a defibrillator inside a hallway of a Northeast Ohio school.

There is only one way in to the building, but lots of strategically placed exits. Even the classroom doors were custom made here: that little strip of window that allows you to peek in has been moved to the side, away from the door handle. The idea there is that if a gunman were able to shoot through the glass they at least wouldn’t be able to reach in and open the door from the inside.

“I am not for a minute suggesting that we are immune or are perfectly safe from a horrible event happening in this building, and we didn’t want to create a prison here,” the superintendent told Ideastream. “But we did want to be smart about that idea of secure exterior and then interior design that would slow an intruder and then also enable a smart response from us.”

This superintendent says he visited the new Sandy Hook Elementary, rebuilt four years after the mass shooting that killed 20 children and six staff members there. He studied the new school’s security features and tried to incorporate them into his own district’s buildings, but what struck him the most, he said, were the signs all over town that say “Sandy Hook chooses love.”

Double school doors with windows distanced from door handles
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
On these custom-made doors, the windows are placed away from the handle so that an intruder could not break the glass to open the door.

“I think about what causes people to do the type of things that have happened at these school shootings and school tragedies and obviously they didn’t feel loved, they didn’t feel cared for for whatever reason,” he said. “So that’s a big part of what we’re doing day to day, too, is how do we make our kids and our families feel that we care for them.”

Much like the new Sandy Hook school, this Ohio middle school is surprisingly bright and welcoming in appearance.

According to Tim Del Vecchio, a security consultant for the Ohio Schools Council, that’s important.

“We gotta remember that we’re running schools, these are educational institutions. This isn't the U.S. embassy in Beirut,” he said. “You kinda have to strike a balance that, how are we gonna design these schools to where we can educate children and they’re pleasant places to be in where a child doesn’t think, ‘Gosh I go to prison every day,’ you know?”

It should be noted that these security measures are pretty pricey and require regular maintenance. As Del Vecchio pointed out, those automatically locking doors wear out, and “you don’t just go down to Home Depot and buy a new door for your school.”

Ohio schools pay for these security features through a mix of local levies, federal and state grants. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission awarded $4.8 million to almost 100 schools around the state to beef up their building security measures just last month. Since 2019, the Ohio Attorney General’s office has awarded nearly $33 million in grant money to more than 4,000 schools for things like school resource officers and mental health training programs.

Some critics argue that “hard” security features have not proven to work, and that social and emotional support systems are more effective. Del Vecchio disagrees.

“I don’t think you would ever know how many shootings or serious events we have warded off just because we’re doing security because how do you prove the unknown?”

It is hard to get a sense of how many attacks may have been thwarted by security features. According to Robin Hattersley-Gray, editor-in-chief of Campus Safety Magazine, they do help.

Still, she points out one obvious problem vestibules can’t solve.

“Most school shooters are actually, they attend the school themselves, usually as a student,” she said.

A camera over student lockers
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A camera is positioned above a section of lockers inside a Northeast Ohio school.

School buildings are an important piece of the overall security puzzle, Hattersley-Gray said. Still, she believes all of these efforts will continue to fall short until one final issue is addressed.

“They’re basically expecting us to prevent gun violence with one hand tied behind our back,” she said. ”I mean, it’s great that we’ve got mental health and social emotional learning and improved access control and video surveillance and improved emergency communications and better lighting and metal detectors. All those things work great, but, you know, if you still are selling AR-15s to 18-year-olds, we have a problem.”

Ohio governor Mike DeWine has one more way to harden schools. On Monday, he signed into law a bill that makes it easier for teachers to conceal carry firearms in classrooms.

Updated: June 13, 2022 at 10:30 AM EDT
Ida Lieszkovszky is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She covers an array of topics, including politics, education, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter @Ida_in_Cle.