Schools Adding Classroom Function Locks In Response To Recent Shootings

Jan. 22--With one click, Cathy Holway can lock her classroom at Combs Elementary School, securing the door quickly from the inside, in hopes of protecting her students and herself.

That wasn't always the case. The Ferguson-Florissant. Mo., School District began adding new locks to classroom doors for extra security in 2007, long before the shootings in December at an elementary school in Connecticut. But in the month following those deaths, several St. Louis-area school districts are making similar updates.

Locks were the first step the Edwardsville School District took to strengthen its safety and security measures after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The district installed new classroom door locks during the winter break. Lindbergh has plans to do so in the next several weeks, and Rockwood will ask voters for money for the project as part of its bond issue on the April ballot.

In the debate over how to keep our schools safe -- with solutions ranging from arming teachers and principals to banning military-style assault weapons -- classroom locks would seem like a simple step.

Some schools, such as those in the Ferguson-Florissant and Francis Howell districts, have had the so-called "intruder locks" for years.

At others, teachers cannot lock their doors without stepping into the hallway, or aren't able to do so while inside the classroom.

"For me, to be able to lock the door from the inside, this does make it better," said Holway, who teaches fourth grade. "It's an added bonus to all of the security measures."

Administrators, too, feel as though changing something as simple as the locks can make a difference. Some of the surviving students and teachers in Newtown, Conn., hid in locked classrooms during the shooting rampage.

"It's a new paradigm after what happened" in Newtown, said Eric Cochran, director of curriculum and student programs for Lindbergh schools. "The first conversation we had was, 'What can we do immediately to make sure our kids are as safe as possible?'"

But new hardware comes with a price tag. The project is estimated to cost more than $200,000 for Lindbergh High and Sperreng Middle, the only two schools in the Lindbergh district without classroom intruder locks. Hazelwood officials are assessing how much it might cost to change classroom locks at 32 schools and early childhood centers.

Paul Fennewald of the Missouri Center for Education Safety said that, in the case of an intruder, the best scenario is if a teacher can lock his or her classroom door quickly without stepping into the hall, then cover windows to the classroom and hide with students.

Schools have a wide range of door-locking options, he said. One school in the Kansas City area has an automated system that can lock all doors at once.

"It all takes money," Fennewald said. "That's not possible in most schools."

The cost is primarily what has prevented some schools from installing the locks, but concerns about students locking teachers out of classrooms come up too, he said. Some intruder locks use keys, and the options vary by price.

Fennewald and other school safety experts are studying a mechanical device that might allow a teacher to quickly barricade a door, which could be a less expensive option for schools.

"It gets expensive," said Ann Jarrett, teaching and learning director for the Missouri National Education Association. "But when they have to step out into the hallway, it impairs their ability to protect their students."

Kevin Grubb, owner of Sure Lock & Key in Kirkwood, typically doesn't get many requests from schools, but since the shooting in Connecticut, he's received nearly a dozen calls about classroom locks.

"It's definitely got everybody on edge," he said.

The 20 first-graders and six educators killed Dec. 14 made the attack in Newtown, Conn., the second-worst school shooting in the country's history, behind the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007. But the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado spurred many of the security protocols in place today, buoyed by millions of dollars in federal grants for school safety announced a year after the killings.

President Barack Obama released his plan last week to make schools safer, including hiring more school resource officers, psychologists and counselors, as well as buying equipment such as security cameras and secure locking systems. He is proposing a program that would give schools $150 million for the extra hires.

Missouri law says schools must have emergency plans in place but does not require regular reviews or drills. A bill filed in the state Senate would require schools to have all teachers and staff participate in an active shooter drill each year with police.

Locks are not the only measure districts have taken in the last month. A few schools have extra police officers. Mehlville added four who will work part time and focus their patrols at elementary schools. The cost will be $35,000 for the rest of the school year.

And many have tightened security at all school entrances during the day, assessed their emergency plans and filed updated floor plans with police.

Edwardsville schools are getting panic alarms, and beginning next year, middle and high school students will be required to wear ID badges.

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