Conflicting Advice on School Security

Sept. 4, 2018
When safety requirements and security needs conflict, the best resolution is to find an option that provides both the required safety and the desired security

I don’t know much about cars. In fact, my car has had a shimmy for three years that shows up every time I hit 65 MPH on the speedometer. Each mechanic who has looked at the car had different advice about the solution – tire balancing, front-end alignment, something related to the steering or suspension. So far none of the experts’ advice has panned out.

The experience of a school administrator attempting to address school security is not unlike my car situation. Many of the school-district employees tasked with improving school security are not experts in locks, electrified hardware, or life-safety codes. School staff members may hear about “solutions” that are not financially feasible, are not code-compliant, and may only serve to give the administrators, teachers, students, and parents a false sense of security.

Because of the high-profile shootings of recent years, security is a priority for virtually all K-12 schools, colleges and universities, as well as other types of facilities. Unfortunately, there is not one set of security guidelines or best practices that is used consistently throughout the U.S. Although several model code groups, security-related organizations, and governmental departments have created documentation on security procedures, the advice in some publications may conflict with the recommendations of others.

Conflicts and Confusion

For example, the model building codes and fire codes widely used in the U.S. include requirements for free egress, fire protection, and accessibility. When model codes are adopted by law, they become part of the state’s requirements for new and existing buildings, and are enforced by the code officials for that state to help ensure the safety of building occupants. But some of the security methods and retrofit locking devices on the market do not comply with the adopted codes.

When safety requirements and security needs conflict, there are three potential resolutions: relax the safety requirements, compromise on the security needs, or find an option that provides the required safety and the desired security. With proper guidance, the latter solution IS achievable, but it may not be the least expensive or easiest to procure.

In a few states, state legislators have responded to the perceived security barriers created by the safety codes, by using the state legislative process to remove most or all of the applicable safety requirements that apply to classroom doors. In a handful of other states, code officials have been pressured to allow non-compliant security devices. But in most states, security methods are required to be code-compliant.

Accessibility has been another area where security and usability sometimes conflict. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law, there are some who believe that security takes precedence over accessibility. However, in a letter to the NFPA Standards Council regarding appeals filed by representatives of a manufacturer of classroom barricade devices, Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) wrote, “The language the above-listed appeals (if successful) would reinstate is discriminatory to those with physical or visual impairments, impedes egress, and is in violation of standards and laws regarding accessibility.”

It’s not unusual for law enforcement and fire prevention personnel to have conflicting opinions. In Tennessee, the state fire marshal enforced the adopted codes and ordered non-compliant security devices removed from Tennessee schools. Later, a Tennessee sheriff began a fundraising campaign to purchase classroom barricade devices, which were not compliant with the state codes. When the conflict was discovered, the state of Tennessee adopted the most recent NFPA 101 requirements but the state fire marshal’s office also issued a statement saying that they would not cite schools for purchasing classroom barricade devices.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) published guidelines for classroom security, which align with the model codes and referenced standards. NFPA 3000 – Standard for an Active Shooter / Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, also requires lockable doors to comply with NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code. But a recent publication from the US Department of Homeland Security – K-12 School Security, A Guide to Preventing and Protecting Against Gun Violence, discusses “door blockers,” stating, “This may be a viable alternative for schools lacking doors that can be physically locked.”

While the DHS publication may seem like a recommendation of classroom barricade devices, a few pages earlier the same document states, “Further, all protective measures employed should comply with applicable privacy, civil rights and civil liberties, building/fire codes, and federal, state, and local laws.”

So, which is it? Devices which block doors are “a relatively simple way” to barricade doors? Or, security devices should comply with the codes, standards, and laws? It’s no wonder school administrators and facility managers have a tough time sorting through the conflicting information and making decisions about the security measures they should implement.

Security Industry Recommendations

As professionals working with doors, hardware, and physical security, there is much we can do to guide our clients when they are looking for ways to improve their security. These ideas may not apply to every building, but here are some basic considerations for K-12 schools:

  • Is the main entrance equipped with access control, and preferably with a security vestibule that helps to deter unauthorized entry?
  • Are secondary entrances (staff parking, playground) kept locked to prevent unauthorized access but able to be unlocked from the exterior by school staff?
  • Does the school have the ability to monitor all exterior doors to ensure that they are closed, latched, and locked?
  • Are there interior doors that can be used to help compartmentalize the building during a lockdown, and prevent an active shooter from moving freely throughout the building?
  • Can teachers quickly lock classroom doors and communicate with other school staff and first responders about what is happening during a hostile event?
  • Does glazing in windows, sidelites, and vision panels deter penetration through the glass to delay or prevent access?
  • Do ALL security methods meet the code requirements for egress, fire protection, and accessibility, to ensure that the ability to evacuate is not compromised?

Given the amount of conflicting information and advice that facility managers and other decision makers are receiving, it’s crucial for security professionals to be able to communicate the applicable code requirements. The model codes that have been adopted in most US states are the International Building Code, International Fire Code, and NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code. The accessibility standards that apply to most buildings are the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, and ICC A117.1 – Standard for Usable Buildings and Facilities.

Considering the requirements of all of these publications, doors in a means of egress must be unlatched with one operation - for all locks and latches simultaneously, not with one operation per locking device. The releasing hardware must be mounted between 34 inches and 48 inches above the floor. Hardware must allow egress without a key, tool, special knowledge, or effort, and must be operable without tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. Beginning with the 2018 editions of the model codes, classroom doors must be unlockable from the outside with a key or other approved means, and NFPA 101 requires classroom doors to be lockable from the inside without opening the door. There are additional requirements in the model codes for some types of electrified hardware, including electromagnetic locks and delayed egress locks.

Industry professionals are key contacts for school administrators and facility managers who need advice about school security and safety. Although there are conflicting recommendations from various organizations, the best way to reduce risk and liability while increasing security and safety is to follow the requirements of the adopted codes and standards. Additional recommendations for school safety and security can be found in the Guidelines for School Security from the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, from the website of the Secure Schools Alliance, and from

About the Author


Lori Greene, DAHC/CDC, CCPR, FDAI, FDHI, is manager, codes and resources at Allegion. Visit her website,