Conversations about “hardening” schools resurface after every mass school shooting. And so do questions about how the shooters manage to get into classrooms.
There have been 27 school shootings in 2022 that resulted in injuries or deaths, according to the Education Week school shooting tracker, and 119 since 2018, when Education Week began tracking such incidents.
To prevent school shootings from happening, some security experts and educators suggest adding more physical security measures, such as surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and door-locking systems, as well as adding more law enforcement and armed staff in schools.
On the surface, it would seem like locking classroom doors would be one of the simplest and easiest ways to secure classrooms. But about 1 in 4 public schools in the United States lack classroom doors that can be locked from the inside, according to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics from the 2019-20 school year.
Robb Elementary School, in Uvalde, Texas, where a shooter killed 21 people in May, had problems with locks on both interior classroom doors and entrances and exits to the school building, according to a report from a special committee of the Texas legislature. The building had a classroom door system that required teachers to lock their doors from the outside using a key to secure their classrooms when they weren’t in them. Teachers often propped the doors open or instructed substitute teachers to do so if they did not have keys for the locks, which were limited and no longer in production.
School facilities experts who spoke to Education Week said a combination of issues is keeping schools from changing their classroom door-locking approaches: finances, logistics, and fire safety regulations.
“They just haven’t gotten around to them yet,” said Mike Pickens, the executive director of the National Council on School Facilities. “They don’t have the money to do them all at once, so they just kind of do them as they go.”
‘It’s always an issue of competing needs’
The cost of changing classroom door locks could be someone’s entire maintenance budget for a year, said Andrew O’Leary, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the New Bedford Public Schools in Massachusetts.
Low-income districts like O’Leary’s have older buildings than other school systems, have been left behind in statewide capital investment, have very basic per-pupil funding, and often defer maintenance upgrades. They likely have schools that are among the 25 percent that lack classroom doors that lock from the inside, he said.
The United States invested $795 billion of local, state, and federal money into its K-12 public schools for the 2019-20 school year, according to annual federal school spending data published in May. Ten percent of school revenue went toward “capital outlay,” which includes construction, renovation, and maintenance of school facilities.
But because facilities funding could be used for a variety of school building systems—such as mechanical, plumbing, electrical, telecommunications, security, and fire suppression systems—district leaders have to make a decision about where to use that money. And that means classroom door-locking systems might not be at the top of the priority list.
“Do we fix this roof that’s leaking, this beam that’s falling down, or do we put a lock on a door?” said Pickens. “Those are all challenges, and sometimes it’s safer in some cases to fix that beam rather than have a lock.”
“There’s more to school health and safety than just access control, and I’m not minimizing access control at all—that’s important, but school health and safety encompasses a lot of things,” he added.
Guy Bliesner, a school safety and security analyst for the Idaho State Board of Education, agreed that when figuring out how to parcel out the money, “it’s always an issue of competing needs.”
“We’re already dealing with aging infrastructure,” Bliesner said. “We have a backlog of retrofits that need to be done. [Changing door locks] is simply another on the list and money is a finite resource.”
‘All of this is a huge logistic lift’
Even if there is money, figuring out how to change all the locks in a school or multiple schools in a district is a hard task.
K-12 schools “are not set up for significant maintenance work,” said O’Leary from New Bedford schools. “How can you replace 500 door locks? How long is that going to take? And how quickly can you do it? All of this is a huge logistic lift.”
School facilities experts said there’s more to it than just putting a new locking device on a door. Schools may also need to replace the whole structure, including the door, the door frame, and the lockset, because they all have to be compatible. Add in the manpower needed to change the locks on hundreds of doors in a school and the maintenance for when locks break and it gets quite expensive.
O’Leary said changing all the classroom door locks in his 12,000-student district could cost nearly $2 million. He said there are schools from different eras, so some have classroom door locks while others don’t. The district is just starting the process of installing new classroom door locks.
District leaders also have to think about which classroom door-locking mechanism will work best under all the building safety regulations, including fire safety codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There’s a huge issue that [conversations about locking classroom doors are] creating for other elements of school safety beyond shootings,” said O’Leary. “Sometimes we forget in all of this that [safety] goes beyond the rare but devastating possibility of an attack. School safety encompasses the health and safety of every individual. In any building, there’s issues around fire safety. That’s pretty much what any building plans for in its architecture, its design, and its operation.”
Fire safety regulations require that schools have doors that allow people to have a one-motion egress, O’Leary said. “Schools have been flooded with sales pitches or demands for different types of barriers that can be deployed to lock the classroom, [but those products] might stop people’s egress.”
In the New Bedford district, O’Leary said they’ve changed the classroom door locks in a couple of schools. They ended up using a lock that has a standard handle but in the center of that is a red button that a teacher or student can press and a deadbolt locks the door. But if people need to get out of the room quickly, they just pull down the door handle and they can get out. It’s a one-motion egress, so it’s up to building code. If someone needs to get in from the outside, that person would need a key.
According to school facilities experts, those kinds of door-locking systems are what many schools are turning to nowadays.
A deadbolt is much more effective than a simple door latch that can be opened with a credit card or other flat device, Bliesner said. You also don’t have to fumble around to find the keys because it can be locked just by turning it or pressing a button as opposed to doors that need to be locked from the inside using a key. If a kid locks a teacher out, the door can still be opened from the outside with a key.
“Some classrooms that need to be locked from the outside defeats the purpose of security,” Pickens said.
There are also some schools with electronic locks with a 10-button keypad on the outside—to enter, a person needs to put in a code or scan a badge. If the Wi-Fi is not working, a key could also be used to get into the room in these types of door-locking systems.
‘Tools do not keep children safe. People keep children safe’
The problem with high-tech locks is that they aren’t always as secure as simple, mechanical locks, said Joe Dixon, president of consulting company Dixon SmartSchoolHouse. Staff members might be a little careless and give their door codes to someone and those codes end up in the wrong hands. “It’s pretty hard to beat the old key,” he said. “Key makers cannot [legally] duplicate a restricted keyway.”
The school security industry is starting to become “problematic,” O’Leary pointed out, because “it can be laden with gimmicks, and districts have to guard against gimmicks.”
He said one of the most common gimmicks is school security apps.
I personally think there needs to be some regulation on companies that are pitching school safety tools to schools because it’s going to lead to waste, fraud, and abuse.
“We get constant solicitation to purchase all-in-one app setups that are going to have loaded training modules, school plans, communication relays with police and emergency services—all of which, to me, is a distraction from the simple, common sense safety steps that districts should be focusing on,” O’Leary said. “I personally think there needs to be some regulation on companies that are pitching school safety tools to schools because it’s going to lead to waste, fraud, and abuse.”
School safety experts who spoke with Education Week said that at the end of the day, the tools don’t matter as much if they’re not implemented effectively. They said school safety and security needs to be put into a comprehensive plan, and not just thrown together as a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis.
“All of these things are tools and tools are used by people. Tools do not keep children safe. People keep children safe,” Bliesner said.
The tools, he added, have to be implemented with “fidelity and a certainty that [people will] follow through. All the tools in the world will not make you safe if you don’t use them effectively.”