In school design, more demand for safety-related projects

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Safety has taken greater importance over the past several decades for school districts and architects designing new classrooms and facilities. Georgetown ISD is no exception.

The district dedicated $1.5 million of its successful 2015 bond package to safety measures and has included $9.1 million worth of safety-related projects in its $166 million bond package that will be on voter ballots Nov. 6. Other area districts, including Leander and Round Rock ISDs, have also dedicated portions of upcoming bond packages to safety and security.

The deadly shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, in May prompted a new round of conversation about school safety among state legislators and policymakers. GISD Superintendent Fred Brent said the issue is constantly on his mind.

“School safety and security is something I don’t ever stop thinking about, because our parents send us their babies, their children, and so we want to protect them,” Brent said. “Every day I drive to work hoping that about 13,000 people get along and that one person doesn’t do anything terrible.”

What has changed

Bonny Gray, senior associate at GSC Architects in Austin, said she’s been designing schools in the Austin-metro area for 25 years and has seen an increased emphasis on school safety in new construction and renovations.

“There’s a fine line in designing schools,” Gray said. “It’s how do we make the school airy and inviting and light so it’s conducive to learning and students love it and want to be there and shine, yet it’s still secure so that they’re protected?”

Over the years, architects have re-evaluated window placement, added exterior barriers to prevent cars from driving through the schools, installed lockdown gates and made sure cameras cover every inch of a school building, among other design elements to keep schools safe, Gray said.

GISD schools use tempered glass on all windows to avoid shattering, as well as strategically place exterior exits to allow for quick evacuations, Brent said.

Even when districts do not explicitly ask for security measures, Gray said she and her team know to ask.

Paul Thompson, an associate at GSC Architects, said school safety now affects how he designs the free flow that schools need because while schools want and need a large number of people to move around quickly both in day-to-day activities and in an emergency, it all has to be contained.

To maintain security, Thompson said many schools have installed gates that hide in the ceiling that allow for entire corridors to be blocked off.

“There is no way we can design the spaces we are [designing]without thinking about the security,” Thompson said.

However, Thompson and Gray both recognize that while school safety is a priority for many districts, installing safety elements costs money.

Gray said many school districts want to spend money on safety features, but there are also other needs, including renovating old infrastructure to keep water out of buildings and keeping restrooms functional.

“(Teachers) are the ones who need upgrades, too, because they need lights and locks to lock up their cabinets and school supplies, so it’s not just security that they need but everything else,” Gray said. “We have to balance it for sure. There’s always dollars that have to go toward security but to make the classrooms livable and teachable. We certainly have to think about that as well.”

Local upgrades

GISD continues to dedicate money to school safety and completed projects over the summer to add secure entrances to East View and Georgetown high schools.

Secure entrances—which directs visitors to the front desk before gaining access to the school—have been in the works at every school since the passing of the 2015 school bond and was completed with school bond savings.

While the district has always had the front desk check-in policy at its schools, adding secure entrances provides extra safety enforcement, GISD Communications Director Melinda Brasher said.

Brasher said, if the 2018 bond passes, the district also plans to install keyless-access systems in every school, which would only allow badges to unlock doors.

GISD is also looking to update its camera and radio systems in coordination with local law enforcement. The new systems would allow Georgetown fire and police to view live camera feeds in schools, communicate directly with school administrators and strategically station officers in case of an incident. The upgrades are included in the district’s November bond election.

“We need parents to feel like their kids are safe during the day,” Brasher said. “While our main business is education, we still have a responsibility to make sure we are providing safe environments for that education to happen.”

For more local education news, please see all of the local stories from our Education Focus edition.

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Ali Linan
Ali Linan began covering Georgetown for Community Impact Newspaper in 2018. Her reporting focuses on education and Williamson County. Ali hails from El Paso and graduated from Syracuse University in 2017.
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