The Glass Industry Responds to Requests
by Schools to Strengthen a Fragile Entry Point
by Megan Headley
Although recorded episodes of violence in educational facilities date as far back as there have been schools in the United States, it is only within the last two decades that school districts truly have struggled to find ways to protect students from the unthinkable horror of mass shootings.
The third deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colo., resulted in 15 fatalities and an enduring nationwide discussion of how to protect our youth.
As of 2012, that question had hardly been answered. Last year saw this country’s second deadliest school shooting, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., with its 28 victims. The fact that the majority were young children has helped reignite the national debate about how to make schools a safer place, since there is unquestionably a need to protect students from violent attacks from the outside.
K-12 schools are not the only ones at risk. The single deadliest U.S. shooting on an educational campus took place in 2007 at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., when a student left behind 33 fatalities before taking his own life.
The Virginia Tech shooting differs from the other two events in one respect. News reports indicate that the windows were a source of egress for desperate students—rather than a point of ingress for a gunman. When the shooter barricaded the doors of Norris Hall, students fled through the open windows, many of them injured by the fall.
When asked if glass was a part of the plan for improving school safety at Virginia Tech, Mark Owczarski, assistant vice president of news and information, replied, “No, Virginia Tech has not looked to replace or use glass as a way to protect from attacks.”
The same cannot be said of the other two shootings.
According to news reports, the shooter at Sandy Hook entered through the windows. A CNN report notes that school principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung had ordered a new security system that required visitors to be visibly identified before being approved for entry and buzzed in. Several news reports indicate that although the school doors had been locked, he was able to shoot his way inside via a window near the front office. News reports indicate that a decision about whether or not the school will be renovated or rebuilt on a new site are still underway.
At Columbine, the two teenaged gunmen gained entry into the building by shooting through the building’s west entrance, sending glass and metal shards flying. Ultimately, Columbine High School chose to tear down the library where most of the assault took place, while renovating the rest of the school. John McDonald, executive director of security and emergency management for the Jefferson County, Colo., school district, notes that Columbine and the rest of the school district is currently considering upgrading glass in its entryways, from tempered to laminated, as a means of defense against future attacks.
Why now? Why, more than a decade after its deadly attack, is the county looking at upgrading its glass?
“With every tragedy that occurs we really focus on lessons learned and what could we do better,” McDonald explains. “What we’re learning is there are two types of threats. You’ve got your internal threats—that’s what happened at Columbine, where the two shooters were intent on as much destruction and loss of life as they could—and then and you’ve got your external threats, which is what happened at Newtown. We’ve done a wonderful job over the last decade of preparing for the internal threats. Schools are doing a great job of that. Now we’re realizing that external threat really has to be on the forefront of our minds. How do we do that? We do that through target hardening. It really starts with looking at your building and glass is certainly a key part of that.”
Controlling Attacker Ingress
While the nightly news focuses on the call for armed school guards in frightened districts around the nation, many school districts are taking a quiet look at how a school’s design can keep out potential attackers. That look begins at the front office, where windows’ functionality as an entry point is being weighed against the benefits of the visibility they provide.
“Lobby/administration and main entries to the building will most likely gain priority attention,” says Greg Abel, president of Safe Glass Consulting in Eugene, Ore., of how to make schools safer through design. “This does not mean that all areas of older, existing facilities should be overlooked in regard to unsafe glass products, but current attention is being given to budgets and intruders with weapons.”
Dave Hewitt, vice president of sales and marketing for EFCO, a Pella Company, in Monett, Mo., agrees. “I would expect the Sandy Hook Elementary incident to drive more sophisticated access control for entrances into the building,” he says.
McDonald agrees that access control is key. “Glass that won’t break easily … provides an opportunity for us to go into a lockdown and keeps that bad guy out until law enforcement can get there,” he says. “It’s the opportunity for saving lives. We know that school shootings, and mass shootings in general, are all over within 15 minutes. Thirty-seven percent of them are completed within five minutes. So [laminated glass is] providing a time barrier at the front doors. And most schools today are glass; there’s so much new construction that’s done in glass because it [allows for] natural light, it promotes the healthy environment that’s so great but makes it really tough from a security aspect. Finding glass that will stand up under stress when rounds are impacting it, it’s such a huge opportunity for success.”
To secure their entrances, many schools are turning to hardened layers.
“What we are seeing is a lot of school retrofits, where they’re adding security vestibules,” says Michael Sklar, chief operating officer for glazing contractor Hillcrest Glass in Longmont, Colo. “They’re trying to control entrance and exit from schools [through] locking vestibules.”
Eric Malzahn, project manager with fabricator Total Security Solutions (TSS) in Fowlerville, Mich., cites one Pennsylvania school district as an example. Malzahn is providing a quote for upgraded entrance systems to nine of its schools. “They’re basically focusing on the main entrance to the building and then locking down the rest of the doors and access points. They’re trying to funnel [traffic] through a certain point … coming into a transaction area to talk to the receptionists or the office staff. They’re actually modifying their entire vestibule to try to funnel the traffic through,” Malzahn says.
With appropriate locking mechanisms (see February 2013 USGlass, page 14), glass vestibules at the school entrance give administrators in the front office a clear view of potential intruders. More importantly, such vestibules can slow an intruder down long enough to allow for staff members to respond—assuming something more than traditional tempered glass is used.
However, as Malzahn points out, the entry is but one access point. His job includes guiding school districts to take a hard look at what’s practical for their application. “Are they just trying to close off one entrance/exit point or are they looking at the doors in the rest of the building? You have to bring up the point that they still have windows all over the place—and nobody’s ever going to have that budget probably for a school district to [upgrade] all of that,” he says.
The Call To Go Laminated
While more glass can be a deterrent to intruders for the very fact that it allows improved visibility and response time, some school officials still see glass as a weakness since it can be a ready means of ingress despite secure locks. It served that role at Sandy Hook and at Columbine, as well as at Hastings Middle School in Hastings, Minn., when an armed eighth-grader was able to break into a locked-down classroom in April 2010 (see page 16 for related article) simply by breaking through the windows in the locked entrance doors. Although the Hastings teen fortunately fired no shots before being tackled by a school police officer, it proved a wake-up call to the school administrators who have since worked toward replacing tempered glass lites throughout the school with laminated glass.
It is the use of tempered glass that is among the hot buttons many school districts are now looking to address.
Many schools are getting an education in glass and realizing that, for a price, the products exist today that can dramatically slow an attacker.
“I think the use of laminated glass is very common in new [school] construction, especially after Sandy Hook,” says Valerie L. Block, CDT, LEED® AP, senior marketing specialist for DuPont Glass Laminating Solutions. She adds, “I am seeing a lot of K-12 school projects through Dodge Reports all over the United States.” As new education construction increases, districts and designers are taking a second look at how laminated lites can strengthen school entry points.
Ram Malut, purchasing manager for glazing contractor NR Group in West Palm Beach, Fla., points out that, in many ways, school districts have been inclined to consider glass as a safety feature for years. “Schools have been using fire-rated glass,” he mentions. “Previously they used wired glass, but now there is no more wired glass, only fire-rated glass.” Moreover, in Florida where NR Group installs many of its products, laminated is the standard for external applications because the Florida Building Codes require it.
Considering that, thinking in terms of the safety benefits of glass may not be such a stretch for many districts.
Gerry Sagerman, business development manager for Insulgard Security Products in Brighton, Mich., notes that his company has seen an increase in demand for simple laminated products, as well as more complicated options. “Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, we have seen a significant increase in inquiries regarding securing schools and school entrances.”
Right now, though, only a handful of schools are making the change.
“There are some school districts around here that do specify laminated glass and others that are sticking to tempered, so I think it’s a school district by school district thing,” Sklar says.
Still, Abel expects increased use of some type of laminated glass to be the trend of the future. “Entry areas providing access to the facilities will be glazed with laminated glass versus tempered because of its ability to remain in the opening when broken whereas the tempered glass when broken can be easily removed from the entire opening, thus providing the intruder a means to enter the building,” he says.
“We are seeing a lot more laminated glass, which architects are choosing for security and acoustics,” Hewitt adds. He says, however, that solutions need to be more complicated than simply adding extra layers to a lite. As he explains, “I don’t necessarily see a big bump in simple laminated glass because it doesn’t solve the issue of ballistics. We have done several schools in urban centers where we’ve provided ballistic-rated storefront and entrances. I don’t see this decreasing.”
While it’s laminated glass that’s been in the news of late, its use doesn’t necessarily adhere to what many schools really want. As Malzahn explains, it’s thickness that sets ballistic-rated glass apart from conventional laminated glass.
“There are many different levels or many different build-ups of glazing that we could look at but when you start talking about detention gazing it could be ¼-, ½- or ¾-inch thick, meant physically to just take the blow of an object. When you get into ballistics, that is taking the same idea and adding layers to it. You’re not going to get a ballistic material that is less than ¾-inch thick and you could get all the way up to 3-inch thick for the majority of firearms that are available,” Malzahn says.
Sagerman is one of a growing number of individuals suggesting that ballistic glazing may be the solution to help keep schools safe. “From our understanding of what happened at Sandy Hook, it appears a bullet-resistant entrance could have bought some very valuable time for first responders,” he says.
Many school districts are coming to the same conclusion.
“In the past year we’ve seen increased interest in bullet-resistant products—we have a number of projects under contract to supply bullet-resistant entry products to new and existing schools,” Sagerman adds.
It’s up to glazing contractors to educate architects as to the other, more aesthetically appealing, options available, as design professionals already are setting out to create their own solutions for safer school environments.
As Tobias Parkhurst, chief operating officer of glazing contractor O&P Glass in Manchester, Maine, puts it, “I see only further growth in these areas and, considering the increasing awareness of security, we need to make sure that we are educating architects on the availability and advantages of glass as a safety device.”
The Dollar Drawback
As easy as it is to recommend ballistic glass solutions to school districts, one issue remains a deterrent to its use. Cost.
“There exists an awareness to secure facilities but, due to budget issues, changing out existing products will be done on an as-needed basis … meaning when it’s broken, then [they’ll] consider the use of a new, improved product,” Abel says.
“Bulletproof [sic] glass is so expensive it’s just not practical for schools,” McDonald says. However, his school district is renovating with a laminated product of which he reports, “we’re putting 40 to 42 shots on it and we still can’t get through.”
Schools going up today generally incorporate the cost of laminated into their budgets. “When you consider the size of most school contracts, some laminated glass at the entrances isn’t going to be the thing that breaks the bank,” Parkhurst says.
“When we do value engineering exercises, typically they are looking for bigger ticket items to make a bigger impact on the budget. Basically, if we get laminated glass in the spec, I believe it’s likely to stay there.”
However, for school districts seeking to address their concerns through more serious methods—or for those considering a retrofit—the price tag could stop those plans in their tracks. For example, in a March 2013 blog1, TSS points out that the cost to install a bullet-resistant glass vestibule can run as high as $30,000. That cost includes the price of the glass itself, as well as the necessary framing and hardware. According to TSS, “Hardware capable of coping with the added weight of a ballistic system—including hinges, door closers and the emergency crash bars mandatory in public school buildings—tend to cost roughly twice as much as their non-ballistically rated counterparts.”
Still, concerned school officials are asking whether ballistic glazing is within their means. “As of recently, we’ve had multiple school districts call us,” Malzahn says. “Shortly after the [Sandy Hook] incident … there were somewhere around 70 different school districts that had called in, looking for information, trying to get their feelers out there. Whether it was an architect working for a school district or the school district itself, they were seeing if it was something they could even work into their budgets.”
When teachers in many districts are paying for their students’ school supplies out-of-pocket, it’s difficult for principals to declare that now is the time to find room in their budget to upgrade their facilities to prepare for the worst. One possible solution exists: the School Safety Enhancements Act of 2013, which passed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in March (see related article on page 20). If passed by Congress, the bill would provide for $40 million annually for safety improvements and security assessments for the nation’s schools, some of which could feasibly include upgrades to entrance systems. As of press time, that bill remained in the Senate, awaiting approval.
Safe Design and the Glazier
Malut points out that school districts are still coming to terms with how to respond to violent attacks, and designers are still finding ways they can improve school safety by controlling ingress.
“We haven’t seen anything yet [regarding design changes as a result of recent incidents], but I think it will take a little more time to percolate down to us. These things had a major impact nationwide, and now architects will go into the designing stage and will go on improving [school design],” he says.
What isn’t expected to change, however, is the use of glass in schools (see related article on page 26). As schools react in fear, it’s difficult to look beyond the visibility glass provides in the case of an approaching attacker. Beyond that, though, natural daylight is proven to have a positive effect on children’s academic performance2.
McDonald offers a school district’s perspective. “We’re always balancing that welcoming environment with a fortress building,” he says. “We don’t want our kids to feel like they’re in a prison or a fortress, but at the same time if we can do something to really strengthen egress and ingress, through glass doors and windows, that’s a huge opportunity for us.”
“Schools do like glass,” Sklar says simply. “It gives them a nice environment on the inside as well as it looks good from the outside.”
Yet, Sklar acknowledges, “I’m sure there’s a struggle within the design community now about how to optimize that, but we haven’t really seen it in the field. You don’t see too many schools without windows—and I hope we don’t.”
As Sagerman puts it, the glass industry continues to innovate in its production of increasingly sophisticated safety products and it’s just a matter of making sure designers and contractors know that. “In the last five years we’ve seen an increase in the use of windows and full-lite doors in tornado and hurricane safe rooms,” he notes. “Through extensive product development and testing, we’ve designed a variety of products including insulating windows, storefronts and large glass doors that meet the FEMA requirements for safe rooms, while also giving architects freedom for creative design.”
While architects have that freedom, it is up to fabricators and glazing contractors to let them know it’s there. Parkhurst points out that few school officials think of glass as a safety device, and it’s up to the industry to promote safety features. “Glass looks awesome and architects want to use it. It’s up to our industry to make sure they are educated about the products we can provide,” he says.
He adds, “Our livelihoods aside, we are all familiar with the advantages of glass. Architects want to define themselves and they want to build exciting things; we’re in a great business to help them accomplish that.”
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