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New School Design’s Take on Safety Raises New Questions

MEMBERS OF THE FALLS CHURCH EPISCOPAL participate in “The First 12 Minutes” active shooter response training, designed by City of Falls Church fire marshal Tom Polera. The instruction emphasizes being proactive in these situations, such as throwing objects in a room to distract the shooter while someone attempts to disarm them. (Photo: Courtesy Tom Polera)

Mass shootings nationwide have motivated school systems to improve security in its buildings, and Falls Church City Public Schools is no exception. Both noticeable and covert protective features are being incorporated in the new high school under construction in the City’s west end. But the school’s new age design leaves some members of local law enforcement anxious over its suspected vulnerabilities as FCCPS explores different ways to address safety in the learning environment.

“If there is any tension, the tension comes from the fact that we’re building a school, we’re not building a hardened castle,” FCCPS superintendent Peter Noonan said. “We’re building a place where kids can come and should be able to freely move about.”

As Noonan stressed in an interview with the News-Press, the City is constructing a 21st century school. That means its open look and airy feel will be a stark contrast to the opaque template schools had previously relied upon, which are full of blind corners and tight corridors.

Gone are the cinderblock walls and inlet windows providing a brief view into a classroom to go with the narrow hallways that serve as the lanes between one course and the next.

Now, open “breakout” areas will dot the school’s interior and the number of exits in the new, five-story high school will also be trimmed down, reducing the 40 entrances into the current George Mason High School down to roughly 10 — with most of those being emergency exits — according to FCCPS director of facilities Seve Padilla.

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The new school will also have overhead doors that can cordon off levels to the school and prevent any serious incidents from spreading beyond where they started. Lastly, classrooms will sport glass walls to provide uninterrupted sightlines throughout the building.

It’s the final mentioned change of transparent classrooms that gives City of Falls Church fire marshal Tom Polera pause. He’s seen how even the small windows peering into instructional areas have caused problems before, most prominently in the Parkland, Florida shooting of 2018 where the shooter fired through the glass during his rampage throughout the school. In a recent trip to Frederick County in western Virginia, Polera shuddered while walking around a middle school that possessed much of the same design elements that Falls Church’s newest high school intends to have.

Polera’s concerns aren’t something he weighs in on without experience. The fire marshal has trained nearly 1,000 people with his “The First 12 Minutes” active shooter response training.

The program was conceptualized following the 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and is inspired by ALICE Training Institute’s active shooter training and preparedness solutions. Trainees in Polera’s program have included all of the City’s employees in the schools and government as well as at local areas of worship such as the Falls Church Episcopal and Columbia Baptist Church, to name a few.

During the three-hour program, Polera teaches participants how to be proactive about an active shooting situation. That could mean barricading themselves in a space or distracting the shooter by throwing objects at them if they were to enter into their room. It’s a wholesale change from the old methods, which were locking the door, turning off the lights and huddling into a corner — a “target-rich environment,” per Polera.

Trainees leave the program feeling empowered once the intensity of the subject matter is digested, a point Polera made and Noonan seconded. Noonan added that principles from the training are used during some of its required lockdown drills at the high school level to get the students actively involved.

But the tactics’ utility is based on its physical surroundings. To Polera, the sightlines offer a strategic disadvantage for potential victims if an active shooter situation were to ever occur. For example, barricading would be less effective as would the ability to surprise and distract a shooter with glass walls. It’s a change that he’s wanted addressed in the fire code to no avail.

ANOTHER TACTIC that Polera’s program teaches is for participants to barricade the door. He believes this tactic could be less effective if the walls were transparent. (Photo: Courtesy Tom Polera)

“Fire codes are written in blood. You need a lot of people to die in a fire to make a change. That’s why [overhead] sprinklers exist and why exits are so far apart. I asked the [International Code Council] when they were going to do it for an active shooter; they said ‘It’s not gonna happen,’” Polera, who can only enforce design changes when they go against the fire code, told the News-Press. “Our authority is a request, not a requirement. It’s tough when you teach the topic.”

The focus on attaining the desirable LEED environmental rating — which glass walls are a big part of — has Polera believing that it has surpassed some basic safety instincts that were formerly acted upon.

Noonan holds a different point of view. During the school’s research into what architectural elements are best suited for protecting students, he cites an American Institute of Architects paper that was done in conjunction with law enforcement that found transparency in buildings actually provides a better sense of safety and security.

FCCPS also spoke with school systems that have adopted this modern mold and had to make the case that increased visibility benefits security to skeptical law enforcement officials. Furthermore, classrooms will have the option to drop shades over the glass, allowing teachers to break the view from the main concourse.

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These enhancements are in addition to the current safety protocols already in place at George Mason High School. A school resource officer is a daily fixture at Mason, a closed circuit television network can be accessed by City of Falls Church police at any time and Securitas private security, which Chief of Police Mary Gavin said was contracted by FCCPS the week following the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut in 2012.

She notes that having a human presence at the school’s main entrance to greet every visitor is one of its strongest security measures. Noonan takes it a step further by saying that having a pulse on its students socio-emotional health by way of staff-student relationships is its frontline to tending to any problems that could spiral into a hostile action.

Neither Gavin or Noonan wanted to elaborate on what other security features will be a part of the final design for fear of jeopardizing its usefulness. But Gavin added that there is always a need to find the middle ground between the police’s inclination toward safety and the schools’ toward being cutting edge.

Polera hopes that some planned elements are still up for change. While he accepts that some of his suggestions won’t make the cut, such as making two-thirds of the walls solid with the upper third being glass, he believes others are worth considering, such as the removal of automatic light sensors which could spoil any defensive maneuvers in case an active shooting were to occur at the school. Primarily, he wants everyone to maintain the proper outlook when it comes to active shooting situations.

“From the perspective of being complacent at a one or being overly fearful at a five, we want people at about a three — being vigilant and aware of their surroundings, but we don’t want them to stop everything they do or questioning everything,” Polera added. He acknowledged that the 800 or so deaths from active shooters from 2000-2017 is minute compared to more common causes of death, such as auto accidents. “Certainly there is a balance and how it’s delivered is very important.

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