When a lockdown happens in the District’s public schools, teachers and administrators are supposed to “close and secure (lock, if possible)” classroom doors and windows. But in a substantial number of the city’s public and charter schools, locking classroom doors is not possible. The locks don’t work or don’t exist.
At a budget hearing last month before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, Michael Gaal, the school system’s deputy chancellor in charge of systemic improvement, told council members that more than 50 of the District’s 115 schools have classroom doors that can’t be locked. And despite repeated requests by some schools to have working locks installed in their classrooms, the city’s Department of General Services has not made those fixes. Gaal told the committee the work would cost $15 million.
Questions about school security have been heightened following school shootings this year, most notably at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, where a shooter took the lives of 17 students and staff members, and last month’s shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, where eight students and two teachers were killed.
Following these attacks, school districts have been reexamining security procedures to make their buildings less susceptible to intrusions. For some districts, that has meant locking all classroom doors while school is in session.
In Washington, where teachers and parents have long complained about the lack of locks, the shootings made addressing the issue more urgent. Since Jan. 1, there have been 20 lockdowns in the District’s public and public charter schools, according to D.C. police.
The lockdowns have been for a range of events including bomb scares, shootings near schools and false alarms. There has not been a shooting inside a D.C. school this year.
“It has definitely become a big concern for some of the folks in our community,” said Markus Batchelor, a representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.
Batchelor said he’s aware of numerous schools in the Southeast Washington neighborhoods he represents where classroom doors can’t be locked or can be locked only from the hallway, not from inside the classroom. At a middle school he recently visited, the door to one classroom was off its hinges. A sheet of plywood hung loosely in its place.
The inability to lock classroom doors exists in schools in all quadrants of the city, including recently renovated schools. At a renovated elementary school in Northwest Washington, the head of the PTA says more than 50 rooms can’t be locked.
Parents at the school asked if they could pay for and install locks but were told that was prohibited by school system regulations. The PTA head asked that The Washington Post not identify the school because she worried it could become a target of violence.
The school system says it is coordinating with the Department of General Services to gather information on how many classrooms can’t be properly locked.
The analysis “will be complete later this spring, and we will have a more informed sense of costs and a timeline for moving forward,” school system spokesman Shayne Wells said.
Many of the District’s 120 public charter schools also have classroom doors that don’t lock. The D.C. Public Charter School Board said it is in the middle of assessing security at its schools and is working with city officials on standards for all schools.
Having doors that can be locked from inside and outside of the classroom should be a basic component of any safety plan, said Chris Dorn, a senior analyst at Safe Havens International, a school security consulting firm. And while school shootings are relatively rare, Dorn said being able to lock a door against any potential threat — even an unarmed intruder — is a necessity.
“The majority of school violence is going to be a single victim incident that might have been protected by that locked door,” Dorn said.
Classroom doors that don’t lock are fairly common in large, older school districts, Dorn said. Schools are often brought up to fire code, but sometimes upgrades to doors and locks are not included because they would interfere with a more open school plan or prove too costly.
Earlier this year, D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the education committee, asked D.C. Public Schools, the Public Charter School Board and the Department of General Services to study the investment required to improve safety in schools. Grosso said he thinks the estimated $15 million cost to address the locks issue is too high and has asked for a breakdown of those costs.
If it’s not possible to implement costly fixes, Dorn said schools need to provide additional training on how to respond to emergency situations, including locating the most secure spot in the school and when to evacuate the building. He also suggested that schools consider commercial barricade devices — bars, poles or doorstops — that can prevent easy classroom entry, as long as they meet fire department and public safety standards.
Joe Weedon, a parent of two students in D.C. Public Schools and the representative on the State Board of Education for residents on Capitol Hill and parts of downtown, said security has “always been hit or miss” in D.C. schools.
Though the District has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on building and renovating schools, Weedon said standard school security measures have not always been incorporated. They include limiting points of access, alerting teachers and students in the event of a security breach, and practicing emergency plans.
“There are basic things that aren’t uniformly done,” Weedon says. “For years, we’ve been asking these questions, but it’s really hard to ask for some of these things when they struggle with so much of the basic stuff.”