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Should the school your child attends be designed to thwart a mass shooter?

Yes, people say in the west-central Michigan village of Fruitport.

So a new and bigger version of the local high school is being equipped with features meant to prevent another Columbine, Sandy Hook or Parkland. Curving hallways are supposed to disrupt a shooter's line of sight. Students and teachers could hide from a shooter behind protruding walls. Windows will be covered with impact-resistant film.

"This is a town that doesn't want to be surprised," said Heidi Tice, supervisor of Fruitport Charter Township, which encompasses the village. "We want to be ready for anything that gets thrown at us. ... It gives everybody a little peace of mind."

I get that, but it's still deeply troubling that this story is unfolding in a sleepy little township, population about 14,000.

The level of care that has gone into the defensive design measures is impressive, but I'm skeptical that all of them will work as advertised. Some could backfire. And there are politically fraught issues to dissect, like why these measures are necessary in the first place.

While President Donald Trump is blaming the recent rash of mass shootings on mental illness, Congress has failed to pass any sweeping gun control legislation since the 1990s, and there's no guarantee it will change its do-nothing ways. Little wonder, then, that people are taking matters into their own hands.

Retailers hawk bulletproof backpacks. The National Institute of Crime Prevention, a consulting firm based near Tampa, Fla., conducts training sessions that promise to reduce crime through design measures like the ones being used in Fruitport. The Illinois Terrorism Task Force, an advisory body to the governor and the state's emergency management agency, announced recently that it had distributed 7,000 bleeding emergency kits, complete with tourniquets, to schools throughout the state.

"If the public gives you $48 million and says, 'We have to replace our school,' it would be irresponsible not to think about this stuff," said Matt Slagle, director of K-12 education design at the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo architectural firm of TowerPinkster, which redesigned the Fruitport high school.

Ever since a Washington Post story put the redesign into the national spotlight in late August, journalists have reported rather breathlessly on the plans, as though the effort to deter mass shootings was something new.

In reality, many American schools installed security measures after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., during which two seniors at the school murdered 12 students and a teacher.

Those steps include vestibule retrofits that force visitors to sign in at a school's main office rather than proceeding directly into corridors filled with students. In 1988, some Chicago-area schools went on guard after 30-year-old Laurie Dann murdered an 8-year-old boy and critically wounded five other children inside an elementary school in Winnetka.

What's new in Fruitport is the extent to which such features are being baked into the renovation and expansion of an existing high school that has about 840 students. The students are scheduled to occupy the first phase of the expansion, which includes classrooms and a cafeteria, in January. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2021. It is proceeding even though no student at the school has been caught with a firearm, according to Principal Lauren Chesney.

When I said how unlikely it seemed that a mass shooting would take place in Fruitport, Chesney quickly brought up the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a 20-year-old man killed 26 people, including 20 children. "People wouldn't have pictured an elementary school, either," she said. "Unfortunately, we live in an era when that has to run through our minds."

As Chesney gave me a hard-hat tour recently, it quickly became apparent that the redesigned building isn't going to be a fortress.

The exterior brickwork is handsome, and tall windows let in ample natural light. Some innovative interior touches are still to come like a light-filled, two-story "locker commons" just inside the main entrance. All the lockers will go there, and they'll be 4½ feet high, allowing teachers and administrators to easily monitor the space. In place of hallways will be "learning communities" located outside classrooms and outfitted with furniture and monitors where students can work alone or in small groups.

But it is the security features that are garnering the most attention.

At the main entrance, a receptionist seeing a suspicious person will be able to press a button that closes all fire doors, separating the school into compartments. If a shooter were to breach the perimeter, students could hide behind cement-block "wing walls" that jut into the corridors. Each classroom has an internal wing wall that's supposed to block a shooter's line of sight into the classroom from a hallway widow. About 33 people could hide behind one of those walls.

Windows will be covered in an impact-resistant film paid for by a grant from the Michigan State Police.

The film "turns a normal window into a windshield," Slagle said. "They did tests where it took a baseball player with a baseball bat 15 minutes to get through it."

Architects often say it is impossible to make a building completely terrorist-resistant. And so it is with the Fruitport design. As I toured with Chesney, it wasn't hard to see how some of these features could be rendered ineffective or could even aid someone trying to carry out a mass shooting.

As Chesney walked through the curving hallways, for example, I was surprised by how little the corridors actually bend. Even though the hallways curve, a shooter could still have a fairly direct line of sight down the hallway.

The locker commons also looks problematic. Because the school's entrances won't be equipped with metal detectors, a student carrying a gun might be able to slip through. At the start of the school day, many students would be concentrated at the lockers, not dispersed in hallways. That would create an easy target.

While mass shootings inside schools tend to get the most attention, many school shootings occur outside buildings--in parking lots, on basketball courts or along running tracks. But there are no perimeter fences or gates at Fruitport--a good thing if you're emphasizing connection to the community, but not so good if security is the top priority.

Experience shows that the school's curving corridors and hiding spots could frustrate police and SWAT teams. In 2003, it took police more than seven hours to capture a shooter who killed one person and wounded two others at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. The design, by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, is full of irregularly shaped corridors meant to encourage people to interact. But it hindered law enforcement officials trying to capture the shooter.

"As the SWAT team entered the building, they were constantly under fire," Cleveland Police Chief Edward Lohn told reporters. "They couldn't return fire because of the design of the building. They didn't have a clear shot."

Despite such concerns, Fruitport students said the security features would allow them to focus on studying, not worry about intruders.

For the students, Chesney explained, lockdown drills have become second nature.

We are what we build. We build what we are, or what we hope to be. What Fruitport High School shows is that Americans are scared about school shootings and are desperate for reassurance.

Yet it remains to be seen if the design will provide protection as well as peace of mind.

The ultimate solution lies not with the architects of our schools and other public buildings, but with the architects of public policy. Projects like this may put too much faith in, and too heavy a burden on, architects, tasking them with solving problems that are really the responsibility of the president and Congress.

Blair Kamin has been the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic since 1992.

Editorial on 09/29/2019

Print Headline: Architecture and school safety

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