From Virtual Reality to Physical Barriers: Building a Safer School

What can school districts do to prevent a mass shooting like the one that occurred two weeks ago in Parkland, Florida? While the gun debate rages on, schools have to come up with other ways to make sure students are safe. Many local law enforcement agencies are turning to virtual reality training to simulate what happened in Parkland, Sandy Hook, and countless other school districts, to try and make sure the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen again.

Tom Brady, head of the Homeland Security Training Institute at College of DuPage, is pursuing multiple active shooters at a school.

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“Police! Where are they?” Brady shouts to kids who are acting in a video simulation of a school shooting.

His colleague Matt Gorecki controls the video simulation from a computer desk inside the training center. He can select from a number of different scenarios based upon Brady’s actions. In this instance, Brady successfully negotiates with a young male shooter holding a girl at gunpoint to drop his weapon. Local and federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to simulated exercises like this as a training tool.

“When officers walk out of here, they’re sweating, they’re breathing hard, the adrenaline is flowing,” Brady says. “You feel it, not only mentally but physically.”

Brady and Gorecki asked me to try the simulation to get a feel for what officers go through in an active shooter drill. One of the core takeaways I had was the fact that decisions on when to shoot and when to hold fire have to be made in a split second.

“It’s very difficult in a situation like this because it’s a school, people are running everywhere,” Brady says. “You just keep announcing your presence. If someone is running away from you, you know it’s not a threat.”

While Washington, D.C., remains stuck in neutral on the gun debate, schools are focusing on stepped-up law enforcement training and other ways of trying to prevent a mass shooting. Many school districts are taking it upon themselves to improve safety by changing design and building features on their campuses.

Robin Randall is a principal with Legat Architects. Her firm is working with dozens of school districts to design buildings in a way that would prevent an active shooter from entering.

“We can design safer buildings, and that’s what our practice has been doing since before Columbine,” Randall says.

Design elements include having one main entrance point to the school and locking off all others. Randall says all schools should also be built with secured vestibules with two sets of doors for better control over who enters.

“If you are an intruder and have a weapon, that can be sealed off and security can be called and action can be taken.”

Randall says security cameras and shatterproof glass are other necessary safety components. For college campuses or schools with multiple buildings, she says it’s important to limit shrubbery or any area where someone can hide. But it does present a design conundrum.

“It’s a balance, because you don’t want to feel like you’re walking around in a prison, but you do want to have safety.”

Security expert Paul Timm says many schools with older buildings are not as equipped to keep kids safe, and thinks Congress should fund upgrades.

“There was a time years ago that we had federal grants, and it would be good that we have federal assistance to help schools,” Timm says. “Since there really is no code for this, we have to come together to find best practices and where to put that funding.”

John Butts is the superintendent of west suburban Medinah School District. He’s working with Legat Architects to upgrade his school buildings.

“We’re always upgrading our existing structures. We put bullet-resistant film on all our windows – not bulletproof – but bullet resistant to slow an intruder down, and we have a buzzer system that goes right to the police department,” Butts says.

But design upgrades can’t do the job alone. Everyone interviewed in this story says communication is key – with text message alert systems and a constant flow of information to parents – so that none of them ever have to deal with the aftermath of a situation like the one in this simulation.

The Homeland Security Training Institute was funded by DuPage County. Law enforcement agencies pay a fee to use the simulation.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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