HUNTSVILLE — With less than three weeks remaining before classes resume for the fall semester, Scott High School is nearly empty. A few teachers are about, beginning the chore of preparing for the new school year. Maintenance crews are back and forth, finishing up the summer’s tasks. And, up front, a construction crew applies mortar to cinderblock, walling up the front entrance to the school.
At first glance, the new wall — which is being built inside the gymnasium-side entrance to the school — takes on a bit of a foreboding look. As-of-yet unpainted, it’s gray block with solid steel doors, and stepping inside the school feels a bit like stepping into a cage. And that’s just as it’s intended to be.
“We had some concerns that it does seem unfriendly,” school principal Melissa Rector said. “We had to weigh it: we can be open and friendly, or we can be safe. In this society today, you have to be safe.”
This is Scott High’s response to the recent rash of school shootings, including the Valentines Day massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Like other schools across the nation, SHS is taking measures to beef up security and keep its students safe. The restructuring of the school’s entrance is just the first of several steps that are being taken in that regard.
With the new changes complete, someone wishing to unleash harm inside the school would have to go through no fewer than three locked doors from the main entrance to reach students inside classrooms. The physical changes are just one aspect of several that are being tackled by school administrators as student safety presses closer to the forefront of America’s conscience. Rector said that student education and staff training will follow, along with an additional security presence from certified law enforcement officers. First, though, is making it as difficult as possible for perpetrators to get to students.
“My goal at this point is we may not be able to prevent everything 100 percent, but let’s make it as hard as possible,” Rector said.
Even before classes dismissed for the summer, Scott High had moved its primary entrance from the long-used library-side bank of doors on the north side of the administrative offices to the gymnasium-side bank of doors on the south side. That was a temporary measure that allowed visitors access to the offices without entering directly into the school’s commons area. The new changes to that entrance, however, will further beef up security.
Once the changes are complete, the glass doors that have long been used as the main entrance on the library side will be replaced with solid steel doors that will be used only to exit the building. Instead of entering as they traditionally have — walking into the commons area and then into the school office — guests will now enter on the gymnasium side of the front office complex, stepping into the “cage” that the entrance hallway is becoming with the addition of the new block wall and steel doors. Those doors will be locked and access beyond that point will be limited.
“There will be a video phone out there, and we’ll talk to them there,” Rector said. “If it’s a simple student sign-out, which is what 95 percent of people are here for, that will be accessible there and they’ll never enter the building. If it’s other services, like occupational or speech therapy, those folks will be buzzed on in.
“We don’t mean to be unreachable, but we want your children to be safe,” she added. “We had a lot of limited options, and this is what we came up with.”
By “limited options,” Rector is referring to the architectural design of the 50-year-old school. Originally built in 1971, Scott High School is unusual in many ways, not in the least because it consists of three circular pods of classrooms — one containing the library, one the gymnasium and one the school’s Little Theater — connected to the central commons area and suite of administrative offices.
“All of the law enforcement folks say that a round building isn’t conducive to their tactical training,” Rector said.
Add to that the design challenges of the school’s 100 pod, the library wing, where classrooms have never had doors and the ventilation system requires openings at the top of each block wall. That was the design of a different era, when school shootings were almost unheard of, and parents didn’t have to fear for their child’s safety when they went off to school.
“In the early 1970s, safety wasn’t a concern,” Rector said.
As the school’s teacher team — a group of 12 faculty members that has begun meeting with administrators on a monthly basis to discuss school safety — considered ways to tighten security, it was determined that the steel fire doors at the entrance of each pod remain closed while classes are in session. That began last school year. And, as part of the first phase of physical upgrades, all 14 classrooms in the 100 pod have had doors installed over the summer.
The end result: every classroom now has a door, and all doors will remain locked during class. The fire doors at the entrance to each pod will be locked, as well, meaning that even if a perpetrator managed to breach the front entrance, he would have to go through two more locked doors to reach students inside their classrooms.
That’s important to Rector, who said one thing she picked up in the safety seminars she has attended has stuck with her: to date, no school shooter has ever managed to breach a locked classroom door. While the Sandy Hook shooter in 2012 was able to breach a locked front door, classroom doors have proven a different story.
“That was the most impactful thing for me in training,” Rector said. “That’s big, because everybody is looking for a silver bullet.”
The changes will restrict student movement through the school. While all staff members have keys to the fire doors, students will be limited to the pod their classroom is located in after each period begins. The locked classroom doors will also restrict movement.
“Yes, it’s a pain when someone goes to the bathroom and they come back and knock on the door and you have to get up and let them in,” Rector said. Sometimes, though, what’s safest isn’t what’s easiest.
Rector said she hasn’t heard much criticism from parents since the new security protocols began to be rolled out last year. The primary concern, she said, was from parents who were concerned that their children would be unable to go to the bathroom during classes. Once those parents learned that there are bathrooms located inside each pod and that the locked fire doors would not prevent students from accessing them, that concern vanished.
When the fall semester begins on Aug. 6, Scott High will also have another change: a full-time school resource officer will be on campus every minute of every school day. In the past, the school’s SRO — an armed, trained and certified law enforcement officer employed by the Scott County Sheriff’s Department — has rotated with other schools. Director of Schools Bill Hall said the school did not receive additional funding from County Commission for the armed guard, but the county’s board of education committed to providing the funding to make it a possibility.
“We feel that’s important,” Rector said. “We can say with 100 percent certainty that we can secure students behind locked doors, and I couldn’t say that before. But we have a lot of external components, too, and having a full-time SRO will help police those.”
Among those external components are a large number of classrooms and learning environments spread across the school’s campus. For starters, there are six classrooms in the math pod, which is separate from the main building. There are vocational classrooms in modular structures on campus. There are classrooms in the museum and the football field house, as well.
“We’ve got some major campus challenges that are just gonna be difficult to combat without major, major construction,” Rector said. “We feel the best way to combat that is with an SRO.”
With the physical upgrades to the school complete sometime in the next couple of months, Rector said the focus for her staff will be to move from the building updates to drilling and training.
“We started talking to students and staff last year, and what we found is that there is really no drill for safety situations,” she said.
Drilling students, Rector said, can sometimes be detrimental. In high-stress situations, they’ll always go back to what they’re drilled to do, but a safety crisis may require students to deviate from plans, depending on the situation that is at hand.
“One of the biggest changes we have to make, as a staff, is the way we train ourselves,” Rector said.
And as students are educated more and more on school safety, count on one thing to stand out: “There’s a lot of disagreement within the education community about school safety,” Rector said, citing one training seminar in particular where speakers in the morning and afternoon sessions gave educators completely different advice about how to respond to active shooter scenarios inside their schools. “But one thing that we always look at is trends,” she added, “and one thing that has held true for a long time is that someone usually knows something before it happens. That’s why there’s this big push of, ‘If you know, tell.’”
Even that can present challenges for students who have been instructed their entire lives to not single out their peers because they’re different. That concept, while well-intended, can make students reluctant to report their misgivings about a fellow student to teachers or school administrators.
But, Rector said, in the end, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
“If we get a report, we’re going to investigate it,” she said. “We’ve had situations that could’ve ended very badly, but they were prevented because a student said something. If we get a report that a student has a knife, we’re going to take that seriously. I’m not going to dismiss it because I’ve already searched two students for knives that day and didn’t find anything.”
Making Do With Less
All in all, the physical upgrades at Scott High — which are being completed under contract by Oneida-based Stanley Builders, the low bidder on the project — will cost just under $80,000. And only half of that bill is being footed by the school; Helenwood-based Takahata Precision America, which has routinely contributed to school projects throughout Scott County, donated $40,000 to help make the upgrades a reality.
“We didn’t seek them out,” Hall said. “They sought us out. They came to us and said they wanted to be a partner and help out, which we really appreciate.”
In terms of safety and security, $80,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what could have been spent, especially considering the outdated design of the school.
“People just don’t realize how fast that money can be spent,” Rector said. “It would be easy to spend $2 million or $3 million. So easy. But in a 50-year-old building, how responsible would that be?”