‘Trib Talk’: How to build a bulletproof school

(Courtesy of Canyons School District) An architectural rendering shows the plans for a new Hillcrest High School. Teachers at the school have questioned whether large windows and glass walls leave students vulnerable in the event of a campus shooting.

On today’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood chats with Canyons School District teacher Katie Bullock and Utah School Superintendents Association executive director Terry Shoemaker about how student safety is helped or hurt by modern school design trends.

A lightly edited transcription of their conversation is included below.

Benjamin Wood: “You can’t shelter in place inside a glass box.” That’s how a Skyline High School senior described his reaction to a proposed redesign of his school last month..

Around Utah, school construction plans increasingly call for glass facades, transparent walls and open layouts, intended to harness natural lighting and foster collaborative learning. But in the wake of school shootings in Florida and Texas, a recurring question has emerged.

Should schools be built based on education, or safety? Or, is there a way to do both?

From the Salt Lake Tribune, this is “Trib Talk.”

I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Hillcrest High School English teacher Katie Bullock, and Terry Shoemaker, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

Katie, you’ve been a teacher at Hillcrest for 12 years. The Canyons School District is planning a brand new Hillcrest building. Tell us a little about what’s been happening with the plans.

Katie Bullock: Well first off all we are very excited. Our building was built in 1963, we’re falling apart. So we are grateful.

That being said, they’ve designed it in a way that the teachers are concerned. And I’ve found that the students are concerned as well.

Wood: And what are some of those concerns?

Bullock: Every interior classroom will have a window from the hallway into each classroom that is 10 feet by 6 feet. That creates a lot of issues for us as teachers. I would say one of the top issues is distraction, which is its own issue. But a huge concern is safety right now and school shootings happening every day. It’s terrifying to think that there is just glass between us and a school shooter.

Wood: And I understand there’s also quite a bit of glass on the exterior of the building as well.

Bullock: Yeah. The whole exterior will be glass windows as well, so it’s not like we don’t have natural light coming in, which tends to be their argument. They want natural light. But every classroom will have natural light from the outside.

So windows on the outside, windows on the inside of each academic classroom.

Wood: We reached out to Canyons School District. A spokesman, Jeff Haney, he sent us a statement. He said, “We heard from people who were concerned about floor-to-ceiling windows in every classroom. While we recognized their concerns, we also heard from others who welcomed the transparency in classroom areas so teachers can clearly see who is approaching their classrooms. Such openness can only serve to protect students from away-from-sight bullying, as well.”

The district is saying that the plans were adjusted somewhat based on feedback, is that right?

Bullock: They like to say that. [The windows] were shrunk by four feet. I just spoke someone from Brighton [High School] who said they initially had given them whole barn doors of glass and shrunk them down. It’s that the issue is not resolved. We are sitting targets.

Wood: Terry, we’re seeing a lot of design trends statewide with a heavy emphasis on glass, natural lighting. We’re seeing this at Viewmont, Farmington, Skyline, Hillcrest of course, Brighton like was mentioned. I’m curious if you could comment on the academic reasons for this type of trend.

(Courtesy of Davis School District) The former facade of Viewmont High School, prior to a recent architectural remodel.

(Courtesy of Davis School District) Architectural rendering of the remodeled entry plaza at Viewmont High School in Bountiful.

Terry Shoemaker: I think they’re both aesthetic as well as academic. I think, generally speaking, people feel good when they’re in an environment where natural light comes in. I think that’s just fairly natural, I’ve heard many teachers over the years, administrators, community members, other folks say how much they like natural light.

In fact, in the schools I was at at Wasatch School District, we made a deliberate attempt to put more natural light in as often as we could because our teachers requested it. They felt very strongly that they just simply felt way too isolated and just simply felt even a little more depressed because they didn’t’ have enough, what they would call, enough natural light in their classroom.

Natural light contributes to academic learning because kids feel the same way too. They just enjoy being in those types of environments. I can’t really cite a story or a source that says “Natural light does this for academic learning.” It does a lot for how we feel, and that, of course, contributes significantly to learning.

Wood: One of the other comments we got from Canyons School District was, Jeff Haney pointed out that “history has shown us that windowless classrooms do not deter school violence.” I went to high school in a building with almost no windows, we’ve seen these buildings from the ‘80s and ‘90s that are just concrete bunker-looking facilities.

Terry, it sounds like you’re saying that didn’t quite work. It didn’t quite capture the environment we wanted, perhaps these new trends will?

Shoemaker: I think the new trends will help the environment for sure. But you also have to keep safety in mind. Katie is reminding us that teachers feel vulnerable. And I don’t want to say anything that suggests that they shouldn’t feel that way based on recent events.

That being the case, as school districts look at their existing buildings as well as new facilities that they are building, they are — all of them that I’m aware of — making conscious attempts to look at vulnerabilities. And glass is one of the areas that they’re taking a look at. Canyons, as has been described by you, is looking at shrinking the size of the glass.

There are also other glass technologies that they may or may not be using, I don’t know. There’s certainly window films that can be put over glass, there’s lots of things that can be done. But you don’t want to turn it into an environment, in my opinion, that diminishes the capacity for the students to learn and the teachers to enjoy being there teaching.

Bullock: And to be clear, we are, as teachers, pro-light for sure. I’ve taught in a bunker room. It does not work. You want to die. We actually asked Canyons to do transom windows, much like in the studio we’re sitting in right now. A higher wall, with high windows. The old Highland High has that architecture.

We gathered signatures at Hillcrest. I gathered 118 signatures out of 180 faculty. And they still denied it, they do not want us to have the transoms. So we feel that we’re actually kind of meeting them halfway and they’re not willing to budge.

If every classroom has outer windows that’s plenty of natural light. And if we have inner transom windows, even better. But they’re not meeting us halfway.

Wood: Of course windows are just one of many points of design that have been questioned in light of recent shootings. There’s been conversations about more secure perimeter fencing, about installing cameras, alarm systems, armed guards, perhaps even armed teachers, bag and locker searches, metal detectors at entry points and controlled entry, which seems to be a frequent point of topic, that single entry point.

Terry, I’m wondering if you could maybe run through what you see as some of the pros and cons of these topics of discussion and what I may have left out of that list.

Shoemaker: Thank you. We gave to Gov. [Gary] Herbert a list of five emphases that we felt were very strong points in terms of improving school safety. If I can I’d like to emphasize those five for just a minute.

Wood: Of course.

Shoemaker: The first was an emphasis on preventative measures. We need to be looking at why young people in particular — and adults, but the fact that we work with young people I’m going to pay attention to young people now — get involved in this kind of activity. We need more mental health individuals in schools, and we said that. There’s lots of different types of preventative measures that can do the trick. It’s been shown that even preschool, the right kinds of preschool, can help improve the mental health activities of children, which of course then improves their not choosing to want to do these kinds of things.

The SafeUT app is another thing that is out there now. We can begin to identify kids quickly. Other students can do it, teachers can do it. It’s out throughout all of our schools, almost all of our schools in our state. And that app allows teachers and kids and parents and others to get help, mental help, quickly. So preventative measures are the kinds of things that we feel we need to emphasize as much as anything.

And emphasize on working closely with law enforcement. Right now, every school district is meeting regularly with law enforcement on what they can do to help deter the kinds of incidences that occurred in Santa Fe, Texas or in other places. Having an emphasis there, with police presence there that’s not predicable, will help as much as we possibly can do that. And law enforcement, as I’m talking to the folks at the state level as well as individual school districts, they’re having these conversations, they’re making progress there. An increased law enforcement presence is one of the emphases that we’re interested in too.

An emphasis on using technologies: cameras, monitoring social media, those are just two examples. There are technologies that open and close doors, that’s another way.

An emphasis on altering facilities to control access. At the high schools, it’s a big deal.

Bullock: It is.

Shoemaker: It’s a big deal at a high school because there are multiple, multiple access points and if I’m a high school teacher, I would be concerned about that. I’m sure Katie has some feelings about that, that’s part of the problem.

Wood: And not only access points, but just part of high school is we have kids coming and going throughout the day: to seminary, to the colleges.

Shoemaker: All the time. All the time. I got off the phone with a superintendent this morning on this issue, just alone talking to him about how challenging it is at high school, because kids come and go all the time at the high school.

And an emphasis on emergency protocols. We need more flexibility on that kind of training, not exactly some of the rigid ways we used to have to do fire safety or earthquake safety. Not that those things aren’t important, they’re incredibly important. But we need to maybe have a little more flexibility in statutes that allow us to maybe do what we feel like we need to do to improve safety. And we’re doing it anyway, but I think the statutes can be improved to help us and I’m working with the governor’s office on some of those matters at this point.

Those are the five points: preventative, law enforcement, technology, access and training.

Bullock: Absolutely, and I think one of the things that is frustrating me as a teacher with the national rhetoric right now, is I feel like everyone is looking for some silver bullet. Like, if we fix mental health, this will all go away. I respect Terry and the governor’s five-point plan here, this is multi-faceted. We’ve got to come at this from every single angle.

I feel like, as a teacher, I can only come from my angle. Right? We all have to come from our angle, and right now my fight is windows because we are building brand new buildings and your teachers and your students are scared of what is coming.

Wood: Katie, in the last couple months, there has been a lot of talk about not necessarily these preventative measures but some of the more reactive measures: like arming teachers, like locking doors.

Bullock: Right.

Wood: I’d love to hear your take on some of the ideas that have been floated out there. Just recently in Santa Fe there was a comment made about how if there had been less doors, it might not have happened.

Bullock: Right, I’ve always said the minute they arm me is the minute I leave the profession. This is not why I joined this job. I am not law enforcement, I am not military. I teach English, I’m here to teach your kid a comma, ok? I think hardening our schools is the absolute opposite of what we should do. We need to soften our society, not harden it.

I feel like they’re not listening to obvious answers. To be fair, I got an email from a colleague that said “Hey, we’re talking in the faculty room. What do you think of using our legislative money — every teacher gets a certain amount of money every year — for concealed permits and weapons. Can we use our teacher money for that?”

Of course I bristled because that’s not my style. But then I also thought, that’s where we are. And I don’t blame those people for thinking that.

Wood: Utah schools typically don’t have metal detectors like we see in other states. To both of you, have we reached a point where that’s a conversation the state needs to have?

Shoemaker: It is a conversation that the state needs to have and it’s for this reason. No one wants any of these type of things to occur in our schools. However, we have examples in Utah of close types of these kinds of incidents occurring. We’ve been able to prevent most of them. The problem we have is, the minute you go down that road, you’re then restricting liberties that we all enjoy.

We think about after 9/11, what occurred as it relates to transportation on planes. And now we go through quite the procedure to get on a plane. It’s also eliminated, I think for the most part, the violence that could have been associated with people transporting on planes. But we also gave up a lot to do that. We’re used to it now, are we going to head down that road in the future if we have incidences similar to what occurred in Texas and what occurred in Florida and Connecticut and all over this nation?

I see there is very probably the reason for us to continue, more seriously, to talk about metal detectors, inspections of backpacks and other kinds of things, hiring of additional personnel to monitor all of that, restricting all of those types of uses. I mean, all of that attacks personal freedoms too. That’s the balance we’re trying to find, and can we find one under these circumstances? We’re going to have to watch and see where these things take us.

Wood: Terry, I’ve heard you say in public meetings that parents don’t want to send their kids to a prison. And on that point, we know what a bulletproof school looks like. There’s one at Point of the Mountain and we’re about to move it to Salt Lake City.

Katie, I’m curious from your perspective as a teacher, we talk about some of these really visible and perhaps restrictive measures, do you have an image in your head of what might be too far?

Bullock: I think having children of any age, high school all the way to elementary school, line up outside to go through a metal detector is a bit disconcerting for their young brains. Nuts and bolts: it’s unbelievably difficult to get that many children in and out of a building, right? We’ve got nuts-and-bolts issues here.

I don’t want to teach, I don’t think we should educate, in a prison. But once again, I would say there’s middle ground and I would say we’re not doing enough talking. For example, we as teachers asked for bullet-proof glass. They said no. We asked for the film that protects us, they said no. We asked for transoms, they said no. I’m just frustrated.

Wood: And Terry, I suspect the other side of that coin would be a cost-prohibitive issue.

Shoemaker: I can’t explain why Canyons School District told the teachers there the answer that Katie has given. I have no information as to that. Is it a cost issue? The answer is yes. Any time you increase the technology in windows, it’s going to cost more. Any time you add a film over it, it’s going to cost more. There are additional costs but I’m not privy to the budgets that they’re dealing with or any of those kinds of things. I’m sure that’s part of the conversation, there may be other issues that I’m not aware of.

Bullock: I just feel that when 70 percent of your staff says, “We want something else,” you should possibly listen.

Wood: Clearly it’s not just Hillcrest High School, as we mentioned there’s lots of schools looking at very similar models. In talking to administrators, and I don’t want to name anyone necessarily, but I’ve had a sentiment expressed to me that teachers aren’t really worried about safety. They just don’t want to be watched. They don’t want the administration to know when they’ve thrown a movie on in the classroom.

Bullock: Well, let me give you a story. Yesterday at Hillcrest High School, we went on a lockdown. This happens. So this idea of “Oh, you silly teachers, you just don’t want to be watched.” No, yesterday I had to lock my door and I watched my third period freak out. It’s different now. I’ve been teaching for 13 years and it is different. And to watch a young girl panic on my watch is not ok.

The thing is, these windows are a bad idea on so many levels. Things have not changed in public high schools, there is still going to be distraction in the hallways. These windows are not wise, educationally. I would say most teachers agree with that. That being said, I’m most scared for my life. Right? I can put paper over my window, I can do all sorts of things that teachers do magically to get their kids on task. But I can’t stop a bullet. And I love it that teachers are not heroes. We’re basically just a pain in the ass when we talk too much, when we bring these things up, when we ask questions. But we’re heroes when we take the bullets. And I’m just done with it.

Shoemaker: I think Katie has got a good point about how teachers feel, and I’m not going to argue any of the things that she just said there at all. They feel vulnerable. They do.

Bullock: And feelings matter.

Shoemaker: And the feelings do matter, I’m not going to argue that at all. The issues that are involved here are complicated, but the feelings also are not necessarily so complicated. They’re pretty raw and pretty real, both for students as well as for teachers.

Building technologies is one aspect. All of these other things I described earlier are also other aspects. We’ve got to work on what is causing these things to happen as much as anything else. The teacher’s voice in these matters is important, so is the parent’s voice, so is the kids’ voices, so are the other community members. The Legislature plays into this. By giving this information to the governor, we’re saying to the governor “We want to do these things.” We’re also saying to him and the Legislature, by us working on these things, we need some help so we can do more with the resources we have.

The last thing in the world I think school boards and school administrators want is for their teachers to feel even more vulnerable. But unfortunately, the events of this year and previous years are leading to the kids of feelings that are being expressed today.

Wood: We should state that school shootings account for a fraction of gun deaths in the United States. And that the typical school day, at the typical school, does not include an active shooter situation.

Bullock: But yesterday we locked down.

Wood: Right. And it captures the attention in a very unique way. “Fair” probably isn’t the right word, but I’m wondering, to both of you, is it fair that we put so much attention on educators to solve a problem that goes so far beyond education?

Bullock: Yes, the easy answer. We expect teachers to do every job imaginable. And we have signed up for most of those. I think I personally draw the line at law enforcement. Right? I can not solve that problem.

Back to a point Terry just made, I do think we need more mental health support in our schools. We do. The fact that we have 2,200 kids at Hillcrest and we have one psychologist, who is amazing and is overrun. And we’ve got kids in real, real issues.

Shoemaker: And I hear that from school districts all across the state; large and small.

Bullock: So what does it take? How do we get money to do that?

Shoemaker: Well, working with legislators. And I spoke to a legislator yesterday about this issue who worked on the elementary counseling improvement by adding some additional in our most vulnerable schools. And when I say “vulnerable” I’m talking about the kids who may need it the most and the state [school] board is figuring that out.

But it’s only going to add 28 or 29 more counselors, with the amount of money that was given. So what we need is significant amounts of money to reduce the loads that are described by Katie by school psychologists and by counselors all across our state. So many districts are looking at hiring additional social workers and other mental health officials who know how to deal better with kids on these particular matters.

Because frankly, my own experience in my 15 years with Wasatch [School District] as superintendent was I couldn’t get enough personnel quickly into the schools. As quick as we could do it, it wasn’t quick enough. The need kept coming up every year, we need more, we need more, we need more, and that’s difficult. That’s difficult for the Legislature to hear, for the governor to hear, for any school board to hear. But the fact of the matter is, it is a real issue. And so mental health issues, mental health challenges that we have in school systems are very real for teachers, very real for parents of these kids and very real for the challenges that are associated with this particular topic.

Over and over and over again we see mental health as being one of the major issues that lead to these kinds of crimes that have been committed.

Bullock: And the answer is that Utah is going to have to pay for it. Utah is going to have to fund education if you want to keep your kids safe.

Wood: We started this by talking about windows. We looked at the academic versus the safety benefit. Clearly there are certain trends in schools, we have controlled entry, controlled exit, we have lots of glass being put on these new buildings. Kind of as a final question, to both of you, do you think that the trends we’re seeing in school construction, are they making kids safer on the whole, or more vulnerable, in the event that a shooter arrives on campus?

Bullock: I think it’s a no-brainer: absolutely more vulnerable.

Shoemaker: And I would disagree with Katie on that one. I think the trends we’re seeing, that I’m hearing from school boards all across the state, is we’re doing everything we can, including finding money in our bonds and our capital projects and ways in which we’re trying to improve the facilities to do that.

Now, again, you take the financial boundaries that you have and you budget accordingly to the best of your ability. I think we both agree that we need additional funds to meet the additional needs that we have all across the state. Every building is unique. We have very tiny schools and Ben, you’ve been to some of those.

Wood: I have.

Shoemaker: I know you have, ok? And those schools are not like Hillcrest High School, at all. And yet they’re vulnerable in their own, unique way. So the challenges to solve that problem are as unique as the schools themselves. That’s why we need both flexibility and we need additional resources to help make those things happen. And school districts all across the state are looking at ways to do that. [They’re] looking at, including Canyons, looking at ways to do that. At the same time we have to help teachers feel that they’re being listened to as well as responding with things that are going to make a different for them.

As far as glass is concerned, there’s lots of reasons for additional glass too. Transparency is a good thing. We talk about it all the time. It can be distracting if it’s not handled. My first year was in Jordan School District teaching in a school that, by the way, had no walls.

Bullock: I was educated in one of those, as a child.

Shoemaker: Yeah, and so you know. You know what that was like as the kid point of view.

Wood: Yeah, that trend has kind of made its way out.

Bullock: And I feel like now we just put glass.

Shoemaker: That’s made its way totally out of that, but that was a long, long time ago at Park Lane Elementary.

Wood: Dee Elementary in Ogden was the one I grew up by.

Bullock: Jackling Elementary was ours.

Shoemaker: There you go, so you guys, you know that. Well I was the teacher in those kinds of circumstances. Well that was probably too much, ok? And I don’t know if it’s too much or not too much, Katie has given her feelings about that and others of her school, but the school boards consider all of this as they work with their budgets. And it’s difficult, sometimes, the budget dictates how far you can go.

Wood: Katie, do you want a rebuttal? Terry’s answer was a little more in-depth.

Bullock: I would say that if you want light, move the windows up. If you want to see each school as unique and each system as unique, then you need to talk to your people who are the boots on the ground. And while each board might represent each area, I’m finding that the board isn’t really hearing their teachers or their students.

We also had a student who gathered a petition of over 100 peers that didn’t want the windows and they threw it in the trash. We’re not being heard.

Shoemaker: The listening to teachers and students, I’ve already emphasized is important. I’m not going to say that it isn’t. The ability to make decisions rests with the board and that’s where the dissonance sometimes comes. The transparency, using windows, is important for lots of safety purposes; not only bullets, as being discussed by Katie, but also making sure that what’s going on inside the classroom is appropriate too.

Bullock: Ya’ll are welcome in any time you want.

Shoemaker: Yeah, I know that. I know that. But it also is valuable too to be able to peek in and look in and just do a glance. I’m not saying that’s the easiest or the best way to do these kinds of [things], I’m just letting you know, glass has lots of purposes in transparency.

In school safety, we had another incident again yesterday of a problem in a school district involving a custodian. And once again, having more opportunities to know what’s happening everywhere is not hurtful, necessarily. And it can be very helpful in terms of maintaining safety for all the kids for all the reasons we need it. I’m not going to suggest that windows above a certain level are better than below, I’m just saying that those are all the factors that school board has to consider, and a school superintendent has to consider as they put buildings together.

Wood: We are short of time. Terry Shoemaker, Katie Bullock, thank you so much for joining us this week.

Bullock: Thank you.

Shoemaker: Thank you.

“Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode. We welcome your comments and feedback on sltrib.com, or you can send emails to tribtalk@sltrib.com. You can also tweet to me @BjaminWood or to the show @TribTalk on Twitter.

We’ll be back next week, thanks for listening.

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