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February 03, 2013 10:04 PM

Shattered School Safety

Brookings, SD

One of the top safety concerns for schools since the Newtown, Connecticut shootings is a concern that everyone can see right through. The glass in the doors, and on the front of school buildings, has been exposed as a vulnerability in school lockdowns and safety plans.

"You go over to our high school, our middle school; you can see there's a lot of glass in the front that's an architectural design to make our buildings look nice. Those kinds of designs make our students and schools vulnerable," Brookings Superintendent Roger DeGroot said.

Just like nearly every other school across the country, DeGroot says his school district has been taking a close look at its security plans since a gunman entered a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school late last year, killing 20 students and a half-dozen educators.

"The Connecticut situation made us review and talk about like we've never talked about it before," DeGroot said.

That's because at Sandy Hook Elementary all of the school's doors were locked. That didn't stop the shooter.

"I can tell you he was not voluntarily let into the school at all; that he forced his way into the school," Connecticut State Police Lieutenant Paul Vance said in December.

Several reports say the gunman shot his way through the glass door to get into the school. And it's not the first time something like that has happened.

In 2005 in Red Lake, Minnesota, a gunman killed students and a teacher by shooting out the side window panel on the classroom door. Those doors are made to be broken by design.

"All schools have shatter glass in their front doors because of insurance purposes, because they don't want to have jagged glass cut students if they break it," DeGroot said.

That shatter glass is actually called tempered glass. It's the same glass that's in the back and side windows of a car. The glass shatters into thousands of small pieces and can be easily broken out by a hand.

Sioux Falls Chief Building Official Ron Bell says tempered glass is required in areas where someone could easily break the glass, like in a door or window that is close to the ground.

"If you hit it, it breaks into very small pieces. The entire glass goes into very small pieces where you don't have the capability of sharp shards that are going to lacerate you and so forth," Bell said.

Glass experts say tempered glass is the economic alternative to another type of glass that meets the code which is laminated glass.

The windshield of a car is made of laminated glass and reinforced with plastic in between two sheets of glass. When it’s impacted the glass cracks but does not break out even after several blows from a hammer.

DeGroot says Brookings, along with other districts in the state, are looking to install something similar to laminated glass in school buildings.

"I know there are many school districts that are looking at some kind of alternative for that glass, whether it be a laminate, whether it be a film put on it," DeGroot said.

Depending on the thickness, insulation and where it's used in a building, laminated glass can cost anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent more than tempered glass.

"Either one will meet what the code requires but it'd be up to the designer, the building owner, the contractor, or the person who's going to own the building as to how much they're going to pay for the cost of the glazing in order to meet the code," Bell said.

But Bell warns that laminated glass is not built for security. A bullet can go through laminated glass and it can be broken with some effort. Bell says true security, or bullet-proof glass, is even more expensive than laminated glass.

"The cost of forced-entry or ballistic-resistant glazing is exponentially higher than tempered, or laminated, or regular glass. It's like 100 times more expensive," Bell said.

While DeGroot knows installing laminated glass or putting some type of coating on the glass in the Brookings schools isn't going to stop a bullet, he says intruders wouldn't simply be able to break in the same way they would if it was tempered glass.

"We feel we need to keep an intruder outside for somewhere around 60 seconds prior to police officers being on site," DeGroot said.

And if a school can keep that threat outside for the time it takes to break through a tougher piece of glass DeGroot believes it's a step toward making a safer school.

"They call us a soft target. That's the term they use and the more difficult we make it for intruders to come in and kill the more protected and safe we're going to be," DeGroot said.

Brookings plans to install laminated glass, or reinforce the glass on the outside of its buildings in the next one to two years. After finishing that project the superintendent says they will gradually replace the glass near doors on the inside of the building.

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