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Older Schools Can Stay Safe With Renovations

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It's one thing for a newly constructed school to incorporate the latest in technology to keep students safe.

It's quite another (times two or three) for older schools to renovate or retrofit their features for students' safekeeping.

As the nation still continues to grabble with the deaths of 20 elementary students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., school administrators, law enforcement officials and parents are taking a closer look at school safety here in the Mountain State. And for many, one of the first steps in evaluating how safe schools are involves looking at the buildings themselves.

West Virginia School Building Authority Executive Director Mark Manchin said school safety standards are always evolving, and keeping older buildings on par with the new ones comes at a cost.

Throughout West Virginia, $31.5 million has been spent on school safety in the past five years.

"Obviously, retrofitting those older buildings is more costly — we certainly understand and recognize that," Manchin said. "But we have, of the $31.5 million, nearly 700 schools have had some type of improvement in their safety."

In Marshall County, the architects and engineers at McKinley & Associates are working on both ends of the spectrum, designing features for the recently opened Cameron High School and upgrading safety systems at John Marshall High School, which was designed in 1963.

Starting From Scratch

CHS is one of the state's newest, and its lead architect, Patrick J. Rymer, said the old property's biggest challenge was its sprawling campus with several entrances.

"We were initially tasked with the program of renovating their existing school, and then the county got funding later after that project was actually designed to build a new school on a new site, near their existing football field," he said. "That allowed us to do some things that we couldn't do at their existing school.

"The new school is a unified facility, so in addition to state of the art security and access features that we built into those, and some of those are set forth by the School Building Authority that they want incorporated into all schools by the School Access Safety Plan, we also could incorporate things like a controlled entrance point into the school."

Rymer said the new school allows the principal a panoramic view of the entire campus, because people usually don't do things when they think they will be seen.

McKinley & Associates is responsible for work at school in 14 counties throughout the state, and learning to incorporate safety into every single project is something the staff has had to learn on an ongoing basis.

"Since 2007, and I think it actually started with Columbine, I think more as a precursor, the state of West Virginia enacted the School Access Safety Plan, and what the School Building Authority has done here, the School Access Safety Act kind of got all architects in gear that this was something we had to get up to speed on," Rymer said. "A lot of this isn't something, necessarily we did back in architecture school … but we have to get a lot of training, continuing education, go to seminars and learn about the features of School Access Safety."

Updating the Old

At John Marshall High School, Principal Corey Murphy said the must urgent concern was creating a safe, secure entrance to the school.

"The camera system and the electronic doors have been put into place to keep us as safe as possible until we can get the actual construction done and make it the most secure that we can, as a high school," Murphy said.

The main office is located in the middle of the school's main building, so visitors were not immediately stopped and vetted. And the school's secondary building, home to the auditorium, gymnasium and band room, is connected by a bridge that students travel every day — something McKinley & Associates hopes to enclose this summer.

"This building was designed in 1963, and at that time, open circulation between buildings was seen as innovation," said McKinley architect Ray Winovich, who is working on the JMHS project. "We've done quite a few projects either closing in the campus circulation or doing new schools that are meant to replace these."

Winovich said older schools are typically first updated with high-tech doors, which average about $3,000 just for the hardware per door.

"The idea that you're dealing with an existing condition always makes things cost more," he said. "Now how much more is going to vary per how old the building is."

For a rough estimate, Winovich said updating older buildings can cost about two to three times more than building brand new.

And some of the technology that officials have said keeps students and staff safer inside school buildings includes shatter-proof windows, intercom systems, keyless entry and "man traps" that enclose visitors in the front of a building.

"We're looking at putting film that doesn't shatter on exterior doors and first-floor windows to assure that should there be an incident where someone is attempting to gain access … any time we can disrupt a shooter … the safer children are," Manchin said.

But some techniques don't involve technology. Manchin said he was shocked when he learned that something as simple as numbering every door in a building can make it safer.

He said because time is so important during an emergency, first responders aren't able to figure out which classroom belongs to Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, but a number can get a faster response.

What's the Cost?

Manchin said each county was asked to create a plan for its necessary upgrades after the School Access Safety Plan was created in 2007. He said each project was given an estimated cost and an estimated source for payment, but the SBA analyzes each project before allocating any money whatsoever.

Some examples of projects counties listed in their plans include panic buttons, fencing, signs bollards and walkie-talkies.

To be more specific, 200 feet of fencing at Bedington Elementary School in Berkeley County was expected to cost $10,600, and reinforcing or replacing classroom and office doors at John Marshall High School was expected to cost $25,000.

"You cannot spend any money that's not in accordance with the SBA," Manchin said. "Paramount in our discussion any time we provide funds for new school construction our most important set of criteria we look at is school safety and the safety of the children."