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Increasing school safety: Is the answer right in our backyard?



ABILENE, TX— News of school violence is becoming all too familiar for viewers these days as we enter a generation where parents are growing more concerned about sending their students to school.

With each press conference we often hear words of encouragement from school staff, assuring parents and the rest of the public about measures taken to ensure safety.

How much can the design of a school impact its safety?

Wylie East Junior High designer Steve Ellinger gives a closer look at what that district is doing to keep students safe, and it starts from the second you walk on campus.

Parents and visitors will automatically notice the high security in place to get in the building, with doors that can only be opened from the inside.

“The faculty and staff can have complete control over who’s coming and going,” said Ellinger.

From the big windows out front to the blank wall where lockers once stood, the focus on how schools are designed has shifted to safety.

“I think it was the incidents in Columbine years ago that kind of changed how we have to do things,” said Ellinger.

Ellinger has helped design several schools throughout the Big Country and points out some key safety features in place, but as he says, it’s what lies behind the previously mentioned safety changes that give them yet another reason for being there.

“We have to make it look like it’s not there, but it really is,” said Ellinger.

“Let’s go back to the windows for instance, walking in the classroom, they look like any normal window. But notice where they are positioned, up high so no one can see in,” said Ellinger.

“Let’s say there’s an intruder situation where they’re trying to get in. Kids can get below the windows,” said Ellinger.

Again with the lockers, they weren’t just taken away because of contraband, but to create an open space for just two eyes to see feet away.

“You see here, you can have one faculty member standing right here looking this way, this way and this way,” said Ellinger.

While the design stops people from getting in, that only accounts for what Wylie Assistant Superintendent Craig Bessent says is about 2% of school shootings.

“The problems we have are students that are already in our schools,” said Bessent.

So how do you put a stop to that if a possible threat is walking among the rest?

“Our whole student body and our teachers have to work on those relationships, we have to be able to see kids that are in trouble,” said Bessent.

That’s what Wylie and many other school districts are faced with, as more emphasis is being placed on mental health than ever before.

“I think our whole state right now is trying to figure out how we bridge that gap, you know, what can the school do? What can outside counseling do? Is it MHMR? Is is Betty Hardwick? I mean, that’s a tough subject, but we’ve got to fix them,” said Bessent.

While some are trying to change the status quo through school design or staff education, Ellinger says they can’t guarantee safety 100% of the time.

“It’s not always a matter of securing the building, but changing people’s hearts,” said Ellinger.