Michigan school designed to foil shooters: 'It slows them down'

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
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Fruitport — It's a school built to thwart a mass shooting but in disguise.

Inside the new $48 million Fruitport High School, extensive window glass, elegant lighting, wide-open gathering spaces and modern furniture give this West Michigan public school the feel of an upscale college campus.

But its modern security measures are tucked inside in subtle ways through architectural innovation, starting with curved hallways that connect classrooms and cut down on sightlines for anyone with a gun.

This is the cafeteria inside the new Fruitport High School which will open to students in January 2020. The high school has curved hallways, protective "wing walls," impact-resistant windows and doors that lock with a touch of a smartphone designed to potentially save lives in an active shooter situation.

Wing walls of reinforced concrete that jut out from existing walls inside classrooms look like playful design elements but function to provide cover for up to 30 students and staff from a gunman roaming the 231,700 square-foot school.

Fruitport Superintendent Bob Szymoniak said some of the design features, which are becoming common across American K-12 schools in response to gun violence, do not guarantee the safety of his 800 students at Fruitport High School, who occupied the first completed phase of the school on Monday. But they are expected to slow down an active shooter, he said, a critical security need in an era of school massacres.

"It's not a foolproof way to keep a bad person out of a building, but it slows them down," Szymoniak said. "Until mass shootings stop in our country, it’s only responsible when we have the opportunity to build a school to make it as secure as we can."

In 2016, voters in the district near Grand Haven approved a bond to pay for the construction of the new high school, which will be completed in 2021. Additional security measures that were designed into the plan were paid for in part with a $400,000 Michigan State Police grant. Szymoniak said the amount of money spent on security measures was "minuscule."

Nationally, about $50 billion a year is spent on K-12 school construction projects, new and existing, and school security is always a consideration, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Council on School Facilities. 

"Anybody who is building new now is looking at design around security," said Mary Filardo, the council's executive director. "Everybody who is building is looking at security differently."

Matt Slagle, principal architect and director of K-12 education at TowerPinkster, which did the design work for Fruitport High, said his firm is creating designs that focus on school security in 30 districts across Michigan that involves $500 million in construction investment.

This is an exterior view of the new Fruitport High School which has been constructed with safety measures in mind to thwart and active shooter attack.

Slagle, lead architect on the Fruitport project, said districts across Michigan are asking the company for a fire escape window in every classroom, winged walls, bathrooms in main offices to keep visitors from having to use them elsewhere in the school, and other security measures that involve lighting, cameras and window treatments.

"The biggest thing is once someone is in, how do you slow them down?" Slagle said. "How do you compartmentalize them? How do you stop that? How do you give the kids a spot to hide? That is what has fundamentally changed K-12 architecture."

Slagle designed Fruitport's "educational entry panopticon," an all-seeing rotunda reception desk at the high school that will allow the school employee sitting in the middle to view students, visitors and any intruders in all directions.

"When you walked through Fruitport High, it doesn’t feel overly secure. There are no bars on the window. It's not a prison. It's about teaching. It's about being inspired and in these spaces," Slagle said.

Superintendent Bob Szymoniak talks about features at the new Fruitport High School building, which features curved hallways, protective "wing walls," impact-resistant windows and doors that lock with the touch of a smartphone to thwart an active shooter.

The new Sandy Hook

The original Sandy Hook Elementary School building was demolished after the 2012 massacre there that left 20 students and six adults dead in Newtown, Conn. A new 86,000 square-foot school was built in 2016 by Svigals + Partners with a focus on school security.

Jay Brotman, Svigals + Partners' managing partner, said the 35-member firm looked at the school holistically and designed the building itself to be secure rather than adding technologically and supplements.

Most of the school's design was based on CPTED concepts, Brotman said, adding the team designed the Sandy Hook site to allow for control and observation of its perimeter. That means access, parking and traffic flow were limited and segregated.

"This allows you to focus your observation in one area," Brotman said. "The most efficient security for a school is to have the people in the school observe the site and surroundings. Natural observation is a most powerful tool."

School windows are covered in protective glass and additional wings were added to make it harder to access points of the school. Cameras and other technology devices can be found around the school.

"It's all about creating this delay. If you delay, you have more time to prepare. That is your most effective defense,” Brotman said.

Open spaces were created in the school to avoid hiding places and provide a town square atmosphere. A rain garden that serves a security purpose was added, as were indoor tree houses that face an outdoor forest.

"It's more about making a home for children," Brotman said. "We did design for security, but it's also designed to be a nurturing place for children to learn."

Szymoniak said the curved hallways at Fruitport High were initially designed to increase the number of classrooms in a wing and to avoid wetlands. It's usefulness as a security measure — later realized — put the district on a path to seek more ways to design security into the school without creating a fortress that scares students.

Among the other less obvious security elements: Ballistic resistance film and glazing cover the windows, a system that allows fire doors to close with the touch a of smartphone and thumb-turn locks on all classroom doors.

"We didn’t do anything that makes it look like a security measure. We don’t want the kids to think about it when they are in the building. We want them to think they are in a really cool learning environment,” Szymoniak said.

Fruitport High School student Hayden Winskas, 14, talks about his new school building.

New amenities 

Students at Fruitport High were greeted on Monday by the smell of new carpet and fresh paint after workers spent the last two weeks cleaning up and installing desks and chairs in the new two-story classroom wing. 

Instead of lockers along long hallways, the school will have a large common area where all lockers will be located, a design decision that school officials say will allow them to keep an eye on a large number of kids at once. Corridors and lunchroom are full of glass from the floor to ceiling.

“We designed the school so there aren’t too many places where a kid can be that eyes of an adult could not be on a kid,” Szymoniak said.

Each classroom and hallway door is propped open with a wall magnet, which is connected to a centralized lockdown button that sends all doors swinging shut at once. 

Fruitport High student Hayden Winskas was inside the new school wing in late December to help move in boxes of chairs and other furniture.

The 14-year-old freshman said he was looking forward to starting out in the newly constructed portion of the building that opened this month.

"I think the new furniture and safety features are great," Winskas said.

The curved building, Winskas said, will make it harder for a gunman to shoot easily.

"It makes me feel protected and safe," Winskas said.

Fruitport High teacher Steve Dzwonkowski said the design features are practical but are not his favorite part of the new school.

"My favorite part of the building is the newness of it. The auditorium, the classrooms are more technologically designed," said Dzwonkowski, who teaches English, film studies and creative writing. "I mean don't get me wrong, safety is important. But I don't want to dwell on it."

Dzwonkowski said some of the kids are nervous about finding their new classrooms under a new numbering system, but at the same time, many, including staff, feel better about the school's subtle safety features.

"I think everybody is a little more relaxed," said Dzwonkowski, "but there is, unfortunately, an inherent risk in being a teacher. Because you just don't know."

Fruitport Community Schools were supplemented by a $404,707 grant from Michigan State Police, and can potentially save lives in an active shooter situation.

Safety alternatives

Filardo with National Council on School Facilities said while it makes sense to design and build new schools with security in mind, communities and school districts need to know the trade-offs they are making when adding such features.

"Communities need to understand when they are paying too much for security features but scrimping on the quality of finishes that will keep operations and maintenance costs low, leaving more funding for student services or training for the school’s resource officers," Filardo said.

Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said architecture and school design have the potential to add safety to schools, but those aren't the only solutions.

"My feeling is there are more proactive ways to address school safety concerns — mental health issues in the community and in schools need to be addressed," Zdeb said.

The association held a student mental health summit in October in Lansing to seek solutions for mental health concerns impacting Michigan schools and intends to hold another summit for this year.

The high school has curved hallways, protective "wing walls," impact-resistant windows and doors that lock with a touch of a smartphone designed to potentially save lives in an active shooter situation.

"We also feel that school culture is very important — making sure both students and employees are in a place with a positive and supportive environment," Zdeb said. "Programs, such as OK2SAY, are also important outlets as they give people the opportunity to anonymously report concerns ranging from bullying to potential threats."

OK2SAY is a confidential tips program for students to report criminal activities or potential harm directed at students, school employees and schools.

Kenneth S. Trump, a national school security expert, said school design became a popular topic following the 1999 Columbine High School attack.

"The goal is to think 'school safety and security' from the onset rather than trying to retrofit physical security measures to less-than-optimally designed facilities after the fact," Trump said.

Yet the designers of the high school with curved hallways and protruding barriers are too narrowly focused, Trump said. 

"Bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault and other misbehaviors are much more likely to be the greatest day-to-day safety threat in schools,"  Trump said.

Curved hallways and protruding barriers serve to decrease adult supervision that could prevent the most common daily safety threats that students are more likely to experience than they ever will a school shooting, Trump said. Another flawed design concept is excessive use of glass, he said.

"While there may be some solid academic concepts behind these practices, architects are going to extremes with all glass walls in classrooms and study areas, leaving students and teachers fully visible and exposed to persons with ill intentions, and no way to lock down without being seen," Trump said.

Szymoniak said the decision to use a lot of glass in the high school is to allow for the passive supervision of students by fewer adults.

“We designed the school so there aren’t too many places where a kid can be that eyes of an adult could not be on them,” Szymoniak said.

Szymoniak said people have criticized the district's design decisions, with even Hillary Clinton tweeting that "we're utterly failing kids as a society when we build schools to accommodate shooters rather than students."

"You have to find a balance. We know none of this is foolproof...," he said. 

"I want the message to be that we put a lot of forethought into creating a modern-education facility that will meet the needs of all learners. And keep them as safe and secure as possible."

Fruitport Community Schools were supplemented by a $404,707 grant from Michigan State Police, and can potentially save lives in an active shooter situation.

Parents weigh in

As parents Deb and Cary Taylor watched their daughter, Trinity, try out her new hoverboard in Ponoma Park outside Fruitport's public library, they said they were excited about the high school and its security amenities.

"We love it. It's about time," Cary Taylor said. "It makes us feel safer and makes the kids feel safer."

Deb said she thinks the district struck the right balance in the school's design between education needs and security, with the security features not appearing "scary" to her 9-year-old daughter.

"I love it. I like how in the classroom they have that wall where they can go behind. I think it's great," Deb Taylor said.

As Trinity zoomed across a basketball court on her hoverboard, Deb said she and her husband do not talk about school shootings too much with their fourth-grade daughter to prevent her from feeling scared. 

Trinity toured the new school with her parents last month to get a look at the newest architectural design in K-12 buildings in Michigan.

"I thought it was really cool and really good looking," Trinity said. "And it looks super fun."


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