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Maryland school turns to new design techniques to protect against active shooter threats

Design experts say they must battle "hysteria" with a real-world approach while preserving welcome learning environments.

WASHINGTON — On March 20, 2018, a 17-year-old student opened fire in the hallway of Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland with a Glock 9-millimeter handgun, killing 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey and wounding 14-year-old Desmond Burns, before turning the gun on himself.

Across the Chesapeake river, Dorchester County Schools Safety and Security Coordinator Chris Hague saw the headlines and knew there was no more pretending their rural school community was immune to gun violence.

 “It really brought it home, that these sorts of incidents can happen anywhere,” Hague said. “They can happen in the best communities, they can happen in the worst communities and every community in between.”

From Columbine to Sandy Hook and now Uvalde, the threat of an active shooter in a school has led to a wave of new safety design techniques. Nearly all of which were incorporated into the construction of North Dorchester County High School in Hurlock, Maryland.

Architect Peter Winebrenner of Hord Coplan Macht helped lead the project.

“In my couple decade career,” Winebrenner said, “this is the hardest it's ever been,” to balance school safety with a welcoming learning environment.

“Just trying to balance all of that, sometimes hysteria, with trying to educate students and get them excited about learning and not feel like you know, they have to duck and roll all the time.”

Winebrenner told us school “hardening,” which is the industry term for adding layers of security within the design of the school itself, is a delicate balance. New school design must weigh the need to protect students against an active shooter threat, while not making kids feel like they’re learning inside a prison.

To do that, Winebrenner’s team wove swipe card entry, ballistically rated office glass and weapons detectors into an otherwise big, bright and open entryway. And then “layered” the floor design with classrooms set well back in the building, so that teachers and students have time to react if a shooter ever forced their way inside the school.

But in the wake of the Great Mills High School shooting, many North Dorchester parents worried that the open floor plans and abundance of windows could make their kids targets. In fact, Winebrenner says most new school designs incorporate lots of glass, especially at entrances and exits, so everyone inside can see a threat coming.

“For us, we have to explain to them that it’s not that simple, that glass is bad,” Winebrenner said of his conversations with parents. “A lot of the activity and occurrences that happened in a school that are more frequent and actually can be incredibly impactful to students on a daily basis are things like bullying and harassment and having all that glass allows for that eyes on the street. The see something, say something mentality.”

The purpose of the open design is to increase sight lines for staff. Lockers are built shorter so you can see over the top of them, and offices have windows so staff can see out if there is any danger approaching. A person in the office can close the blinds and duck down behind three feet tall concrete at the bottom of the wall.

North Dorchester County High School Principal Dave Stofa says even with all the security measures, the possibility of a school shooting is never completely eliminated.

“Bad people are going to do bad things, Stofa said. “We're going to take every step humanly possible; use every piece of technology that comes our way and we embrace it.”

It’s because of that, that Hague says schools must do all they can in case the unthinkable happens.

“If the worst day ever, ever came to Dorchester, and we didn't have this,” Hague said, “and we looked back, and we had the opportunity to have it, how would we respond on that day?”

WUSA9 also reached out to schools in D.C. and Northern Virginia to learn more about what design techniques they utilize to protect against an active shooter attack in their schools, but those districts declined to comment citing concerns over publicly discussing security techniques.

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