Why some Palm Beach County schools have classroom doors that don’t lock

Eight classrooms at Lake Worth Middle School have doors into the hallway that cannot be locked from the inside. Should an intruder barge onto campus, teachers in those rooms are supposed to file their children into the hallway and then seek shelter in a neighboring classroom with doors that can be secured.

And even though staff raised the flag about it in the wake of their own shooting tragedy – the one in 2000 when teacher Barry Grunow was shot to death in his classroom doorway – no one has seen fit in the past 18 years to correct it.

Not at Lake Worth Middle and not at the seven other schools in Palm Beach County with the same issue.

The doors that fail to lock are not broken. They were intended to be emergency exits should people be trapped in the building’s hallways in a fire.

But every time a campus shooting hijacks the 24/7 news cycle, as the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High just a county away did last week, teacher Joan Beebe and many of her colleagues can’t forget that district officials have on multiple occasions chosen not to fix what she sees as a design flaw.

“This one really hit home because it’s so close,” said Beebe, a math teacher who was in her second year at Lake Worth Middle when Grunow was shot. (Grunow’s door locked, though that did him little good when 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill knocked on it, seeking to speak to a classmate, and pulled a gun when the teacher balked.)

“I was in one of those classrooms for two years. I have colleagues in those classrooms. The students are aware the door doesn’t lock,” Beebe said. “I know my principals present and past have done what they need to do to bring it to the district’s attention, but it’s falling on deaf ears. “

The district isn’t deaf to the concerns, just wary of fixing one problem when it could create another, said Wanda Paul, the district’s chief of facilities management.

“The problem we have is if we lock all the doors we’d be in violation of fire code,” Paul said. “So we’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.”

The eight schools were built in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Paul confirmed. The district has declined to name the schools, citing security concerns. But Paul said the list isn’t limited to middle schools. Their design spreads classrooms across a cluster of buildings, so-called pods.

Each pod has hallway doors to the outside. But for those caught far from those doors in the event of a fire, designers created a path to the outside through two strategically placed classrooms. Those classrooms have hallway doors that do not lock and exit doors that lead outside.

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The district did find one possible solution: a system that would allow the doors to be locked and unlocked remotely based on the alarm, Paul explained. But that solution would cost about $40,000 per door to install, Paul said.

If each of the eight schools has eight such classrooms as Lake Worth Middle does, that would be 64 doors to fix or more than $2.5 million for that solution.

“Quite honestly, we did not have the funding to do that before,” Paul said.

And that fix doesn’t address what happens when someone out to do harm pulls the fire alarm in order to lure students outside, as the shooter in Parkland did, Paul said.

Paul, who wasn’t aware of the Grunow shooting when the interview with The Palm Beach Post began, said another solution would be to empty those classrooms. Have those teachers float, using other teachers’ classrooms when the room’s teacher is on break — this is a common strategy on crowded campuses with too many students and too few classrooms.

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Lake Worth Middle’s campus did get some security upgrades including fixes that limited points of entry, Beebe said. And the school now requires all backpacks brought on campus be clear.

The last time Beebe sounded off was five days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December 2012. She fired off an email to her principal at the time.

“Due to recent events, I feel that it is important that we find a solution to this problem!” Beebe wrote.

She detailed her fear: “During a code red, teachers/students in these unlockable classrooms are required to leave the safety of their classroom and enter the hallway to go to another teachers classroom whose door locks. Often those classrooms doors are already locked (as they should be at all times) and we must wait for the door to be opened for us to enter. As we know, every second counts in the case of a code red. This movement to another classroom puts our students and teachers at serious risk.

“During the shooting 13 years ago, the shooter was in the hallway of building 6. As a teacher, I would not take my students into a hallway where an attack was occurring to go to another classroom because it would put everyone in more danger. But staying in an unlocked classroom also puts everyone in danger,” Beebe wrote.

FULL COVERAGE: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting

Principal Mike Williams, in his third year at Lake Worth Middle, understands the concerns and says he’s addressed them the best he can with the go-next-door plan. “We don’t leave people in those rooms.”

Beebe wonders about other possibilities, such as installing a door within these vulnerable rooms to the neighboring classroom or to a secure space. No one would have to venture into the hall.

District Chief Operating Officer Donald Fennoy said last week that he plans to tap money from the 2016 sales tax to tackle a list of projects to beef up campus security. But it is not clear whether any of that money will be aimed at addressing these doors.

“We’re still looking at it to see if this is something we can address,” Paul said. “We are aware of the issue.”

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