Classroom Barricade Devices: A Dangerous Violation of Federal Laws
Most classroom barricade devices violate ADA, NFPA and other federal codes that are designed to enable individuals with disabilities to quickly evacuate a dangerous situation.
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Whether you see the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a victory or a compromise largely depends on whether you are one of the 53 million Americans who has a disability. While there is no question that the passage of the ADA in 1990 significantly improved access to buildings, transportation and employment, it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as most Americans assume. It generally isn’t until we experience a situation that restricts our mobility or that of a loved one that we suddenly appreciate just how many accessibility challenges remain in spite of the ADA.
“The federal ADA was a compromise and could be stronger in a lot of ways,” says Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. “We had to give up a lot of things we fought for just to get what we have today.”
The struggle to achieve accessibility for all Americans has only grown more difficult in recent years. Post 9/11, the focus for construction has shifted from safety and accessibility to security. Keeping intruders from getting into a building is often prioritized over ensuring occupants can safely get out during an emergency.
This battle between accessibility and security is being waged on a number of fronts, but perhaps nowhere more visibly than in K-12 schools, where parents, some law enforcement and school administrators are fighting against fire marshals, code officials and the disabled community. Keeping children safe is the goal of both sides, but opponents of the new security methods being proposed say they violate a number of building codes as well as Federal Accessibility Laws.
Campuses Respond to Shootings with Classroom Barricades
Tragedies like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary have left parents, teachers and school administrators understandably concerned about their school’s ability to respond to a similar event. But with few financial resources available to properly address the issue, options for enhancing security seem limited.
In response, dozens of retrofit security products are being marketed to school officials. These devices are available in a number of designs, but the goal of each is the same — to turn the classroom door into a barricade that can theoretically prevent an attacker from gaining access. These products are inexpensive, easy to install and very effective at keeping a door closed and preventing an active shooter from entering a classroom. However, they aren’t code compliant, and they pose some significant safety issues, particularly for individuals with physical and visual disabilities.
“The 2010 ADA Standards require door hardware to be operable with one hand and without tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist,” explains Mark Williams of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS). “In addition to the model code requirements that mandate a single releasing operation to unlatch the door, the ADA Standards require releasing mechanisms be located within 34-48 inches above the floor. Many classroom barricade devices do not comply with one or more of these requirements.”
These requirements are designed to enable all occupants, including those with disabilities, to quickly evacuate a location during a fire, bomb threat, active shooter attack and other situations. Although these requirements have been in place for decades, many proponents of barricades argue that active shooter situations call for extreme responses and should be exempt from codes mandating free egress, fire protection and accessibility for all.
Another common claim is that active shooter incidents are more common than fires, so therefore security measures should take precedence over fire safety. This argument is particularly worrisome to the National Disability Rights Network.
“Decreasing the tenability of the building decreases the amount of time someone with a physical or mental disability has to evacuate safely,” explains Decker. “You make the schools harder to egress, and you are jeopardizing the very kids we have worked for 40 years to get in those classrooms. You’re creating a hazard for them in terms of getting out of a building that is under any emergency.”
This argument to prioritize security over fire safety also fails to stand up to basic statistics. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), between 2000 and 2013, there were 1,456,500 non-residential structure fires in the United States, with 1,260 civilian deaths and 21,560 civilian injuries. For the same period, the FBI counted 160 active shooter attacks resulting in 487 deaths and 557 injuries. These statistics starkly illustrate how vital life safety is to ensure the safety of all building occupants.
“The state fire marshals understand the security concerns and the need to protect schools and businesses from senseless acts of violence,” says Jim Narva, executive director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM). “However, some of the proposed solutions may compromise life safety, despite the manufacturers’ good intentions. The NASFM guidelines for classroom security are aligned with the model codes and underscore the importance of the requirement for new and existing classroom doors to unlatch with one operation, ensuring free and immediate egress. Classroom doors must also meet federal accessibility laws and other requirements of the building codes and fire codes.”
Not only do barricade devices prevent occupants from evacuating, their use is predicated on the assumption that the assailant will be outside the classroom. But several active shooter incidents have involved the assailant barricading himself inside with the victims, including the shootings at Virginia Tech, the West Nickel Mines Amish School and Platte Canyon High School. In all three situations, barricaded doors likely contributed to the loss of life by delaying first responder access.
Classroom Barricades Usually Don’t Comply with Codes
For the past several years, the battle over the use of barricade devices has raged across the country, with code officials fighting desperately to prevent life safety from being compromised in the rush to upgrade classroom security. Several states went so far as to enact their own guidelines in order to allow schools to install these devices.
“In a few states, legislators have been pressured by constituents to change state building and fire-safety codes so that classroom barricade devices can be used,” says Lori Greene, DAHC/ CDC, CCPR, FDAI, FDHI, manager – codes and resources for Allegion. “During these legislative proceedings, the egress and accessibility requirements have been overlooked in favor of less-expensive security products.”
In response, the issue of barricade devices was the focus of extensive debate during the last code development cycle, as various industry experts reviewed the existing codes to determine what, if anything, should be changed to properly address this issue. The result was an overwhelming decision to not only maintain existing egress requirements for classroom doors but to add an additional safety mandate. As a result, the 2018 editions of the International Building Code (IBC), International Fire Code (IFC), and NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code will include the following requirements for classroom doors:
- Any latches installed on egress doors must be able to be unlatched simultaneously by a single releasing operation from the egress side. Hardware used to release the latches must be mounted between 34 inches and 48 inches above the floor.
- Operation of the hardware for egress must be accomplished without tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist, and without using a key, tool, special knowledge or effort. Electrified locks may be remotely engaged to prevent access, but they must allow free egress from the classroom side of the door.
- Locked classroom doors must be able to be unlocked from the outside with a key or other approved means, to allow access for school staff and emergency responders (this is the new requirement that was added to the 2018 model codes).
- Door closers, panic hardware and fire exit hardware may not be modified by retrofit locking devices and modifications to fire door assemblies must be in accordance with NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives.
- The facility’s emergency plan must address locking and unlocking classroom doors, and staff must be drilled in these operations.
- In addition, NFPA 101 requires the doors to be lockable from within the classroom, without opening the door.
But while this may appear to have been a great victory for those fighting on the side of accessibility and life safety, it will be several years before these new codes are adopted. In the meantime, parents and school administrators continue to be seduced by the promise of a quick and inexpensive solution to their security needs.
“The revised model codes should be used by state code officials to illustrate the position of all stakeholders in the code-development process,” says Greene. “Life safety must be prioritized in all security decisions.”