Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Record Update first

Committee investigates feasibility of internal classroom locks

When a gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, the incident prompted security discussions at colleges across the country and suggestions that classrooms locked from the inside could have averted the tragedy.

At U-M, the All Hazards Planning Group has attempted to prepare the university for a similar public safety emergency, although internal locks on classrooms have not been implemented. What seems on the surface to be a relatively simple precaution is rife with complex technical, operational and financial issues, officials say.

Now, an ad hoc committee of officials from the Office of Facilities and Operations as well as other U-M constituencies is investigating a wide variety of issues involved with determining whether such a step would be feasible.

The committee’s task is to compile a list of pros and cons associated with various options that could address the problem, and then pass that information on to administrators who will decide how to proceed, says Diane Brown, public safety spokeswoman.

Given the early stage of the information-collection process, there is no projection for how much it would cost to upgrade locking capabilities for the estimated 600-900 classrooms on campus that could be affected.

“There’s a wide variety of use issues before you even get to funding issues,” Brown says, adding that it’s difficult to forecast the outlook for such a potentially far-reaching project in times of economic challenge.

Likewise, there is no set timeline for the committee to present its conclusions, but Brown said she expects most of the information will be gathered by the end of the summer.

Most classrooms have locks to secure them when not in use, but installing new mechanisms that would allow people to essentially lock themselves in if an emergency called for it adds a new dimension of security, Brown says.

The initial challenge in any discussion of classroom locks is Michigan’s fire code, which requires classroom doors to open outward and with one single action so people can exit quickly in case of fire. Therefore, any mechanism that requires a user to first unlock a latch before opening the door is not feasible. Locking mechanisms have been identified that meet the fire code, but each has issues that must be investigated.

For instance, one allows a room to be locked and then later exited with one motion on the door handle, leaving the door unlocked; another would keep the door locked after exiting; while a third would use a “crash-bar” mechanism instead of a handle. Each has positive features and drawbacks, Brown says.

Other issues involve procedures for creating and managing keys for such a locking system, which classrooms should be targeted first, and how adding the additional security will affect general facility operations.

The committee has been gathering input for several months, Brown says. Last week, physics professor Keith Riles, who initiated the proposal last year when he served on the Senate Advisory Committee for University Affairs, returned to SACUA to gather faculty input.

The faculty panel said its preference would be to focus the first stage of such a project on academic auditoriums in order to most efficiently secure large groups of students, then move on to buildings where classrooms are “clustered” with several opening onto a common hallway.

Meanwhile, other committee members are meeting with facility managers and student groups to gather insights from those constituencies, Brown says.
Although many issues remain, Brown says the process currently under way is a “serious review to give informed information as to the challenges that exist on our campus.”