Safety Versus Freedom


The East door at Community High School, also known as the Main Entrance, which will now be locked at all times.

Originally published on April 18, 2013.

“There is a way to keep people safe and do it in a compassionate, empathetic way,” said Jen Hein, the current dean at Community High School. “As you know, we go to school in a neighborhood where there are many people that are not fortunate. [They] don’t have homes, they don’t have roofs over their head, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Perhaps they are down on their luck or they have a mental illness or drugs involved. Those folks are here with us, on the streets, every day. Every town is like that.”

However, Hein isn’t saying this to frighten students. “I don’t think you should be afraid. I think you should be aware. And there’s a difference between being afraid and being aware. It’s being what we call street smart. I mean, part of this is just being mature and aware.” Dean Jen also noted that knowing how to be careful and alert is a skill that students will use beyond high school. “These are skills that you take with you when you all go to college, or to a university, or you move to a very big urban area, like Chicago or New York City.”

Unfortunately, keeping students safe is a big job, and often requires more than just a heightened sense of responsibility on the students’ part. And in light of the tragic event which took place in Newtown, Connecticut, school districts across America took some time to review the safety policies that were in place, and see what might need to be added or changed. With the help of Ann Arbor police chief John Seto, Hein did just that.

“We are making changes in the building. During the school day, all of the doors are locked, all the time, with the exception of the North Tower door, which is the door that goes to the back lot by Jason and Jack’s rooms. I have made a proposal to the district that we be able to lock that door as well but that all  [students] be issued keycards. Which is, frankly, something that many universities and businesses use. You would be checked out a keycard, and you would enter the building at any door, just swipe your card and go in.”

Understandably, a keycard system would cost quite a lot to install, even at a school like Community and would be a huge adjustment. However, Hein believes the use of this system would be a fit for Community. “Given our school, and that we really put a priority on personal independence and personal responsibility, and being in the most urban environment there is in Ann Arbor, I think that it is an appropriate step for us to take at a building.”

The status of a keycard system has since been updated, and the tentative plan for keycard use is to be a part of Community High by the 2013-2014 school year.

Hein did acknowledge that having only one of the doors unlocked might seem to go against the idea of having an open campus, as well as extra-curricular activities. However, she stressed that because Community is such a unique school, safety measures taken to keep students safe will also seem very unusual. “We are not a school that has monitors, we don’t have cameras, we don’t have a buzzer system where you can go to a door, and you know, a camera sees your face. The other high schools are not open campuses, and they do have more staff available to monitor who goes in and who goes out of those buildings. We are a smaller high school, we have one community assistant who is responsible for kind of being everywhere at the same time. And I certainly don’t want the climate and the culture of the school to be impacted in a negative way. So sharing the responsibility is how I presented that recommendation to the district administration.”

Sharing the responsibility means more than banging on the locked doors hoping someone will let you in. “If you see someone that you don’t recognize in the building, an adult perhaps that you don’t recognize and who isn’t wearing a visitor’s pass, or if you see someone that is in distress, or if you see something that looks suspicious, it doesn’t hurt anyone to go immediately to an office or to a teacher or to Kevin and say ‘You know, I just saw this person wandering through the building and I don’t recognize them and they don’t really seem to know where they are going. I’m a little worried’. Or if you hear something that concerns you about a peer. That is important information to be shared.”

Students should also understand that current safety plans for the district aren’t the final solution. “We have had a district wide crisis and emergency plan in place for many, many years as a district. But these plans are dynamic plans, they are living plans, and whether you’re working in a school or a hospital or a public library or you’re working at a university, you know, you need to be able to respond in way that’s flexible and provides an opportunity for a review to take place. What’s working, what’s something we maybe need to tweak, is there something we need to tighten up on, are some things not issues?”

Such conversations often include professionals, such as local law enforcement agencies, as they usually end up being the first responders. “Sometimes,” Hein said, “Having that other set of eyes will maybe be looked at differently if you are an agency full of first responders.”

Teachers locking classroom doors has always been the district policy, Hein said. However, it just wasn’t as strictly enforced before. “The reason for the locking the classroom door is because if you are in a situation where an intruder in the building when a crisis happens, it happens very quickly. And so, if an intruder goes down [the hall] and the intruder is just pulling on doors to see which door is open, none of those classroom doors should be able to open from the outside. We don’t want to the intruder to have such immediate access.”

This new change in policy has, understandably, caused some inconvenience for students at Community. “I usually come in through the front, and now the doors are always locked, so you have to ask someone to let you in, and then Dean Jen gets upset,” said sophomore Micayla Roe. “We have to drive all around and come in through the back doors.”

The locked classroom doors have also been a problem for Roe and others. Sophomore Emily Brod said that in her classes, “People have gotten up to get a drink of water, to go to the bathroom, to get something out of their locker, and then have been locked out and needed to disrupt class to get back in.”

FOS teacher Courtney Kiley has had similar issues, especially with her Physics classes, which often do labs in the hallways. “I find it to be a hassle a lot of the time, because kids are used to getting up all the time, and we’re in the hallway a lot, working in the hallway, people are getting up and going to the bathroom, so at times I’ve had to interrupt my lesson to go open the door,” she said. “And it’s a pain… Things happen, like I’ve locked myself out of my classroom, or I let someone borrow my keys and then I’m locked out. It’s just one more thing to remember in an already busy day where I’m trying to remember everything else.”

Brod is critical of the way the policy has been introduced without student input or buy-in. “Never having a conversation about safety in schools, not having a conversation about gun laws, just treating it like a thing that is inevitably going to happen and will never lead to discussion, is the wrong way to handle it,” she said. “I don’t think these policies should be made the way they are; I think they should be allowed to change and adapt.”

Quite apart from being annoyed by the inconvenience, many students also doubt the effectiveness of locking the outside doors. Elizabeth Langley, a senior at Community High, is one of them. “The doors over there, they’re safety glass,” she said, referring the the North and South Tower entrances. “They can be broken with, like, a snowball. And if someone wants to get into our school, they’re that crazy, they can get in no matter what. It’s sad to think about, but it’s going to happen.”

“I know it’s in response to the shooting in Newtown,” added senior Leah Awkward-Rich, “but in that case, the guy got in through a window, so I don’t really feel like locking the doors is going to make a difference.”

“If someone were looking for a way to get in, they would have one,” declared Brod. “The doors that are locked have full windows, are normally surrounded by other windows. The one in the back is at the bottom of a staircase full of windows. And having a lock at the bottom of a window does not make me feel any safer from someone with a gun who could potentially shoot it out and open the door.”

Liz Margolis, Crisis Response Manager for AAPS, has been helping set the security protocols, and she acknowledges that the locked doors have little chance of fully stopping an armed intruder. Margolis has studied countless other incidents of school shootings, and she has concluded that what is consistent across every incident is that “The shooter has come across barriers and people behind those barriers, such as closed doors are generally not injured. So you want to create as many barriers to access as you can. So that is why we instituted the locking of the majority of doors outside, that could have outside access, and then also closing and locking classroom doors.”

According to Margolis, “In all detailed instances, the shooter would enter the school and if the [classroom] doors were locked he’d move on until he found an unlocked door. So it has been proven that securing the doors can slow down intruders. So that’s why we instituted that in the schools.”

Brod, however, is doubtful that the locked doors would even slow down a shooter, especially since the North Tower door will remain open. “Because we leave one door open, if someone were looking for a way to get in they would have one,” she said. “I think if you are going to do something, you should at least make it something that would work. I don’t think the intention of making us feel safer or keeping us safe is a bad idea, but I just think that with the way that’s been carried out, that’s not what’s happening.”

Awkward-Rich agrees. “Locking the outside doors doesn’t really make me feel safer,” she said, “so I don’t know if it’s really a good policy.”

Langley goes a step further. Not only does she doubt that the policy makes students feel safer, but she also actively feels unsafe with the locked doors constantly reminding her of the threat of armed intruders. “This makes us feel unsafe,” said Langley. “Having all our doors locked makes us feel unsafe, makes us feel like we’re always in danger. And that’s just not a way to live your life.”

Margolis believes that such a state of mind is necessary to keep students safe, but she understands the views of the more skeptical students. “It is an awful thing that we have to think about these things,” she said. “But the reality is we have to.We have to be prepared, and if we feel confident in our schools, that’s what we have to do. That’s how we can help students feel confident in how to respond the best they can to emergency situations.”

Margolis also compared the lockdown drills and new security measures to fire and tornado drills, a current staple of public school life. “It’s all about being prepared,” she said. “And it’s not about trying to make kids feel in fear; that’s not what we’re trying to do… but it doesn’t help us to think ‘Oh, that’s never going to happen to us.’ We have to think about how we would respond and how we would keep as many people safe as possible.”

Langely still disagrees. She believes it is unlikely that a shooter would target Community, so fear of such an event shouldn’t overshadow daily life. “I think we should just accept that something terrible happened and try to move on from it and just live our life the way we used to. Things are going to happen.”

“I think it’s a little more precautious,” agreed Roe, “but I don’t really know if we’re safer. I don’t think we were in much danger in the first place.”