The Shadow of Sandy Hook: School Security, Part I

Updated on October 2, 2017
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Registered Architect, 40 years experience, State Agency Architect overseeing public school construction & recognized security specialist.

Those Lost at Sandy Hook

Introduction

There are always some events in everyone’s life that are etched so deeply that you will always remember EXACTLY what you were doing the first time you heard the news. The assassination of JFK, the explosion of Challenger, the loss of Columbia, the bombing of Oklahoma City, and unforgettably 9/11, just to mention a few. As an Architect, I would also include the collapse of the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City and December 14, 2012, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I am not sure why that day became so personal; maybe it was because I was working exclusively on schools at that time, or maybe that my second child was in first grade on that very day, or whatever. The reason is irrelevant; the result was that it became very personal. It was around 10:00 AM or so, our time, when a co-worker came into my office. I was meeting with another co-worker at that time, and all he said was, “Did you hear about the school shooting in Connecticut?” I responded, “No, how bad was it?” His reply was “Very bad.” I immediately kicked them both out of my office, muttering I have work to do. I shut the door and spent the rest of that Friday sequestered getting every piece of information I could on the event.

After the initial reports, I had the need to call my wife. Of course, she did not answer her cell phone, and I would not talk to her until very late that day. When I finally talked to her, I asked if she heard about the shooting. She told me she had not and that she kept all three of our children out of school and they were at the mall most of the day. After almost 13 years of marriage, when I got home that night I passed my wife without ever giving her a kiss (for the first time ever) and hugged all three of our children first. Even then, I had not understood why it was such a moving day to me. After all, I am a professional. I needed to look at the situation objectively.

The Groundwork

I spent all weekend following everything I could to gain more insight into those events. Monday morning, I walked into my office and closed the door sequestering myself again to the task at hand, information gathering. We had a Board meeting on Wednesday, so I knew my Executive Director would not be coming to me until after that meeting, but I was preparing for that eventual facing. I called our counterpart Agency in Connecticut seeking anything I could on the school buildings. By then, The State of Connecticut had already collected the building plans, so I was unable to even get a copy of the floor plans or site plan.

Wednesday afternoon, after the Board meeting, my Executive Director opened my door and told me that the Governor wanted him to review our school safety recommendations, and he wanted me on it. I informed him I was already working on it, and I had assembled a security team. I informed him that the security team was meeting the next day and asked if he wanted to sit in on the meeting. He declined and told me to report back to him. After about three months, I went back with what I found. We made some initial revisions at that time to the recommendations. About eight months later, the final report was published by the State of Connecticut. After a couple more months of review, in early 2014, we finalized our revised recommendations.

My study included more than 200 school shootings from early 2000 through December 2014. I was first able to place all the shootings into three basic groups based on number of victims. The group with the smallest number of victims, tended to show little if any planning on the shooter’s part. The middle group showed some planning on the part of the shooter(s), most was not extensively planned, possibly only days or a week. The large group showed extensive planning on the part of the shooter(s), possibly months or even years.

I am by no means an expert in the area, but it also appeared that most all shooters fit into basically two groups. The reactive (revenge) type and what has been referred to as the injustice collector. The first type is the person that wants to gain revenge on one, two, or three people for whatever reason. The second type is the type that has been “wronged” by the world and wants justice for themselves and others like them that have been mistreated by the world in the same manner.

Three Schools; Similarities?

As I studied the events on that December morning, I saw what I thought were some similarities (based on what I could remember of each of the events) in the three largest school shootings in U.S. history, Virginia Tech University (33 died), Sandy Hook (28 died), and Columbine (13 died). My research started with Sandy Hook. As I studied, I recalled something sounding vaguely familiar, almost as if it happened before. Then it hit me, VTU!! I then grabbed information for the VTU shootings. Wow, I was amazed! The methodical movement of the shooter was an eerie shadow of the Sandy Hook shooter. Then the thought crossed my mind, what about Columbine? Columbine was harder to correlate, being the first major event of the type, having two shooters, a completely different response from emergency personnel at the time of the event, and so on, but then I saw it. One small part of the Columbine shooting were the shooters went into the science wing. Wow!! It started to look much like the other two shootings.

Let me begin by stating this: one event is not enough to form any cohesive response ideology from, however something might be able to be gleamed from a couple events, or more. Could this be the case? I had no idea, I just kept reviewing the data.

Evil is a part of this world. Don’t believe me? Just look at the news. Saying that, if such an evil act had to be perpetrated, all I can say is the evildoer got what he deserved. Unfortunately, innocent lives were adversely impacted by his evil actions. We owe it to those that did not survive to use knowledge learned to make it a little more difficult to repeat such a despicable and cowardly act in the future. I want to do my part in attaining that goal.

Saying all that I want everyone that reads this to understand clearly what I mean when I say this next. Sandy Hook Elementary School was designed in such a way, that prior to that fateful December morning, that school would have been largely seen as a secured school. It contained everything that I would have wanted in all my schools. A single, controlled access, oversighted point of entry, secured perimeter fencing and the like. Most of the safety recommendations my Agency had were incorporated into the basic design of that school. By choosing that particular school the shooter gave us a very strong forensic laboratory to work with. I do not want people to take offense, just acknowledge that had the building not met much of these acceptable “security” standards, correlating a response would have been left to much more subjectivity. A lot of possible variables may have been eliminated just by having such a “secured” school site and building. I would have been ecstatic if all my schools had met the Sandy Hook achievements, but now we have a laboratory that might reveal something unknown previously.

The Presentation

The amount of information and data used to form the revised recommendations drew a lot of local attention by security specialists. I was granted permission by my Executive Director, to develop a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming meeting of CEFPI (Council of Education Facilities Planners International, currently known as Association for Learning Environments). I had no idea where that would lead, but it grew unexpectedly. I was even granted permission to be interviewed by a reporter on school security based on the data we collected. Our small Agency was making news! I have since given that presentation so many times I cannot count. As a result, I have had the opportunity to be around and learn from very respected security and counter-terrorism specialists, an opportunity that I have thankfully jumped at each and every time it has been presented to me.

Some other tools that are available already would include “Run, Hide, Fight”, ALICE, SRP (Standard Response Protocol, I Love You Guys Foundation), SRM (Standard Reunification Method, I Love You Guys Foundation), and many others. The internet is a valuable resource. There are several “Run, Hide, Fight” videos. The one that I like is the one from the Houston, Texas Police Department in conjunction with the U.S. Homeland Security Department. The SRP and SRM programs by I Love You Guys Foundation provides very valuable resources for schools, as well as other “out of the box” ideas that will be presented in later parts of this paper.

Sandy Hook Elementary School

The information regarding Sandy Hook that is about to be presented came largely from the State Attorney’s report published on November 25, 2013. This report includes 10 fully executed search warrants, a timeline, floor plan, school and parking lot plan, ballistics diagram, Exterior description, lobby, hallway, Room 9 and ballistic diagram, classroom 8 ballistics description, classroom 10 ballistics description, guns and ammunition weights, Newtown Emergency Response Plan (ERP), Pictures, and shooter’s toxicology report. I have also listened to all the 911 recordings of that morning.

Aerial View of Sandy Hook
Aerial View of Sandy Hook

The school was nestled into the woods. Note the location of the shooter’s car in the red circle.

Front View of Sandy Hook
Front View of Sandy Hook

Note all the windows facing the parking lot. This is great design for “day lighting”, a method for allowing natural light into a space, but creates security vulnerabilities in schools. While natural light has proven great for the learning environment, designers must consider balancing the security concerns in the world we live in. The designer’s challenge is to find another way to bring natural daylight in, without compromising the visual security of the building.

Notice the campus controlled entry point. You can see the black video control box on the door jamb. Also note all the windows. While allowing natural light in, these windows immediately adjacent to an entry point provides a possible intruder with all the visual reconnaissance needed to formulate an on the spot breeching path. The glass and entry becomes very vulnerable to forced entrance.

Let us focus on the video control box for a moment. According to a letter sent home by the late Principal, Dawn Hochsprung, before the school year started, parents were informed that visitors would be required to go directly to the office and sign in. Furthermore, if staff did not recognize the person then a picture ID would be required to gain entrance. This is all good when considering controlled access and impedance.

Entry Breech of Sandy Hook
Entry Breech of Sandy Hook

This visual reconnaissance allowed the shooter to identify the second pair of vestibule doors beyond the entry doors, recognizing the need for a second breech. A second breech that would cost precious time in the shooter’s diabolical plan, forfeiting loss of the shooter’s greatest advantages, surprise and speed. These visual clues provided the shooter with the information on the path of least resistance, an optimal breech direction. Obscured glass might have prevented the shooter from gaining such valuable attack information, while still allowing natural light penetration. A case-hardened design would have concealed such visual information, not allowing someone unfamiliar with the campus insights needed to breech the campus.

Breech Point of Sandy Hook
Breech Point of Sandy Hook

From these pictures, the shooter had complete view of a breeching path, no guessing required. The breech of the side window allowed unimpeded entrance, the vestibule would require a second breech. What path would the shooter have taken if the side window provided no visual information?

Glass Used at Sandy Hook's Entry
Glass Used at Sandy Hook's Entry

A close look at the glass reveals valuable information. The existing glass is a type of glass called laminated. This is most commonly found in windshields and is a safety glass allowed by the building code in human impact areas.

Do not fall prey to an erroneous belief that “bulletproof” glass exists. There is no such thing. It is bullet resistive glass, and only if it conforms to the UL U752 standard. This standard insures the resistive strength with a single shot only, breech may be possible after the third shot, more or less. The Sandy Hook shooter fired eight shots to breech this glass.

Visual impedance may have forced the shooter to change his mind and direction of the attack. This visual impedance could have been accomplished with tinted windows or even deletion of the windows in design. Reinforcing the windows with a hurricane type film would have increased breech time, and may have resulted in a different outcome that fateful morning. As you will see later, time is the shooter’s ally. Impedance is the shooter Achilles heel. Delay the shooter, change the game in your favor. For an example, see this video. There are a variety of these films, and should cost only $7 per square foot to install, as opposed to $60 or $75 per square foot for the Level III or Level IV ballistic glass.

At this point, the carnage began. The next part you follow through the event. Let us learn so as the loss of lives will not be in vain. We owe it to these victims to learn and change to make another event like this near impossible.

© 2017 Dan Demland

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