PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — With the recent mass shooting tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the issue of school security is top of mind for any parent.
School architects told sister station WPTV that security is also number one on their minds every step of the way when designing a new school, and that includes multiple new campuses currently under construction in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Andy Thomson is a dad first and a Boca Raton city councilman second. So his interest in school safety is two-fold.
"We as a city take education, it’s very important," Thomson said. "It’s one of the assets we offer to people that makes Boca so attractive is our quality. Quality public and private schools here."
Thomson is excited his children will be attending the brand new Blue Lake Elementary School, set to open this August.
"Top-flight security measures are going to be in place, and that gives me complete assurance as a father that my kids are gonna be safe," Thomson said.
Up the road in Lake Worth, work continues on the School District of Palm Beach County's first new high school in more than a decade, which is due to open in August of 2023.
Joseph Sanches, the school district's chief operating officer, gave WPTV an exclusive tour of the construction and talked about what's different in school design with safety at the forefront.
"One of the changes in the last 10 to 15 years is that single point of entry," Sanches said. "But besides that, additional security cameras, better lighting, card access for all the locations. We have motion detection for all of the classrooms throughout the campus."
When the school day begins at the new high school and the start bell rings, a gate will come down so students can’t get in the main entrance anymore. The only way in will be with a card reader and intercom system to enter through the main office.
"In the old schools, we’ve gone back and retrofitted," Sanches said. "So we’ve added fencing, gates. We’ve added more security cameras and card readers and things of that nature."
Sam Ferreri is the architect behind the new high school, which does not yet have an official name and is temporarily referred to as Western Lake Worth Area High School.
"I would say 15 to 20 years ago we were really spending most of our time trying to get a better educational environment. Now we gotta balance that with security," said Ferrari, who's been designing schools for 40 years.
That includes focusing on single buildings or as few as possible, centered in the middle of the property.
"It starts with the perimeter and understanding the site," Ferreri said. "The students are moving from class to class inside a building's central hallways, so they’re not at the exterior of the building."
There are several layers of protection involved, from the district level of campus security to the actual site perimeter and fencing, parking lot perimeter, building access, and down to the locked classroom doors.
"These buildings will have numbers on the roof, so if there’s a need for the sheriff to come in a helicopter, they can identify where there’s a problem," Ferreri said.
Ferreri added the process is a collaborative effort with the school district, involving not only physically hardening schools but new technology and training.
"The other big change in Palm Beach schools is their school police and security are way more involved in the design than previous years," Ferreri said. "From day one we sit down with them and they review the plans and multiple aspects for camera placement, secure zones, door hardware, security access, and access to areas. They review all of that and then make sure it’s implemented."
All of these factors have to balance with a positive school environment where learning can flourish.
"We don’t want to imprison students in schools," Sanches said. "We want to make them feel at home and at ease and comfortable. But we also want to make sure they’re protected."
Leaders in the School District of Palm Beach County said they are constantly looking at new safety features for campuses and reevaluating them after school shootings happen around the country.
"There’s lessons that we’ve learned from every one of those incidents," Sanches said. "And we’ve beefed up security to make sure we learn lessons from those and take precautions to make sure our students are kept safe."
There are three new schools under construction in Palm Beach County and two rebuilds, all following these principles.
This story was first reported by Stephanie Susskind at WPTV in West Palm Beach, Fla.