Parents of students at Discovery Elementary School on Wednesday got a chance to sound off about the lack of interior classroom doors, an issue that lately resurfaced as a security concern.
Since the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Peninsula School District officials have fielded complaints about the school’s “open concept” design, which also creates a noisy distraction to learning.
Several dozen parents and staff members attended a meeting in the school’s gym to hear fire and police officials discuss safety plans in the event of an intruder or other emergency. Top district officials outlined options to remedy the lack of doors, none of which would be cheap or quick.
Discovery, built in 1981, is the district’s only remaining open concept school since Purdy Elementary was renovated in 2003.
MaryJane Tarabochia, whose grandchildren attend the school, asked if Discovery students could be moved to one of the district’s neighboring, newly constructed schools, at least temporarily.
“Could we, as owners of this building, because we are taxpayers, condemn this building and put all the kids in Swift Water and Artondale?” Tarabochia said. “Why don’t we put them there until this school is no longer condemned by the owners, who are us, right? We are the owners, and this is what we want for our kids. It’s my grandkids.
The exterior of Discovery Elementary in Gig Harbor. Vince Dice
“My daughter was here 30 years ago, and it was known at that time that this was a building not built for education without distraction. Now, it’s a building built for distractions, and we’re not secure,” she said.
One parent asked about transferring her child to another school. Another suggested parent volunteers be trained to provide extra surveillance in the hallways.
“Does a tragedy need to happen here in order for something to change sooner rather than later?” asked parent Brittany Rushing.
Discovery Principal Delonna Halliday outlined current safety plans at the school. Students and staff regularly drill for various types of emergencies, including fire, shelter-in-place and lockdown.
Exterior doors on classrooms are locked. Key pads allow staff access. Multiple exterior doors at Discovery allow for quick exit in the event of an emergency that calls for evacuation. That includes an intruder alert, under which students are now taught to “flee” as a first choice.
“Our staff and students are really well practiced at getting out of this building,” Halliday said. “They can get out in under a minute.”
Halliday said the school works closely with fire and police departments.
Assistant Superintendent John Hellwich said all administrators in the district (including principals) receive certification training in the federal Incident Command System protocols, which prepare schools (and other organizations) for major emergencies, from natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, to terrorist attacks and school shooter events.
Todd Meyer, assistant chief of Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, described how his department regularly drills on campuses throughout the district.
“I have been on this facility many times doing different drills and doing different things,” Meyer said. “We’re very familiar with this campus. We know the back way to get in.”
Fire and medic staff are trained and equipped to assist law enforcement in “rescue task forces,” when emergency personnel access the building to aid occupants in danger.
Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey explained how both local police and fire departments are part of a tri-county counterterrorism task force that includes emergency response agencies from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The task force allows for a coordinated, regional response in major threat events.
Busey said training and coordination is key to reducing risk.
“Can we eliminate all risk? No, we can’t do that,” Busey said. “Can we get better at responding? Yes, and I have great confidence in our local agencies to respond.”
Busey did not dismiss concerns about Discovery’s lack of interior doors, but he said doors alone are not a panacea; there has to be a big picture response.
“Doors are obstacles, right? And anytime we can throw an obstacle in front of somebody that wants to do bad things and slow them down, that’s a good thing,” he said. “But someone who wants to do something bad is going to find a different vulnerability, right?”
Teacher Ron Witter thanked first responders. And he thanked parents whose recent complaints served to “push the envelope” on discussion of the doors.
“I’ve been teaching at Discovery for almost 20 years, and the topic of doors has been a conversation you have every year. This is as far as we’ve ever gotten! So, thank you,” Witter said, getting a round of applause.
Witter urged parents not to transfer their kids because of the doors.
“I don’t want to see families leave, so please don’t do that,” he said. “We have incredible staff here. We have an incredible community here. The fabric of the school here is, I think, unmatched in any other school.
“I understand your concerns about your kids and you want to see your kids come home every day. And I want you to know that our teachers and our administrators in this building take that charge very seriously. And even though we don’t have doors, we do have plans,” he said. “So, I hope that you can take some solace in that knowing that we have a plan for whatever happens.”
Witter said his priority in wanting doors for the classrooms is to reduce the noise and distraction that make it tough on students and teachers.
“Thank you for having this meeting tonight, so that we can express what our frustration is as teachers in the day-to-day operation of the learning environment. From a learning perspective, doors are really critical, and I hope our district administrators hear that,” Witter said, eliciting more applause.
Hellwich said district officials are on the same page as parents and staff about the open concept design.
“We want to make it clear that as a district, we don’t have anybody that I know of that believes we need to keep these doors open because we believe in the open concept. That’s not where we’re at,” Hellwich said. We do think that for safety and — whatever we want to call it, noise or learning environment — that there would be an advantage to having enclosed classrooms.”
In 2014, the district updated its strategic plan, including to address safety at all schools. A consultant evaluated all buildings in the district.
Discovery’s lack of interior doors was noted, but in terms of safety, the three top priorities identified for all elementary schools were: to install a single-entry, buzz-in system controlled by front office staff, to clear away vegetation from around the school to open up lines of sight, and to implement the incident-command training.
“In the report, it actually uses the term ‘active shooter,’ that the plan at Discovery needs to be fleeing, and then we’re looking at the exterior doors as the way to do that,” Hellwich said. “And again, that doesn’t mean that doors are not a priority. It’s just that wasn’t what was called out on top of that list.”
Hellwich said the condition of district facilities will be reviewed as part of the 2022 strategic plan update. The district could use its local levy money for some projects, he said, but the district will likely be floating another bond in the near future to address the many larger projects in the district. The most recent bond passed in 2019.
Asked whether Discovery’s door would be a top priority in the next bond, Hellwich said that would be up to the school board.
School Board President Lori Glover, who was at the meeting, said she would share parents’ concerns with the board. She said the board weighs evidence-based reports on the relative merit of projects to set priorities for a bond.
“I am on your side,” Glover said. “I love Discovery. I want this and every building to be the safest, and so we’re listening.”
Hellwich clarified that a fix to Discovery’s doors in not necessarily dependent on passage of a bond, although the project is projected to cost several hundred thousand dollars.
Facilities Director Patrick Gillespie said installing new doors, even if the district were to move forward tomorrow, would entail a lengthy evaluation, design and permitting process. Any installation would need to be compatible with other systems in the building, such as fire suppression and HVAC.
Supply chain issues would also cause delays, he said.
“What I’m saying is, it’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s going to take some planning and it’s going to take some time and it’s going to be much longer than people expect,” Gillespie said.
“I understand it’s going take time. It’s going to take time and money,” parent James Morgan said. “What are we going to do to keep our kids safe tomorrow?”
Discovery Elementary in Gig Harbor is an example of the “open concept” school design that was popular in the 1980s. Vince Dice
Superintendent Krestin Bahr said Wednesday’s meeting was the start of a conversation about Discovery’s doors that would continue under her watch. She said there would be a follow-up meeting to discuss short-term strategies, like parent safety volunteers, and how parents can partner with the district on both short- and long-term solutions.
“What I want you to know and understand today is that we are listening very deeply,” she said. “I’m a grandmother, you know. My oldest starts kindergarten this year, and I recognize the fear and anxiety. These are hard conversations.”
Bahr, new to the district in August, said she, too, had questions about Discovery’s doors because “I had not seen an open concept school in quite some time.”
She urged patience on the long-term fix.
“We are committed to doing the right thing,” she said, adding later. “This is not going to be your short-term solution, right? … What we want to do is to do it the right way, not the fastest way or the least expensive way. I think you’d agree that you would want us to do it the correct way to make sure that we are addressing the learning needs as well as addressing safety and security.”
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