Special education teacher Wendi Fein was attending a threat assessment meeting this spring at Discovery Elementary School. An actual lockdown occurred during the meeting.
Fein’s thoughts immediately turned to teachers and students in classrooms at Discovery that lack interior doors. As everyone hunkered down, she agonized over their vulnerability.
The lockdown was lifted without incident. The cause was a visitor who did not know the protocol to buzz in the locked main entry. Instead, he walked around the building knocking on exterior doors.
But the incident raised flags for Fein. On April 16, she fired off an email to top Peninsula School District officials, calling out the security gap.
Discovery Elementary was built in 1981, when “open-concept” designs were popular for schools. Staff members and parents are concerned about Discovery’s lack of interior doors, both for security reasons and because it is a less-than-ideal learning environment. Vince Dice
Discovery Elementary was built in 1981. “Open-concept” schools, featuring many open spaces and lack of interior doors, were in vogue then. Open access to classrooms is not only a glaring safety issue, Fein wrote, but a poor learning environment.
Teachers have been complaining about the doors for 20 years, said Fein, who previously spent 22 years in the district. She was at Discovery through April filling in as a special education teacher.
“It is time to prioritize doors on classrooms at Discovery for both safety and educational reasons,” Fein wrote on April 16. “I hope it does not take a tragedy to make this happen.”
Then came Uvalde. On May 24, a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Southeast Texas.
The news spurred Fein to write again on May 26. “In light of yet another tragedy … I strongly suggest you re-evaluate your priorities on doors at Discovery,” she wrote.
On Friday, Assistant Superintendent John Hellwich sent a letter to Discovery staff and families saying administrators, local police and fire officials would meet to discuss concerns and field questions. The date and time have not yet been set, according to spokeswoman Aimee Gordon.
Before Peninsula School District went to voters with a bond request in 2019, it prioritized needs, including security concerns, in all its buildings. The $198.5 million bond went to build four new elementary schools. Two of them replaced some of the oldest buildings in the district.
Two middle schools are getting major renovations. The balance for “emergent needs” went to repairs and upgrades at other buildings, based on the prioritized capital projects list.
In a May 6 response to Fein’s first email, Hellwich in essence said Discovery’s doors didn’t make the cut.
“We have been fortunate to have a bond to help build and modernize six buildings,” Hellwich said, “but unfortunately the other 11 are now a few years older and with even more needs than when we did our safety studies and created the priority lists, which was about six years ago. Discovery doors is on that list, but this would be several 100,000 (dollars), and is not high enough on the list that the upgrade will happen soon.”
On May 26, parents of Discovery students implored the school board to take action on the doors. Not only for safety reasons but to reduce the noise and distractions.
“I sit outside fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms. I can hear everything,” said Erin McAllister. “They can hear everything. They see me. They see each other. My third-grader walks by just so he can look at his brother in his fifth-grade class and mess with him. It’s not good.”
The exterior of Discovery Elementary in Gig Harbor. Vince Dice
Discovery is the only school in the district with an open concept design.
“It’s not an ideal learning environment,” McAllister said. “It’s not an ideal teacher environment. It’s not right for these kids to deal with every day. It’s not equitable”
Fein’s classroom has doors, but it’s one of the few.
“As a teacher for 42 years, 25 in which were in special education, I know how a classroom environment can positively or adversely affect both teaching and learning,” she wrote on April 16 to Hellwich and others. “I listen to the classroom teachers. I hear the noise as students are frequently moving from classrooms to specialists to recess or working at the hallway tables, even when they are trying to be quiet. The sound carries from one classroom to another, making it more difficult to do interactive learning.”
Hellwich, in his email to Fein, noted that the district will seek voter support for additional capital funds.
“We hope that we can pass our upcoming levy and then another bond to continue to gain the ground we really need to, badly,” he wrote.
Then-interim Superintendent Art Jarvis presented the bond proposal to the school board in 2018. Peninsula High School, another older school with multiple entries, was identified as a high-priority project but was not on the replace/renovate list for the 2019 bond.
At that time, the district’s priority was to address projected overcrowding at the elementary level.
“The larger picture, however, reflects major issues at all grades,” Jarvis wrote in his report to the board. “Projects previously identified throughout the district combine to a level of capital funding not previously experienced by this community.”
Fein, in reading the news about the school shooting in Texas, was struck by a headline: “Uvalde teacher sprinted to lock her classroom door.”
Like every other teacher, she has played out that scenario in her head. What if it were me? What if it were the teacher down the hall?
Fein is retiring at the end this school year. And with summer break coming, she is hoping that safety at Discovery is elevated to a top priority.
Hellwich, in his letter to the Discovery community, reviewed what the district has done at all schools to improve safety, following a security assessment conducted eight years ago.
“From the report, we first invested resources to repair and add fencing, clear brush to improve sightlines, and develop a badge ID and intercom buzz-in single point entry system.,” Hellwich wrote. “This was a big step towards mitigating risks, especially for our younger students, but with the age and condition of our facilities there are many other needs still to address.”
He pledged that Discovery will be a top priority in the district’s next steps.
“As is called out in the new Strategic Plan, it is time to reassess our safety and security needs,” Hellwich said. “This will include finding a solution for doors for Discovery classrooms.”
But the timeline is, as yet, unclear.
McAllister, in her comments to the board, shared her sense of urgency and concern for the kids and their teachers.
“They know what it means when they walk in those doors, that they will protect our kids, and I love that about them,” she said. “But let’s not put them in that situation. They don’t even have doors. There’s nothing. So, I’m asking us to start the conversation about some doors for Discovery. Let’s get this going.”
Discovery Elementary in Gig Harbor is an example of the “open concept” school design that was popular in the 1980s. Vince Dice
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