About That School with the Shooter-Resistant Curved Walls

It’s been all over the news—state and national—recently: Fruitport Community Schools, in Muskegon, Michigan are building a new, state-of-the-art high school addition and revamp, designed to thwart an active shooter. There are curved hallways, and ‘wings’ (protrusions with no structural purpose) to disrupt sight-lines. There are hidey-holes all over the place, in halls and classrooms, special impact-resistant glass, and deluxe alarm and lockdown systems. You can do a walk-through with Kate Snow and the school district’s superintendent, Bob Szymoniak, here.

Feedback on this has generally been negative— a ‘What is this world coming to?’ response. The sub-head in the Daily Mail reads:  School officials in Fruitport, Michigan, spent $48 million to make sure the school would provide greater safety in a catastrophe.

But that’s not precisely true. Voters in the Fruitport district had to approve a tax bond issue for that $48 million—and in Michigan, bond issue money can only be used for buildings and equipment. If schools want to improve staffing, instruction or curriculum or offer special courses, they can only use the state-provided per-pupil grants. (Michigan uses a complex and unusual formula to fund schools, not based on property taxes.)

Michigan also offers district-to-district school choice. If a school in Muskegon wants to offer something special to act as magnet, to bring students outside Fruitport boundaries to that particular school (and capture more per-pupil grants), their options are limited to things that can be bonded by taxpayer vote.

The people of Fruitport voted yes on a $51 million bond issue in 2016 by 180 votes out of 9100 cast, the slimmest of margins. There were failing bond issues in previous years—and the school genuinely needed to add space, update all the buildings in the district and replace buses.

Perhaps the headline should read: School officials spent $48 million on better schools for Fruitport students, including many innovative safety features that other schools don’t have. Subtext: So, if you’re shopping for a super-safe school in these times, if that’s your bottom line, why not send your high school student to Fruitport?

I should mention that I am familiar with this district. Children I love go to school there. I have been treated to their first days of school, last week, via photos and videos. They are happy campers. Their parents, who also attended Fruitport schools, are happy that there’s a new(ish) high school for their little ones, down the road. They are happy that the bond issue passed, finally. Strong communities are built when people pitch in and agree to invest in children.

I see the Superintendent acting as a kind of carnival barker, whether he likes this part of his job or not. I’m sure it can’t be comfortable to advertise your school as where parents want their kids to be, should an active shooter come to town. I would like to think that any school superintendent would rather be promoting the outstanding drama or music program, the elementary libraries and playgrounds, the 15:1 teacher-student ratio. But those things are dependent on operational monies.

School superintendents tend to be evaluated in the long-term not by program enrichment, however, but by tangible results: buildings built, money saved, test scores. When my school opened a new building, the superintendent spent the whole first year doing what Szymoniak did: showing off its innovative features in a series of tours. He saw it as his legacy.

There are things about this flurry of attention that really bother me. The first is that anyone who actually did want to go on a rampage at Fruitport HS has now been given a floorplan and a visual tour of exactly where students might be hiding. It’s worth remembering that Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS in Parkland, FL had a new security system, armed guards and practice drills, and the students at Sandy Hook lost their lives when the school secretary recognized the shooter and let him in. Both of those killers knew the buildings where the carnage happened.

The second thing is that eliminating clear sight lines makes hallway supervision—a job that falls to teachers and school leaders—far more difficult. Ask any teacher to tell you where students looking for a bit of illicit privacy congregate—that dark stairwell, the science supply closet, the cornfields behind the football stadium.

In the brand-new school where I taught, architects dedicated a large chunk of square footage to a ‘kiva’—a large, circular, open space in the center of the building that had no specific instructional purpose. It was cool looking, but teachers had to get into the center of the room to see who was in there. The staff quickly started calling it ‘Plaza del Tardy.’ But it was the first place that visitors to the new building were taken.

In every article and video about Fruitport HS—and there are dozens—someone says something like ‘You can’t prevent a school shooting with building design, but…’ But perhaps we can save a few lives. Perhaps we can give students a few more seconds to find safety. Perhaps we can reduce harm. Nobody talks about personal relationships or times when a courageous staff member steps forward to talk down a shooter.

In fact, the Fruitport superintendent says this: “Until we can figure out how to stop this (shootings in schools), we’ve got to do something.”  

Perhaps the answer to that dilemma is hiding in plain sight.

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