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What started as a way to keep school kids safe in tornado-prone Oklahoma has grown into a larger debate about hardening school security. Since 2013, after a deadly tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma, killing seven elementary school students, districts across the state have installed dozens of tornado safe rooms – concrete and steel structures designed to withstand up to EF5-rated storms with winds greater than 200 mph.
But one series of safe rooms in the Healdton, Oklahoma, school district has shifted the conversation. Since 2014, the district has installed seven safe rooms in its elementary school and two larger units in its middle school. While the units were originally acquired to protect students from tornadoes – they are also bulletproof.
Healdton’s superintendent thinks it’s an added bonus given the alarming rate of mass shootings in our country and hopes to install more of them. With the help of practice drills, he can get 35 students and two teachers into a safe room in about 30 seconds. To the district, the peace of mind is well worth the investment.
How Do Bulletproof Safe Rooms Work?
Healdton contracted with Utah-based Shelter in Place to install its safe rooms. Built within the classrooms and secured to the foundation, the shelters are made of ballistic steel that the manufacturer claims can resist rounds from weapons typically used in school shootings, such as AR-15s. The company has designed the structures to resist explosives, EF5 tornadoes, Category 5 hurricanes, and 9.5 magnitude earthquakes.
The safe rooms feature an exterior camera that streams live footage to an interior monitor. The structure’s interior comes outfitted with lighting, padded benches, carpeting, air-filtration, and backup power.
Since the structures comprise a series of steel panels, they can be configured in a variety of sizes. The shelters in the Healdton school include 5-by-6-foot and 8-by-8-foot variations. Teachers integrate the safe rooms into daily classroom activity by using them as tutoring and reading spaces.
Most importantly, a safe room’s entryway allows students and teachers to get to safety quickly in the event of a natural disaster or active shooter situation.
Are Bulletproof Classroom Shelters the Answer?
Tornado shelters are not a new invention, but the Shelter in Place units give the concept a new twist and leave school administrators and communities wondering if they are the answer to gun violence in schools.
Founder Jim Haslem came up with the idea for a bulletproof classroom shelter in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. He views them as an ideal way to protect students from natural disasters and gun violence – a constant fear for school administrators and parents alike. In fact, after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, the company was flooded with inquiries and orders from hundreds of school districts across the country.
But the structures are a big investment, posing a major obstacle for cash-strapped school districts. The Healdton school district first looked at larger structures backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but felt they were too costly. It then acquired six of its shelters through a bond issue at about $30,000 per unit.
Overall, Shelter in Place estimates the cost of its safe rooms at $1,000 per student and offers customers the option of leasing or buying.
Other districts are taking a more cautious approach.
The superintendent of Virginia Beach Public Schools looked at the safe rooms but was concerned with how they might hinder the learning environment. Also, the cost to outfit 5,000 classrooms throughout the district could easily reach $100 million, taking funds away from more viable security initiatives, such as better access control.