New security doors and a check-in window were under construction at Johns Creek Elementary School in Suwanee last July. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Opinion: Better school design can help keep kids safer

Growing up, both of my parents were public schoolteachers. It gave them great joy to work every day to help shape the future for our children. As a parent and grandfather, I feel the same joy watching my grandkids learn something new.

Last month, 1.7 million students across Georgia headed back to school. For them, unfortunately, the reality of going to school feels dramatically different than it did when I was younger.

Over the last 20 years, many students across the country have directly experienced gun violence at their schools. Bulletproof backpacks and lockdown drills are now part of our children’s daily routine. It is every parent’s worst nightmare. For families in Newtown and Parkland, it is a nightmare that will never end.

In many of these tragic cases, bad actors were able to bypass security due to loopholes in the building’s design.

What can we do to keep our kids safe? We can start by building schools that are designed to protect our children. As an engineer by trade, I have learned that building design is more than brick, metal, and wood – it is the first line of defense.

School design is not the only solution to making schools safer; we still have to find better ways to enforce existing law and keep guns out of the wrong hands. However, redesigning schools is an essential first step to keeping our kids safe.

The problem is that many communities don’t have access to the knowledge or tools they need to build safer schools.

Jay Brotman, lead designer of the newly rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, has spoken about this at the White House. He said one of the biggest problems preventing local school officials from implementing new safety measures was “a lack of access to quality school-design information.”

Now, Congress has the chance to fix this with a simple, commonsense step.

I am proud to join senators Doug Jones, Thom Tillis, and Shelley Moore Capito in sponsoring the bipartisan School Safety Clearinghouse Act in the U.S. Senate. This bill will direct the Department of Homeland Security to build and maintain a national clearinghouse containing all the best practices and developments in school design.

The School Safety Clearinghouse Act will close the gaps preventing schools from finding the school design advancements they need to protect their students and faculty.

It does so while also upholding a key doctrine of our Founding Mothers and Fathers: that decisions are best made by families, communities, and states – not the Federal Government.

The clearinghouse will have zero government mandates attached. It will advocate no political policies. Instead, it will act like a library that state and local officials can use to access the best practices when redesigning schools.

That way, they are empowered to work with parents, teachers, and administrators to implement the school safety techniques that work best for their communities. These techniques aren’t government programs – they are innovations coming from the free market of ideas.

Some of these innovations are physical, such as stronger glass and reinforced locks. Others are virtual, like state-of-the-art surveillance systems or mobile apps. Other innovations are procedural, like new emergency strategies and threat assessment programs.

The School Safety Clearinghouse Act will give state and local officials easy access to this information. That way, they will be able to give our kids the safe learning environments they deserve.

We have seen how rethinking building design has worked before.

After the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1994, designs and security at federal buildings were modernized. Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001, everything from our airports to sporting venues were rethought to prevent lapses in safety.

Yet after years of tragic incidents, little has been done to make school design safer.

The private sector is working hard to change that. State and local officials are working hard to change that. The bipartisan School Safety Clearinghouse Act will help them make that change possible so that we can better protect all of our children.

David Perdue is a Georgia U.S. Senator.

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