Uvalde school's classrooms lacked a basic security feature — and it’s missing across America

The classroom doors at Robb Elementary could not be locked from the inside. That's a vulnerability school safety experts have been warning about for decades.

The moment she heard the first pops of gunfire, the teacher knew what she had to do: She needed to make sure that her classroom door was locked.

But at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that seemingly simple task would require her to take a life-threatening risk.

As most of her students crawled under their desks to take cover, she made eye contact with one child she had always given the same job during their lockdown drills, the teacher recalled in an interview. Without speaking, the student followed her to the classroom door.

“Do you remember what we do?” the teacher asked the boy, trying to keep her voice calm.

The boy, with tears in his eyes, nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

Then the teacher pulled the door open. Took a deep breath. And stepped into the hall, praying that the shooter wouldn’t see her.

Moving toward gunfire was the only way she could be certain that her students were safe, the teacher said. That’s because Robb Elementary is among thousands of schools across the country lacking a basic safety feature that experts have recommended for decades: classroom doors that lock from the inside.

Despite billions of dollars that have been poured into hardening schools nationally, 1 in 4 U.S. public schools lack classroom doors that can be locked from the inside, according to a survey conducted two years ago by the National Center on Education Statistics, a federal research office.

The safety feature is missing in much of Texas: 36% of the state’s schools said they did not have interior-locking doors in the majority of their classrooms, according to a 2018 survey commissioned by Gov. Greg Abbott. Outdated locks are especially common in older school buildings that haven’t been renovated, industry representatives said.

What's left out of school 'hardening'

Doors that can be quickly and easily locked can mean the difference between life and death when a shooter is on school grounds. That’s why post-shooting safety commissions, teachers, fire safety groups and both gun rights and gun control groups have all advocated for interior-locking doors since the Columbine shooting in 1999, in which two students killed 12 classmates and one teacher.

Before Columbine, when security concerns in classrooms were more focused on preventing burglaries than shootings, schools were usually designed with doors that could only be locked with a key from the outside. After the massacre — in which the shooters were only able to access classrooms that were unlocked — schools across the United States began installing specialized classroom security locks, sometimes referred to as “Columbine” locks.

Such locks allow teachers to secure their classrooms with a key from either side of the door. When the door is locked, no one can enter from outside the classroom, but the door can always be opened from the inside by just turning the knob. That allows students and teachers to exit the classroom freely at all times, as fire codes require.

The upgrade doesn’t come cheap — installing a Columbine lock can cost between $200 and $900 per door, according to one industry estimate, though some older locks can be modified for less. But there is a broad consensus among experts and school safety advocates that this is a simple and effective measure that some school districts have left by the wayside even as they’ve spent millions on new security. Amid the pressure to “harden” schools, and in the absence of state or local requirements to upgrade locks, districts have bought everything from bulletproof whiteboards to artificial intelligence-powered gun detection devices, despite scant evidence that such products prevent shootings.

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