Easthampton’s Mountain View School designed with safety in mind

  • Jean Libby, the family community engagement coordinator at Mountain View School, leads a tour during the celebration of its opening on Tuesday. Behind her are Building Committee member John Atwater, left, School Committee member Shannon Dunhan and City Councilor James “JP” Kwiecinski. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jean Libby, the family community engagement coordinator at Mountain View School, leads a tour of the school during the celebration of its opening on Tuesday, September 5, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

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    Shannon Dunhan, a school committee member, and James "JP" Kwiecinski, a city councilor, talk about the the safety features built into the design of the Mountain View School in Easthampton. Students in the dark blue portion of the floor cannot be seen from the door of the classroom. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jean Libby, the family community engagement coordinator for the school district, points out the dark blue portion of the floor where students cannot be seen from the door of the classroom as James “JP” Kwiecinski, a city councilor, left, John Atwater, a Building Committee member, and Shannon Dunhan, a School Committee member, listen. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

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    Shannon Dunhan, school committee member and James "JP" Kwiecinski, a city counselor, and John Atwater, a building committee member, talk about the the safety features built into the design of the Mountain View School in Easthampton. The dark blue portion of the floor is a space that when student stand there they can not be seen from the door of the classroom. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2022 9:40:14 PM
Modified: 9/9/2022 9:36:29 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As she gave a tour of the city’s sparkling new pre-K-8 school Tuesday morning, Jean Libby pointed to the built-in colored markings on the floor in one of the classrooms. The markings may look like simple decorative features, but they serve a much larger purpose: They indicate where students and staff should hide in the event of an emergency, like a school shooting.

“It’s different in every classroom, but in the event of an emergency, the class stands on that part of the floor and they are not visible through the window on the door,” said Libby, the district’s family and community engagement coordinator.

It’s just one of many features inside and surrounding the 176,000-square-foot Mountain View School designed with safety in mind through a strategy known as “crime prevention through environmental design.”

Following the May mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which a single shooter killed 19 children and two adults, the topic of safety at school has reemerged at the forefront of many parents’ minds, said project architect Bertram “Bert” W. Gardner IV, of Chicopee-based Caolo & Bieniek Associates Inc. He says the topic has been an evolving conversation since the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which the shooter killed 20 children and six adults.

Although it is impossible to completely prevent a motivated individual from finding a way into a building, the goal in such design is to slow an attacker down long enough to allow first responders to arrive and take control of the scene before anyone is hurt, Gardner said.

Superintendent Allison LeClair said Mountain View was designed to ensure maximum awareness of surroundings through clear, unobstructed sight lines. The design also incorporates multiple layers with stopping points between the school grounds and the more secure student classrooms.

“You might see a lot of glass on the elementary school entrance, but what you need to know is that the administrative assistants have that glass view. They see anyone coming at them from the beginning of the driveway, from the end of the walkway all the way to them. They can see someone approaching,” LeClair said.

In the event of an emergency, there are multiple duress buttons at undisclosed locations throughout the building, which provide direct contact to the police and fire departments immediately, she said.

“If a duress button is pushed, hallway doors are automatically closed and locked so that an intruder could not get into a hallway,” she said.

Gardner explained his firm’s approach: “Every school we design is different from the last, and a result of visioning sessions with each community’s stakeholders, and detailed conversations with local public safety officials, to find the right balance between a safe and secure environment that is also a warm, welcoming and joyful place for students to learn.”

To that end, LeClair said laying the groundwork for the new learning environment at Mountain View has taken purposeful planning to serve multiple needs that include safety, but also aim to provide a welcoming environment and be practically functional. That’s why the elementary side of the building features bright primary colors, and a blue river of tiles that serves as a wayfinding tool in navigating the building.

Additionally, the gymnasium has the ability to be sectioned off into three spaces so that multiple classes can use the space at once. And the new middle school’s media center features a solar screen wall with an image of children playing, taken by local photographer and owner of Mt. Tom’s Ice Cream, Jim Ingram. In addition to being a unique piece of art, the wall was designed to combat the heat from southern exposure and also prevent birds from crashing into the glass.

“We’ve really tried to be thoughtful,” LeClair said.

What does a safe school look like?

In Massachusetts, defining what makes a school safe varies by community because there is no standard required by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, according to Matt Donovan, the authority’s director of administration and operations. The agency helps fund the construction of school buildings but does not require any specific safety measures for districts to receive funding.

“Every district, there are no set guidelines for districts to abide by for school safety. … If they (a district) applies to us, and they’re doing a project with us, we do not have a standalone program for school safety,” Donovan said. “But if we’re working with them on a project and our core program, which is major addition renovation or new, or in our accelerated repair, which is roofs, windows and boilers, if they are doing something with us, and they want to discuss school safety measures incorporated into those projects, it’s something we would possibly entertain.”

Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Gov. Deval Patrick assembled a task force that looked at school safety and security. After hearing from teachers, parents, superintendents, members of law enforcement and a variety of experts, the task force determined that school safety decisions “must be made at the local level and that resources vary from district to district.”

From Gardner’s perspective, standard practices in making a school safer always include limiting entry points to the school and establishing a very controlled entry sequence for visitors.

“Modern schools also use surveillance cameras, mostly for forensic documentation, but also offer for live monitoring when necessary,” said Gardner, whose firm has designed many regional schools over the years. In addition to Mountain View, Caolo & Bieniek Associates are working with the city of Westfield on a proposed new elementary school and in the past decade has designed schools including Easthampton High School and Sgt. Kevin A. Dupont Middle School in Chicopee, as well as a number of smaller, more targeted renovation, maintenance and study projects for several local area schools.

Most recently, coming out of COVID-19 and the extended period of social isolation it brought with it, school architects have also had to contend with students’ mental health as a security topic.

“If, through the architecture, we can help make schools an inviting and positive place for students and staff to spend their days, it will hopefully at least reduce the security threat from within,” Gardner said.

Gardner noted that equally important as the building’s security attributes — and possibly more so — is the training that’s offered and how it’s delivered.

“I do think many districts are becoming more mindful of how important this component of their safety plan is,” he said. “Again, it’s finding a balance between making responses as automatic as possible, and not instilling an overriding feeling of anxiety among the school population that is tricky.”

Preparing for the worst

LeClair said a summary of the security features at Mountain View School went home to parents with a disclaimer that there were even more features kept private from parents to keep everyone safe.

While the topic of school safety has continued to evolve throughout LeClair’s 35 years in the education field, she said that worries are certainly more prevalent these days.

At the beginning of her career, much of the concern and preparation was around fire drills.

“In this day and age, we continue to prepare for those events, but we also prepare for intruders in the building. We prepare for emergencies, such as a staff or student getting hurt … we, you know, we drill for a lot of things that we didn’t necessarily consider 35 years ago.”

Easthampton police officers and firefighters provided safety input into the design. Much like fire drills, Sgt. Kyle Gribi said, preparation for intruders and sheltering in place should be second nature for students and staff.

Now that the building is complete, training for potential active shooter scenarios or sheltering in place will continue regularly, as it has become a prioritized training for districts in western Massachusetts, Gribi said.

“Unfortunately, this has become like a fire drill. We have to spend time training and practicing for it,” Gribi said. “There really isn’t a blueprint that’s been established for best practices for kids. It’s a work in progress for everybody, really.”

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