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After Texas shootings, Connecticut lawmaker wants new policy on school windows

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Connecticut Public
State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-New Britain) discusses virtual schooling during an interview in February 2022.

A state panel will consider whether new school buildings in Connecticut should have windows that open to the outdoors in the wake of last week’s shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

The School Building Projects Advisory Council will take over responsibility for reviewing and updating the state’s school safety design criteria in July.

On Wednesday, members said one of their early priorities will be to evaluate a request from state Rep. Bobby Sanchez to make it mandatory for classrooms in new school buildings to contain at least two windows that can be opened in case of an emergency.

“If this unfortunate thing was to happen again in another school, we want to make sure we’re prepared for that,” Sanchez said in an interview Wednesday. “And having easy access to open a window and have people be able to get out of that window in case there is a fire or an active shooter, it just makes sense.”

Connecticut established statewide safety criteria in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

But as Connecticut Public reported in February, the group charged with updating those standards, the School Safety Infrastructure Council, has been dormant for years.

Lawmakers recently passed a measure to dissolve the council and transfer its responsibilities to the other group.

Sanchez, a New Britain Democrat who co-chairs the Education Committee, said he previously raised concerns about school windows after observing that exterior windows in many new school buildings don’t open.

The state’s school safety criteria currently leave the decision of how windows are designed up to administrators in each community.

Those criteria state that classroom windows “should be operable to allow for evacuation in an emergency,” but they don’t make it mandatory. Districts are required to take that principle into consideration and weigh it against the building code and other security guidelines.

Another provision suggests that windows, framing and anchoring systems should be “shatter resistant, bullet resistant, burglar resistant, and forced entry resistant,” especially in areas of high risk.

Watching the events unfold in Texas, Sanchez said he was struck by scenes of children fleeing the building as the shooter remained inside.

“Kids had that ability, and the teachers, to get out of those rooms through those windows while the active shooter was inside the building,” he said. “So that was my biggest concern.”

News photos from the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School show law enforcement officers helping students evacuate, though it wasn’t immediately clear whether the building's windows were designed to open or intentionally shattered to provide a means of egress.

One young survivor told CNN he climbed through a broken classroom window, cutting his hand on a shard of glass in the process. Others told the Washington Post they saw parents outside the building trying to break windows to free their children.

Connecticut’s design standards indicate that windows “may” serve as a secondary means of egress in case of emergency, and that so-called “rescue windows” with a latching device must be capable of being operated from not more than 48 inches above the floor.

“Windows should be as resistant as possible to mitigate natural and manmade hazards, while at the same time meeting standards for high performance, allowing for natural surveillance, and providing students and personnel the ability to communicate with outside responders in the event of an emergency,” the safety criteria read.

They continue: “To maximize natural lighting in first-floor classrooms without wall protection, a district may also consider utilizing ballistic glass or treated glass that is blast resistant and shatter resistant to enhance the level of security and still maximize lighting efficiencies. If windows are favored over wall protection, consider additional framing with increased strength (i.e. steel).”

The criteria were established in 2014 and later refined in a 2015 update, which provided more guidance around how they should be interpreted. They have since remained unchanged, despite a legislative mandate for the School Safety Infrastructure Council to review and update them as necessary on an annual basis.

Most recently, council members voted in December 2018 to readopt the existing guidelines from three years earlier. Meeting records show the group has struggled since then to assemble enough members to take any official action.

Their work will now transition to the School Building Projects Advisory Council. That group was due to hold its first meeting Wednesday since lawmakers formalized the change, but it was unable to officially convene because only four of eight members were present for the 10 a.m. meeting.

During an informal discussion, Chairman Noel Petra said the council plans to invite Sanchez to its next meeting to discuss criteria for school windows.

“Given the events down in Texas, I think this is pretty relevant,” Petra said. “And we should prioritize this, so I’m looking forward to that discussion.”

Petra, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Administrative Services, said the School Building Projects Advisory Council will be aided by two employees with school safety expertise from the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection as it expands its mandate in the coming weeks.

He added that Connecticut is “way ahead of the curve” and “already leads the nation in school safety,” based on the work undertaken in the years after Sandy Hook to establish safety criteria.

“I want to emphasize that school safety has been and will continue to be our No. 1 priority,” he said.

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