Standards for Safer Schools, Safer Children
As the warm days of summer grow shorter and the calendar ticks over into September, thoughts turn to school. New grade levels, new friends, new outfits — it’s an exciting time for everyone.
Unfortunately, in recent years the start of each school year also sees a heightened emphasis on protecting students and staff from armed intruders. In addition to matching teachers to classrooms, ordering supplies, and planning extracurricular activities, school administrators must conduct active shooter drills and carefully evaluate the ability of their facilities to withstand an attack.
Today, standards developed by two ASTM International committees — homeland security applications (E54) and security systems and equipment (F12) — are playing an important role in the ongoing quest to make schools and other types of public buildings safer.
E54 standards primarily address equipment like ballistic-resistant shields and body armor, products that protect police and other first responders who must confront an attack already in progress. Standards developed by F12, on the other hand, focus on physical infrastructure like forced-entry-resistant systems, security barriers, and fenestration systems designed to prevent an attack from ever getting started — or at least slow its progress enough to give targets a chance to escape and law enforcement a chance to neutralize the threat.
In architecture, “fenestration” refers to any opening in a building’s facade, including skylights and doors; windows (referred to as “glazing systems” in the industry) are what most people think of when the term is used. ASTM has done a great deal of work in this area, developing a new standard that establishes a test method to determine the ability of glazing systems to resist forced entry attempts after being struck with bullets.
The term “hardened targets” originally entered the public discourse in reference to measures taken to protect U.S. military bases and diplomatic compounds around the world from terrorist attacks. It originally referred to physical barriers, enhanced surveillance systems, and the like. However, in the wake of the mass shootings that have plagued America in recent decades, it is now applied to shopping malls, churches — even schools.
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According to Kontek, a “security solutions” firm, the typical target-hardening checklist includes “looking at the natural surveillance, access control, reinforcement measures, and maintenance of each building.” The company School Security Specialists lists the “four Ds” of physical security as: 1) Deny access; 2) Delay the act; 3) Detect the crime; and 4) Deter the attack.
Inconsistent application of these concepts can add to the dangers of a potential incident. For example, barriers designed to maintain access control and prevent unauthorized persons from entering a school are only effective if they are properly deployed. In the 2022 Uvalde, Texas school shooting, for instance, the shooter was able to enter the building through an open side door that was supposed to be locked. The assailant in the 2018 Parkland, Florida, attack was also able to gain easy entrance to the high school he targeted.
Sadly, though, a secure perimeter is no guarantee of safety. In the 2023 shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, for example, the gunman shot their way through a set of locked glass doors. This scenario is exactly what members of the subcommittee on systems, products, and services (F12.10) envisioned when they began work on what would become the standard test method for forced-entry-resistance of fenestration systems after simulated active shooter attack (F3561).
Levels of Protection
Julia Schimmelpenningh led the subcommittee task group that developed F3561. An ASTM member since 1992 and participant on numerous committees, she also currently serves on the organization’s board of directors.
“Obviously, school shootings have been in the news and are a societal blemish,” says Schimmelpenningh, who is architectural industry technical engagement manager for Eastman Chemical Company. She points out that for some time, subcommittee members felt existing standards under their subcommittee’s purview were sufficient to ensure that products like glass windows and doors would perform in extreme circumstances.
This perception was challenged when the National Glass Association formed a committee to evaluate an informational bulletin on school security that was created to aid designers, engineers, and architects in providing safe and secure fenestration in educational facilities. “It was through this work that gaps were found within the existing standards, and we realized just how difficult and confusing it was to specify the necessary levels of performance,” says Schimmelpenningh.
Once subcommittee members decided a new standard could help reduce this confusion, development of F3561 commenced. After reviewing the relevant data and statistics, they determined that keeping glazing material at least partially intact in the initial stages of an attack would provide for a solid range of protective opportunities.
“ASTM has been very progressive over the years in addressing security issues within F12,” says Schimmelpenningh. “Subcommittee F12.10 works on establishing systems, products, and services for security needs. Any type of security must be considered as a multi-level protection system. Each layer needs to thwart or retard the assailant’s progress to their target. Barriers are an excellent way to achieve this, and the new standard was created based on the need to have a repeatable and multi-level test to which fenestration systems could be evaluated for forced-entry attempts after weakening by ballistic attack.”
The accelerated timeframe within which the task force completed work on F3561 — late 2021 to mid-summer 2022 — speaks to the critical nature of the standard. “It took eight months from concept to publication,” Schimmelpenningh reports. “This is a testament to the importance of this issue not only within the committee, but to society. The willingness of the committee chair to authorize ballots and the work committee staff did to prepare and administer those ballots cannot be underestimated.”
New standards are helping to stop intruders before they can carry out their plans.
Asked to identify issues that arose during the process of creating the new standard, Schimmelpenningh says, “ASTM members are very conscientious by nature, and with the development of a new standard, there is often cyclical debate on the same subject as individuals drift on and off the development path. Keeping track of and continuing to communicate what was decided, what was to be addressed immediately, and what we would take on in future versions of the standard was our biggest challenge. But we recognized the importance of getting it into the hands of specifiers as quickly as possible, even knowing we may need to come back and add or clarify things as use of it and the products available in the industry evolve.”
Withstanding Ballistic Attack
So what is the fenestration system test method prescribed in F3561, and how exactly will it be implemented?
“The test involves a weakening of the system by ballistic attack, followed by a series of impacts,” Schimmelpenningh explains. “This is to simulate a shooter trying to break out the glass or locking mechanism with bullets and then approaching it and impacting the system to open a space that either allows reach-through to unlock a window or door, or creates an opening large enough to walk through.”
The test method spelled out in the new standard is very detailed and precise. First, eight shots are fired into the system’s glazing or main panel in a compass coordinate pattern; two additional shots are fired near the center of this circle. The locking mechanism is also subjected to five shots in a diamond pattern, with a center shot fired on the lock for a door.
The shots are fired from a mechanism that is able to shoot M193 bullets, the kind used in many assault-style weapons like AR-15s. “If there is no opening through which a 6-inch sphere can pass after any of these shots, the unit is then subjected to impacts from a 100-pound, torpedo-shaped pendulum with a 6-inch impacting nose,” says Schimmelpenningh. “Impacts always start at the base level 1. Two impacts from the torpedo at the same drop height are required for each level, and the system does not move to the next level until both impacts are deemed to pass. There are eight levels, with a cumulative total of 3,600 ft.-lbs. of impact forces being administered to a system in order to achieve the highest level.”
According to Ed Conrath, who chaired F12 and F12.10 for decades and is still a committee member, the choice of which ballistic round to specify for use in the test method and how specifically to define “failure” of the fenestration system after the ballistic attack were challenging issues.
Another topic that generated considerable discussion among task group members was the specification and use of bullet-resistant glazing. Schimmelpenningh and her colleagues were well aware of ASTM’s standard test method for security glazing materials and systems (F1233), and initially were puzzled why this standard was not being used more often to specify these safer products in schools and other public buildings.
Further exploration revealed that one reason was cost. “We found that many municipalities simply could not afford these types of windows and doors,” she says. Weight and availability were also significant deterrents. This realization informed the task group’s evaluation of various test methods, and members made sure that cost, as well as complexity, was taken into account. They also realized that keeping the assailant out of the building through forced-entry resistance was more effective for overall protection, since injuries and fatalities typically occur after entry has been gained to a facility.
“What we did was take the best practices from existing procedures and put those together to give us an applicable, meaningful, and easy-to-administer test,” Schimmelpenningh notes. Initial use of the test method revealed adjustments that needed to be made to make the procedure smoother and clarify certain aspects of the standard. But overall she says, “The standard is proving to be well received and able to be specified and used in the industry.”
Addressing the general issue of gun violence in America, and the specific horrors of mass shootings in schools, is a complex and daunting task. While upstream steps may have some impact, in a country that has more guns than people, there is no way to stop every bad actor. In this environment, the emphasis expands from trying to keep weapons out of the the wrong hands to preventing individuals, to the greatest extent possible, from carrying out their plans if and when they do obtain firearms. F3561 will help in this regard.
“In order to carry out such a plan, the shooter has had to gain access to the school,” says Schimmelpenningh. “The specification of this standard as a performance requirement, even at the minimum level for accessible openings, will help slow, and may deter, the shooter’s access through properly secured doors and windows, thus providing the precious time needed to take action and call the authorities. The key call to action for this standard is to help save lives.”
READ MORE: Standards for Ballistic Shield Performance
It should be noted that the standard was not developed in a vacuum. Schimmelpenningh and her colleagues were acutely aware that double-locked doors in lobby areas, proper building orientation, strategically placed landscaping, and other defensive measures are crucial elements of the security equation. However, their work is helping to highlight the critical nature of windows and doors.
“Fenestration is one of the first areas to step up and call the manufacturers of products to action, and to challenge designers, engineers, and architects, as well as regulators and legislators, to use the requirements and performance capabilities put forth by products tested to this standard to protect schools and other facilities and buildings requiring forced entry-type security,” she says.
The Work Continues
Fenestration systems are only one component — albeit an important one — of the school safety equation.
For example, Conrath cites two standards related to bollards — short, sturdy vertical posts designed to prevent vehicles from accessing pedestrian areas — that could become part of the equation: standard test methods for crash testing of vehicle security barriers (F2656) and testing of vehicle impact protective devices at low speeds (F3016). “Should this become an attack method on schools, one of these two standards could be used to address the issue of preventing vehicle incursion,” he says.
Schimmelpenningh notes that the standard test method for security glazing systems and materials (F1233) is under review. “This standard will be updated for ammunition, weapons, and overall methodology versus the current version.”
Clearly, a number of ASTM standards contribute to ongoing efforts to make schools and other public buildings less susceptible to armed attack. But there is more work to do. Conrath emphasizes other aspects of school security that need attention.
“Standards yet to be developed should examine how we address doors for low-level forced entry, smarter ways to lay out new schools, how existing schools can be modified to provide security in depth, and future threats we may need to think about,” he says. Given the dedication and relentless commitment ASTM members bring to their work for the organization, we can expect to see these gaps closed in the coming years. ■
Jack Maxwell is a freelance writer based in Westmont, N.J.