By Sarah Porter
Students, faculty and experts on campus security are questioning Western’s preparedness for an active shooter.
Some Western faculty sent emails to President Sabah Randhawa in response to a statement he made on preventing gun violence. In these emails, which were obtained by the Front through a public records request, faculty asked the university to consider security improvements such as interior classroom locks.
In response, Randhawa’s senior executive assistant Paul Dunn said on his behalf that University Police chief Darin Rasmussen is reconvening an advisory group on the issue of classroom locks.
Multiple faculty members have been invited to attend the first meeting with administration and facilities management representatives on March 15.
This group met a couple years ago, but did not conclude with a definitive recommendation to install internal locks on classroom doors, Dunn said in an email obtained by the Front.
“In light of renewed concerns and changes in security technologies, Chief Rasmussen will be bringing this group together again soon to re-examine issues of classroom and campus security,” Dunn said.
The Western Front found that many classroom doors do not have locks, and swing open into the hallway, meaning they cannot be barricaded in the case of an active shooter.
In 2016, proposed security upgrades that included installing electronic locks on all exterior doors of academic buildings. While the university asked the legislature for $7.2 million, it only received $1.5 million.
The university director of communications and marketing, Paul Cocke, said the money Western did receive will not be used to expand university lockdown capabilities.
Instead, it will be used to separate the fire alarm system from the current electronic access control system, which will become obsolete after 2019, Cocke said in an email. If the systems remained the same, it would threaten the operation of Western’s fire alarm system, according to the security upgrade proposal.
Though Western is still pursuing funding for security upgrades, Cocke emphasized the importance of prevention.
Amount Western requested from the legislature for security upgrades
Amount Western received
“Identifying and responding to people who pose a threat to campus is the best way to ensure that an act of violence does not occur,” Cocke said.
However, a faculty member expressed concern in an email to Randhawa that the university’s focus on prevention is detracting from efforts to improve campus safety.
“It is my belief that dealing with mental illness is and should be kept as a separate issue that needs attention,” the professor wrote. “Campus security is a different issue.”
The university will still pursue upgrades if it gets additional funding from the legislature, Cocke said.
“Locking external doors is part of the university’s overall security strategy,” Cocke said.
However, an expert said this plan is a waste of money at best and counterproductive at worst.
Jesus Villahermosa is a security expert who consulted with Virginia Polytechnic Institute to improve school safety in the wake of the shooting that killed 32 people and wounded 17 in April 2007.
He said adding remotely controlled exterior locks fails to address the realities of active shooter situations. The vast majority of shooters don’t start shooting until they are inside the building, he said.
Western needs to be briefed and properly trained before making security decisions, Villahermosa said. Unless the university and city police have a way to unlock the exterior doors, he said electronic exterior door locks would just make things worse.
“Who are you locking out?” Villahermosa said. “Law enforcement.”
However, Cocke said in an email that exterior locks could prevent a shooter from moving to other buildings.
Faculty Union President Rich Brown tried to schedule a meeting with Randhawa last week to discuss concerns about classroom locks, but Randhawa has not yet responded, Brown said in an email at 12:07 p.m. on Monday, March 5.
In their emails to the president, three faculty members said that people would be “sitting ducks” in the current environment if there were a shooting incident.
Two students reached out to the Front to say they realized this during last year’s lockdown drill, noticing that classroom doors were unable to lock. They said they mentioned their concerns to Assistant Dean of Students Michael Sledge, as they feared for their safety.
The students, who wish to remain anonymous for unrelated safety reasons, said Sledge denied that Western had any plans of implementing locks.
Sledge did not provide comment, but Cocke said that Sledge has nothing to do with university planning or response to an active shooter situation. However, the students said that Sledge dismissed their concerns.
Cocke has said classroom doors that lock with keys could be a hazard during a fire.
Bellingham Fire Department permit technician Lisa Brogan said there are ways to instill locks that still meet fire code.
Brogan said push locks, which are activated using a button on a door handle, are allowed as long as the handle is a lever rather than a knob, which is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Cocke said the university is exploring classroom locks that are compliant with fire codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Teaching students and faculty how to react in an active shooter incident and installing interior classroom locks are the most effective ways schools can protect people, Villahermosa said.
“Schools keep making the same mistake. It’s ludicrous.”
Jesse Villahermosa, security expert
Villahermosa said he has studied active shooter incidents in detail throughout his career. He currently runs a crisis consulting company called Crisis Reality Training. He has taught over 650,000 people proper safety procedures.
“Schools keep making the same mistake,” Villahermosa said. “It’s ludicrous.”
Students have voiced concerns on social media. The Western Front created a Facebook poll asking whether students think Western is prepared for an active shooter situation.
The poll found that 94 percent of the 95 respondents think Western isn’t prepared for an active shooting incident as of the evening of March 6.
In January this year, gunfire caused California State University in San Bernardino to go into lockdown for around six hours, said CSU sophomore Raquel Britton. Britton was leaving her class when the school told everyone to lockdown, and another student rushed her back into the classroom.
Britton’s teacher had all students get against the wall furthest from the doors, which had no locks. Two male students offered belts to tie the doors shut, and Britton said that was the first thing that made her cry.
“Boys that are 19 and 20 years old shouldn’t have to offer their bodies and belts to protect people,” Britton said. “I was so frustrated about the locks.”
Britton said university communications weren’t clear. Though the university was still supposed to be on lockdown, Britton’s professor told students that the coast was clear about an hour into the six-hour lockdown when they saw other students roaming the halls.
“It could’ve been handled better,” Britton said.
Luckily, no one was hurt.
Some universities that have experienced shootings have installed locks on classroom doors to improve safety.
University of California Los Angeles started installing push locks in 2016 on all general assignment classroom doors after a school shooting that killed two people, according to a university press release. The school garnered national attention when students tweeted photos and videos of attempts to barricade their doors using projectors, which major media outlets such as NBC, LA Times and ABC News published.
At Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, a shooter killed nine people and wounded seven when he opened fire on classmates in a classroom in 2015, according to the FBI. After, the community college installed push-button locks in every classroom, and the school’s chief of security Kelly Rigsby thinks these locks have improved the school’s security, she said in an email.
Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, installed locks in 2014 after a shooter killed a student on campus, according to university press releases. There are now locks inside nearly all campus classrooms, according to the university’s website.
The University of Connecticut put locks on the inside of classrooms on all campuses in 2016, according to the university’s newspaper, The Daily Campus. Adding locks was part of a new security program to improve school safety.
Congressman Rick Larsen and Rodney Davis sent a bipartisan letter to Speaker Paul Ryan and leaders of the House Appropriations Committee, urging lawmakers to help improve school safety.
The letter, sent on on Feb. 28, requested $150 million to fund the Secure Our Schools grant program. The program provides funding to state and local governments to develop safety resources such as metal detectors, locks and lighting, according to a press release.
Citing major school shootings as proof of the programs necessity, the letter asks lawmakers to invest in protecting schools.
“It is our duty to stand up for these kids and take the necessary steps to ensure their safety,” Larsen and Davis wrote in the letter.
In California, schools built after 2011 are required to have locks that can be activated from the inside of a classroom, according to California Assembly Bill 211.
Other solutions have been proposed to improve school safety.
President Donald Trump proposed banning devices called bump stocks (which allow semi-automatic weapons to function as automatic weapons) through executive action at a White House meeting on school safety on Feb. 28.
Washington state legislature passed a ban on bump stocks on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law on Tuesday, March 6. The bill will make it illegal to assemble or sell the device starting July 1, and it will be illegal to own a one after July 2019.
A bill proposing a national assault weapons ban, cosponsored by 173 Democratic congressional representatives, was proposed by Rhode Island Democratic congressman David Cicilline on Feb. 26.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly said that Cocke said fire safety codes do not allow schools to add classroom locks. What Cocke actually told the Front was that classroom doors that lock with keys could create safety problems, such as in a fire. The article was updated at10 a.m. on March 7 to reflect this.