A Historical Reflection of Public Policy and School Safety

Public policy’s greatest impacts on school safety have been more rigorous building codes, abolishing grandfather clauses, and mandated drills.  Sadly, those actions have been largely responsive and not proactive, as was the situation in the 1958 Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago, Illinois that killed 92 pupils and 3 nuns. 

“Allowing for a “grandfather clause“, that did not require schools to retrofit to a new standard if they already met previous standards; the school legally complied with the municipal and state fire codes of 1958, and was generally clean and well-maintained. Because of the “grandfather clause”, Our Lady of the Angels (and many other schools like it) did not address hazards present in the building which would not be tolerated today given a modern understanding of fire safety.  Each classroom door had a glass transom above it, which provided ventilation into the corridor but also permitted flames and smoke to enter once heat broke the glass.  The school had one fire escape.  The building had no automatic fire alarm, no rate-of-rise heat detectors, no direct alarm connection to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells, and no heavy-duty fire doors from the stairwells to the second floor corridor.  At the time, fire sprinklers were primarily found in factories or in newer schools, and the modern smoke detector did not become commercially available until 1969 (OLA, Retrieved 2013).

Beyond building codes and a narrow scope of mandated drills, post-1958 legislative attempts to bolster school safety were vaguely defined, unfunded and not measured by any governing body.  The Safe and Drug Free Schools Act (1987-2011), Gun Free Schools Act (1994) and No Child Left Behind (2001) did little to advance school crisis preparedness and response practices across American K-12 public schools. None of these Acts incorporated specific descriptions or accountability measures for activities schools should be undertaking to promote safety for all students and staff.

Contrary to the dearth of movement at the Federal level, more states are stepping forward and enacting the most comprehensive safety crisis preparedness and response legislation in the history of public education.  Check out Wisconsin’s Act 309 (2009) and Rhode Island’s Senate Bill 2013-S 0801A (2013).  School safety is gaining traction at the state level.