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What It's Like To Design And Build A High School During The #NeverAgain Movement


In Verona, Wis., that's a small city just outside Madison, people voted last year to fund a brand-new high school building designed to hold upwards of 2,200 students. The building design was collaborative - lots of input from teachers and students about what they wanted in a school. And then Parkland happened, and the school district started receiving phone calls from concerned parents and students concerned about whether the new building would be safe enough. Superintendent Dean Gorrell took some of those calls, and he joins me now. Welcome.

DEAN GORRELL: Thank you.

KELLY: I want to start with what the original dream for this building was. When you started designing it, what were teachers and students telling you they wanted?

GORRELL: Sure. Well, they were telling us almost the same thing. So they wanted natural daylight. They wanted outdoor access. They wanted it to be very social and collaborative settings, and they wanted it to be modern and creative.

KELLY: It's interesting what you're describing because when you say people want lots of natural light, I imagine that involves lots of glass.

GORRELL: Lots of glass, lots of windows, yes.

KELLY: When you say people want collaborative spaces, I'm not envisioning a space that it would be easy to shelter in or defend. In other words, there's an inherent tension here between what people say they wanted and designing a school that is responding to concerns about safety.

GORRELL: Exactly. And post-Parkland, that's where it really came to the front for us. When Parkland happened, particularly the videos that students shot and that were aired, that became very concerning for people. It's like, well, if we're in this fishbowl with all this glass, where do we shelter in place?

KELLY: So you're getting these calls. You're hearing these concerns. And what happened? How did you start to rethink what the school building might look like?

GORRELL: Well, we worked very closely with our architects, as we have from day one. And so what we came up with through a few different iterations was we made it so that no matter where you are in the building, you have a place where you can shelter in place and be out of sight or you can escape out of the room and be gone. And you can run.

KELLY: So you're rethinking exit doors and that type of thing as well.

GORRELL: Exit doors, especially on the first floor. We designed the building so that it can be sectioned off into pieces so if an alarm is pulled or if there is activation triggered, that the doors close that an active shooter could only get to certain parts of the building. They would be greatly restricted in terms of their mobility.

KELLY: So you're talking about things like sliding walls.

GORRELL: That was part of it. Interesting, too, not unlike any topic, we had the spectrum of responses. We had people saying, look; we need a place to shelter. We need security. We need the building to be hardened. And we had others that were saying, look; we don't want to become prisoners in this building.

KELLY: Right. It's such a delicate balance to try to get that right.

GORRELL: It is. And we think we struck a perfect balance. What I was going to say, Mary Louise, is that this new high school is just loaded with the newest technology regarding safety and security, from cameras to door monitors to - it doesn't have metal detectors and that, but it's just loaded with all sorts of security that doesn't exist at our current high school.

KELLY: You said no metal detectors in the new school. Why not?

GORRELL: Just looking at it practically - so if we have 1,700 kids, they arrive more or less in about a 20 to 25-minute window.

KELLY: Meaning you've got a stampede of kids arriving at school in the morning and the detectors are going to be going off non-stop as people try to get into class.

GORRELL: A belt buckle sets it off. A coin in a pocket sets it off. But also the statistic is that for almost all of the school shooters, they were either a former student or a current student. That means that they know the design of the building better than most teachers are going to know that. They're going to know all the protocols because you've practiced it with them. They're going to know every nook and cranny, every in and out, all of that.

KELLY: And how do you design your way around that?

GORRELL: You don't. The real important part is connecting with the students and being in touch with them and what they're thinking and what they're planning and who they're talking to or who they're not talking to. That's so important, again, and I am here to uplift our teachers because I think they do a fabulous job of that already. Our teachers are working their - working their hardest.

KELLY: That's Verona Area School District Superintendent Dean Gorrell. The new high school there is set to open fall of 2020. Dean Gorrell, thanks so much.

GORRELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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