Railing concerns

Written by Administrator
 | Friday, 07 March 2014 17:45

With the annual Town Meeting on Saturday, Duxbury selectmen held a third meeting on a citizen’s proposal to raise the height of railings on the second and third floors of the new middle and high schools.

This time the meeting was a chance for the School Building Committee to address concerns raised by Old Cove resident Bob Doyle, who submitted a citizen’s petition article on this issue to the annual town meeting. Doyle is concerned about the safety of students near the railings on these balconies, which are between 15 to 30 feet off the ground.

Article 30 will ask voters to direct the school committee to raise the height of the railings and solid walls on the second and third floor corridors in the new schools from 42” to six feet. The article states that the railings should be redesigned or retrofitted. Doyle has said that the purpose of higher railing heights is to prevent students from falling off or objects from being dropped over the second and third floor railings and from two third floor walkways that span the three-story atrium.

On Monday, School Building Committee chairman Elizabeth Lewis stressed that the 42” railings and walls are built to the standards of the building code and that it would be arbitrary and not necessarily any safer to raise their height.

“The code is the code and it’s based on science and research,” said Lewis. “It is a standard.”

According to Lewis, 42” high railings can be found “everywhere” in new school construction. She said she has visited many new schools around the state, such as Hanover, Manchester-Essex, and Plymouth North, and found that none of those schools had any issues with the standard railing height. She noted that the railings in the Alden elementary school’s stairwells measure 42” as do those at the Duxbury Performing Arts Center.

Lewis pointed out that the railings in the existing high school are 36” high, as that was the building code standard at the time, and “there has never been a problem there.”

“We felt very confident in leaving that 42” railing height as it is,” she said.

Students in the new schools will be spending most of their travel time up and down stairs to get to their classes and not walking down the long hallways with the open railings that face the atrium, she said. The visibility in these corridors is very good and there will be security cameras in the new schools – two deterrents to any behavior that could lead to incidents involving the railings, according to Lewis.

Lewis said that safety in the schools is “paramount” and that she believes that the school building committee, which is made up of engineers, architects, school administrators and other professionals, had done its job in this regard.

“Our committee feels very strongly that this is a safe situation,” Lewis said.

Doyle said that he visited many of the schools that Lewis had mentioned and that his experience was different. He said that four of the schools are only two stories high and another school, which had a balcony, had a showcase blocking off the balcony and had installed two new railings in front of it.

The Manchester-Essex school is a three-story school, and Doyle said he had spoken to some faculty who said they were “really afraid” of the railings and that there had been some talk about putting up mesh nets for safety, but that had not happened.

Duxbury’s new schools with their three-story atrium are very different than other new schools: “They’ve never built a thing like this before,” said Doyle.

In his research, Doyle said he had found much higher railings installed in many new public buildings, for example in the Massachusetts General Hospital, the rail heights are 53”; in the Plymouth court house, they measure 50”.

Carriage Lane resident Jim Sullivan said he was concerned about the safety of the railings. Sullivan toured the building and he said he was specifically worried about the lower section of the railing that was six inches off the ground because students could get their feet through the vertical bars, stand on top of the horizontal rung at the bottom and raise themselves six inches above the top of the railing.

“The minimum code doesn’t satisfy me,” he said.

Sullivan, who is a father of six children, was not convinced that supervision and security cameras would make the situation safe.

“There isn’t a security camera in this world that’s going to stop a child from going over that railing in five seconds,” he said. “An ounce of prevention might be the smart way to go.”

Selectmen do not support Article 30. Selectman Shawn Dahlen, who is a builder, said he had questioned the middle and high school principals many times about their views on the railing height issue.

“Every time we ask them do you think it will be an issue, they’re telling us it’s a safe condition,” Dahlen said. “The 42” rails are a standard throughout the commercial construction industry.”

Fire Chief Kevin Nord came to the selectmen’s meeting with a presentation on the safety of the railings but he did not address the meeting. His presentation included photographs of two firefighters standing in front of the railings at the new schools. In the photos, a male firefighter is 6 feet tall; a female firefighter is 5’3” tall. The pictures show where the 42” railing comes to on each of their bodies and also how they can stand on top of the bottom rung and raise themselves higher.

Nord said after the meeting that he did not speak because he wasn’t asked by selectmen, but that he had safety concerns about the railings.

“I feel the railings are inadequate for two reasons: you’re in the schools and this particular population could be considered to be childish and lack maturity and so the behavior becomes an issue. So does the weight of their backpacks. Second, the height of the railings is diminished by the step up of six inches,” Nord said.

Nord, who does consulting work on the side in fall prevention, was also concerned about the height of the drop from the second and third floors.

“A child falling from the second floor at 20 feet would probably have a broken leg,” he said, but the real concern was the height of the third floor: “35 feet. That’s significant,” he added.

Nord said he would give his presentation at town meeting but only if town officials asked him to.

Currently, no one involved in this issue has a cost estimate for retrofitting or replacing the railings. Doyle has suggested funding could come from the school project’s 2011 uncommitted contingency fund. The school building committee has not had an estimate performed, however, Lewis said that the top of the solid walls had not been finished in case changes were needed.

The Finance Committee is scheduled to tour the new schools to see the railings this week.