On Monday, town meeting supported a measure calling for higher railings in the upper floors of the new co-located middle and high school that is under construction on St. George Street.
After debating the issue for more than an hour, residents supported Article 30 by a vote of 73 to 59.
Article 30 was a citizen’s petition submitted by Old Cove Street resident Bob Doyle. The article, in the form of a resolution, asked voters to direct the school committee to redesign or retrofit the railings and low walls on the second and third floor school corridors to increase their height to more than 42 inches.
For the past two years, Doyle has attended school building committee meetings to follow the progress of the new middle and high schools and he has been concerned about the safety of students near the railings on balconies that measure between 15 to 30 feet off the ground. He wants the higher railing heights to prevent students from falling off or objects being dropped over the second and third floor railings and from two third floor walkways that span the schools’ three-story atrium.
Doyle brought the proposal in front of town meeting because he wanted to give residents a chance to weigh in on this issue before the school construction was finished. The new schools are slated to open in September.
Many residents and town officials spoke both for and against the article. The arguments centered on whether the railings, which were designed and built to the current standard in the state building code of 42 inches, were safe enough for 1,700 students ranging in age from 11 to 18 years old traveling through hallways two to three stories high.
Both the second and third floors have two types of barriers: an open metal railing and a solid wall. Both measure 42” tall. Doyle was concerned that at six inches the top of the solid wall was wide enough for students to sit on and fall off or for objects to be placed on top and knocked off. The design of the open railings leave enough space between them for students to get their feet between the bars and stand on a horizontal railing on the bottom, bringing them up six inches higher above the railings.
Doyle said this design was “one of the biggest faults” of the railings.
“You can get your foot in and lift yourself up six inches,” he said. “If anyone goes over this railing it will be a fatal accident.”
Doyle was not alone in voicing his safety concerns. Both Duxbury’s fire chief and police chief said they were concerned about the railing heights and the six-inch lift.
Fire chief Kevin Nord is the town’s safety director and also a consultant in fall-prevention. Nord said he has 36 years of code enforcement experience and 26 year being a paramedic. As a fire fighter, he is trained to perform “risk-benefit analysis” and said he looked at the railings in the schools “with a different set of eyes.”
“I have no legal or statutory authority here but I feel compelled to give an opinion,” said Nord. “Chief Clancy and I both discussed this and we felt it had to be looked at again. We have a unique scenario that might make us want to consider heightened railings.”
Nord was worried that if a student steps up on the bottom of the metal railings and if he is carrying a heavy backpack that shifts, there is a possibility for a severe accident.
“I think the natural tendency is for a child to want to lean over. It (a backpack) might pull them over. Off the second floor there will be broken bones. The third floor - I think you’ll have something significant,” said Nord.
“You can retrofit this easily,” he added.
Duxbury police chief Matt Clancy agreed with Nord saying that he and the fire chief had raised their concerns at a meeting on the railing designs early in the building process. Seeing the railings in place at the school cemented his earlier opinion that they were too low, especially on the third floor “catwalks” or bridges that cross the atrium from the school to the library.
“When I went in, it struck me that these seem a little low,” said Clancy. “My opinion is why don’t we err on the side of caution.”
Carriage Lane resident Jim Sullivan said voters should follow the advice of their public safety officials and agree to raise the railing heights from the minimum standards.
“We’ve heard from the foremost safety expert in the town. If ever the town should follow his advice, it should be on this issue,” said Sullivan, adding that he didn’t believe the 42” height was enough. “That is the lowest height the state will allow. I find that that is not a standard we should be using.”
Members of the school building committee explained that the railings and walls were built to 42 inches because that is the accepted height in the building code for guardrails throughout the state and the country. This design standard is based on years of research and scientific evidence, said school building committee chairman Elizabeth Lewis, who argued against raising the railing height. In 1980, she said the code for the height of guardrails was raised from 36 inches for safety concerns.
Lewis presented multiple slides that showed either 36 inch or 42-inch rails in various locations in the Alden Elementary school, the middle School and the high school as well as in the Performing Arts Center. She said none of these locations has had safety issues. She also showed slides of other new high schools with 42 inch rails on second and third floors and said these schools have not had any concerns with student safety: “They go about their business with no problem,” she said.
In the new schools Lewis said that students will be moving up and down internal stairways and will not frequently use the corridors near the atrium. If they do, teachers and administrators would have clear sight lines down the corridor to monitor students, she said.
Highland Trail resident Dennis Daley is the architect who designed the new middle and high schools. He said his company has designed similar schools in Manchester/Essex, Monomoy, and Ashland.
“We designed this school as we designed other schools…and there have never been any concerns or incidents,” Daley said. “These issues have been carefully considered by the committee. Frankly, the building meets code.”
Some residents said that there was no evidence that higher railings would increase student safety or keep objects from falling over. Others wondered how high to raise them and how much it would cost.
Lewis said that the committee had done some “very preliminary” cost estimates that showed for certain redesigns the cost would be $120,000 per floor to raise the heights by six inches. But that figure did not include the price of design nor did it guarantee an accepted solution. Also, Lewis said that by altering the railings “there’s a slight chance that it could impact the schedule of the project.” Construction is expected to be completed in June. Daley said that the railings and walls were installed but not completed as the final three inches were not yet installed.
Eventually neither argument about the building code nor the potential costs deterred a majority of residents from supporting Article 30.
“I’m willing to spend the extra money,” said Tobey Garden Street resident Amy MacNab. “If ever there is a good place where the old adage ‘better safe than sorry’ fits, then it’s here. I’d rather be safe than sorry with anyone’s child.”