The death of a 12-year-old student crushed by a motorized door has raised questions about the safe operation of such devices, which are fairly common in schools.

Rashad Richardson was looking for a teacher to give him a hall pass when he was crushed between a wall and a motorized room divider, said Ithaca, N.Y., City School District Superintendent Judith Pastel.

On Feb. 6, Pastel discussed the findings of the district’s investigation into the Jan. 29 incident at Boynton Middle School.

She declined to discuss any possible disciplinary action against physical education teacher Jane Bryant, who started the motorized door, defeated a spring-loaded safety switch, then walked away.

The school had no written policy on the safe operation of the room dividers, but officials now will mandate that teachers stay at the controls while the door is closing.

“We are doing more training of staff,” said Paul Mintz, assistant superintendent for business services. “Now, we’ll require that there be two people present to close the door, one on each side, [the whole time] it’s being operated. We’ll also limit the number of people with access to keys.”

According to Mintz, there is nothing unique about that door in particular. “It’s like a million others in other schools,” he said. “It was built and installed … in the 1970s, and I think it was pretty standard for that time.”

Though Mintz did not have any information about the maker of the door, he did say he believed the company is out of business now.

According to Ted Decker, Won-Door regional manager for the eastern United States, there are several safety precautions built into room dividers. Won-Door is a national manufacturer of accordion-style doors and room dividers.

“Typically, a key switch would have to be put within line-of-site of the door, so that the teacher could watch the door closing,” said Decker. “And when you have a key switch, you have to hold on to the key the whole time. If you let go of it, the door automatically stops.”

“Most doors built since the early 1990s have two key switches in two different locations, so it takes two people to close the door,” agreed Mintz. “But, of course, that can be overridden. They haven’t made a safety feature yet that can’t be overridden.”

Automatic doors like the one used to divide the gym at Boynton Middle School are powered by large, powerful motors.

“Those types of doors are really large,” Decker said. The door “probably weighs about 18 pounds per square foot. That means it could weigh 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. It takes a big motor to move something that heavy, and that’s why they have the safety features.”

Pastel gave a detailed account of the events leading to Richardson’s death:

Bryant’s gym class was dismissed about two minutes later than usual. Once Bryant inspected the gym and found it empty, she started the motor on the room divider’s control box with a key. She then defeated the safety mechanism by wrapping her key chain around the key, using its weight to prevent the spring-loaded switch from returning to the “off” position.

Bryant then walked into the hallway to supervise students passing between classes while the two-story-tall door closed.

Richardson entered the gymnasium looking for a teacher to give him a late hall pass for his next class. Not finding one, the seventh-grader apparently tried to cross back to the other side of the gym just as the partition closed against the wall.

Pastel said the teacher’s actions were common at the school. But Mintz said he wasn’t sure if it was standard practice in the district to leave the closing door unattended by debilitating the safety mechanism.

“We certainly would not have condoned that type of action,” he said.

Pastel said custodians and physical education teachers were not the only people who had keys to the door. Others, like after-school program volunteers and coaches, also could operate it.

Since the incident, the district decided to change the keys and make sure only custodians and physical education teachers have access to them, Pastel said. The district also is looking into other safety upgrades for its eight gym dividers, including motion detectors.

According to Dave Price, school architect for Triad Architects of Columbus, Ohio, obstruction-detector sensors are a good idea.

“I think all garage doors are required to have them now,” he said, adding, “[They] can work a couple ways. There are some that cut off when the pressure-sensitive edge encounters anything, and there are also infrared sensors that detect obstructions.”

The Tompkins County District Attorney’s office said no criminal charges will be filed. Bryant has not returned to work since the incident. “Nor would I expect her to,” Pastel said, describing the teacher as “devastated” by the incident.

Links:

Ithaca City School District
400 Lake Street
Ithaca, NY 14850
phone (607) 274-2101
http://www.icsd.k12.ny.us.

Won-Door Corp.
Salt Lake City, UT 84104
phone (800) 453-8494
http://www.wondoor.com.

Triad Architects
784 Morrison Road
Suite B
Columbus, OH 43230
phone (614) 751-1833
http://www.triadarchitects.com.