Panel OKs rules for using ‘dangerous’ room dividers at schools

RICHMOND — On an afternoon last spring, Wesley Lipicky, a third-grader at Franconia Elementary School in Fairfax County, was helping his teacher in the gymnasium when he became caught between a motorized room partition and a gym wall. The 9-year-old boy suffered traumatic head injuries and died that night.

On Monday, a legislative subcommittee unanimously approved a bill calling for additional safety measures on using mechanized room dividers in public schools in hopes of preventing similar accidents in the future.

“Children’s lives are precious, and we as a society must do everything in our power to protect them,” said Kathy Cole, who runs a business that specializes in gymnasium equipment for schools. “These tragic situations can and must be prevented.”

House Bill 1753 would require schools across the commonwealth to take precautions when using motorized room partitions. These mechanisms, also called electronic partitions or doors, are used in schools to divide rooms into smaller spaces. They are heavier and larger than garage doors and most commonly used in school gymnasiums. No partitions of this sort are in use in Williamsburg-James City County schools.

Sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, HB 1753 would give public schools that use motorized room partitions one of two options: Install safety sensors that automatically stop the partition if a body passes between the partition and the edge of the wall; or operate the partition only when there are no students in the building

Wesley’s death prompted Sickles to sponsor the legislation.

“These dangerous dividers that are in a lot of our schools,” Sickles said, “need to have technology applied to them that will prevent this kind of thing from occurring.”

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee voted 8-0 in favor of the bill. It now goes to the full committee and then to the House of Delegates for consideration.

Putting safety sensors on a motorized room partition could cost $3,000 to $6,000, Sickles estimated. He said such sensors would be a useful investment for partitions that must be used multiple times a day, such as in the gymnasium.

Mindful of the costs, the subcommittee suggested that schools have the option of using the partitions only when students aren’t around.

The legislation also would require annual training for school employees on operating the room dividers.

Wesley’s death on May 18 is not the sole case of a student or teacher killed by an electronic partition.

“Unfortunately, this kind of thing has happened before,” Sickles said, citing deaths in 1973, 1991 and 2001, as well as several injuries caused by partitions.

New York is the only state that requires safety devices on motorized room partitions and training for school staff to operate the doors. That state passed its law after two deaths caused by electronic partitions.

“History has taught us that these accidents happen more frequently than most people realize,” Cole said. “No parent should have to lose his or her beautiful son or daughter due to this safety error ever again.”

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