Cullman builder creates classroom safe room

White boards can convert into safe rooms in case of active shooter

Kevin Thomas, owner of KT Construction Services, in a West Elementary School classroom in Cullman. Photo by Art Meripol.

Cullman’s Kevin Thomas knows how to build ballistic-resistance structures. His KT Construction Services for years has been building housing units for the military that offer protection from gunfire.

So, in June 2022, about a week after 19 children were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Thomas’ wife called him in tears.

“She said, ‘Do you think we can take one of our 8-by-8 housing units, which are already ballistic-resistant, and put it in every classroom to give them a place to go?,’” Thomas recalls. “I said, ‘That’s a great idea, but I don’t think they can afford to give up that square footage in the classroom. Let me think about it.’”

What Thomas, with his more-than-three-decades of experience in architecture and construction, came up with is what he says is a first — a large whiteboard in the classroom that can be deployed in seconds as a ballistic-resistant safe room that will protect students and teachers from an active shooter.

Two of those structures are now in use at Cullman’s West Elementary School, and Thomas has ambitious plans for expansion.

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“I have a personal goal that’s probably not attainable of getting in a million classrooms within a year,” Thomas says. “Am I going to get there? No. But if I can get to 100,000, that’s 100,000 more than we had.”

Building structures is what Thomas does.

From 1989-2000, he worked as a project manager in architecture. Since then, he’s had three construction companies — KT Outdoors, which builds hunting blinds; KT Shelter Solutions, which builds quickly constructed, modular housing for the homeless or those affected by natural disasters; and KT Security Solutions, which builds ballistic-resistant housing for the military, storm shelters and now the convertible safe rooms for classrooms.

The safe rooms are made to collapse, in order to provide more space for classroom instruction. Kevin Thomas (pictured) made them so that they can function as a large white board. Photo by Art Meripol.

The classroom structures Thomas came up with are built with quarter-inch steel and Honeywell Spectra Shield that’s ballistic-resistant to a National Institute of Justice Level III, Thomas says.

In the Cullman classrooms, Thomas has two different setups. One is his standard 8-by-8 deployable unit, which the teacher can convert into a safe room within 15 seconds without help; the other is a 6-by-8 fixed-position space, which is at the ready but takes up a good portion of the classroom since it doesn’t fold away.

The deployable units are symmetrical, from 6-by-6 up to 9-by-9. “After that, it’s too heavy for someone to pull, but we’re working on a system where we can go 10-by-10,” Thomas says. The fixed-position units can be any size. “For cafeterias, for instance, units can be 5 feet wide by 50 feet long, and you can get 75 people in it,” he says.

The units lock from the inside and can be outfitted with cameras, microphones and other things on the inside. And they can be used during severe weather and other emergencies.

Another benefit? Once students and teachers are safely inside, law enforcement can be more aggressive on the outside.

“The teacher can get in there, send a text that everyone is in, and then law enforcement is just looking for a person who is not in the room,” Thomas says. “We don’t have to worry about friendly fire.”

Right now, the structures are being built in a facility that can make about 11 units a day. But a 25,000-square-foot facility that Thomas is building will help him scale up quickly.

Since launching in March, he says he has had inquiries about 5,000 classrooms, and his structures have been featured on local and national news. “It has been a whirlwind ever since we released this thing,” Thomas says.

One of the safe rooms constructed by KT Construction Services. Kevin Thomas demonstrates the handle and wheel mechanism that makes it deployable in a matter of seconds. Photo by Art Meripol.

Thomas was surprised that no one else was doing what his company does, but he understands.

“I’m not the first concerned parent that is trying to do something about this,” says Thomas, who has a son who went to West Elementary and now has two grandchildren who are students there. “But people have been focused on the outside, trying to secure the perimeter from getting breached in the first place. We’ve done a lot when it comes to preventing the breach of a campus, but we haven’t done much when it comes to protecting students on the inside if the building is breached. … The highest percentage of casualties of every school shooting is inside a classroom, but we don’t have any protection inside the classroom.”

The safe-room units don’t come cheap — the models in the Cullman classrooms are $60,000 apiece — but they are about as inexpensive as they can be, considering the ballistic-resistant power in their materials, Thomas says.

“I would love for it to be even cheaper than it is, but I can promise you, there’s not a parent who has lost a child that wouldn’t spend $60,000 to get them back,” Thomas says. “It’s expensive, but not for what it is.”

School systems would not pay for the units out of education budgets, and Thomas says his hope is that units would be paid for on a larger scale. “This is a security budget item,” Thomas says. “This is Homeland Security, the Department of Justice. I just got back from Capitol Hill. I visited with a bunch of senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle. We had no negative meetings.” The units in Cullman, Thomas says, were paid for partially by the State of Alabama and partially by the Cullman school system.

Thomas says that production of the classroom units is not driven by profits.

“I don’t do this stuff for the money,” he says. “I do stuff for reasons, and the reason here is kids deserve it. They’ve done nothing wrong to become a target. When these shootings happen, they are undeserving targets.”

And that’s what was on Thomas’ wife’s mind when she called him last June, tearfully setting this all in motion. She just told him, “Enough is enough.”

“Everybody says ‘they’ have got to do something,” he says of school shootings. “But who the heck is ‘they’? Is ‘they’ the government? Is ‘they’ other entrepreneurs? Are ‘they’ billionaires? We don’t know.”

“So now,” he adds, “I guess I’m ‘they’.”

And “they” hope they’ve come up with a product that will never be used.

“I hope this whole thing just ends up never having to be needed,” Thomas says. “But if they are used and deployed, they might save some lives.”

Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Art Meripol is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Birmingham.

This article appears in the June 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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