Violent deaths are never easy to accept or explain, whether in war abroad or in local communities. But, few domestic incidents, with the exception of the events of Sept. 11 and the Oklahoma City bombings, have touched the American public as much as school shootings, because children, students, and teachers are typically the unwitting, innocent victims.
Four fatal incidents in the United States between August and October 2006 added several sad, deadly benchmarks to the growing list of worldwide school shootings. These incidents in Vermont, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, like many others since the 1999 Columbine shootings in Littleton, CO, involved adolescent or young-adult males with guns entering a facility with intent to kill. The inexplicable carnage in the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School on Oct. 3, where a gunman shot 10 schoolgirls, killing five and himself, brought renewed attention to school safety.
School Security Planning
Schools are places where students should feel safe within a protective sanctuary for learning. Design professionals, administrators, and facility managers can create secure learning environments by reviewing school size, maximizing the role of design strategies for enhanced security, and developing a threat analysis, risk assessment, along with a disaster and recovery plan tailored for each facility. System-wide plans are important for communication and coordination of resources. However, sometimes rapidly unfolding events can make ongoing communications difficult and sporadic, leaving those on the scene to make split-second life and death decisions. Disaster preparedness, teacher training, and practicing fire drills to show building occupants how to exit buildings quickly are time-honored school traditions that have taken on new meaning after the events of 9/11.
As evidenced in every other building type, sound security strategies are not a one-size-fits-all approach. Design, technology, policies, and procedures are essential components of developing school security plans. The plan requires a detailed review of potential threats, site issues, surrounding neighborhoods, building occupants, activities, visitors, and architectural design criteria. This information will assist in identifying appropriate responses and solutions tailored to each building, community, and district.
“Design and community involvement are fundamental to successful school design. We want schools to be friendly and welcoming places. With neighbors involved, there is a sense of ownership and appreciation for the programs offered. Everyone in the community values the school and the school building as a resource for civic life,” says Ed Kodet, FAIA, principal, Kodet Architectural Group Ltd. Minneapolis.
Creating small, autonomous learning centers within larger schools enhances learning and security, experts say. When student communities are smaller, interaction increases and students can develop relationships with staff and each other. Some experts claim that school culture, student body size, alienation from society, and community interaction may play a larger role in violent incidents than school planning and design.
“Our school clients are most concerned with the threat of the unwanted intruder. Open doors are the biggest issue. They are trying to limit entry to one point and installing cameras. In many older buildings, reception areas are behind solid partitions or down the hall from the front door. As buildings are renovated and new buildings designed, better direct visual control of entries is addressed.
“Targeted violence in schools is difficult to stop, as it appears to be planned well in advance. But, that means the planning behavior in students might be identifiable. Architects need to promote connections between students and adults. One way to do this is by encouraging limits on school size. It is important to create a safe emotional environment for students,” says Jeffrey A. Wegener, AIA, managing principal for education, LWPB Architecture, Oklahoma City.
Site Planning for Safe Schools
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED, pronounced sep-ted) is a low-tech, community-based strategy that was developed in the 1970s with widespread acceptance. The goal of CPTED is to prevent crime by designing an environment that influences human behavior. Applying CPTED principles will enhance school and neighborhood safety. These principles include allowing visibility within and outside of classrooms and buildings, clear sight lines, good lighting, and surveillance. Natural barriers, such as low shrubs and strategically placed landscaping, are transparent security elements that avoid a fortress appearance. Technology devices such as card-access systems, surveillance cameras to record incidents and those entering buildings, alarms, and metal detectors, as needed, are electronic tools to augment CPTED approaches.
“We try to avoid isolating the school from the surrounding neighborhood by creating clearly defined school borders using landscape barriers, gates, and fences. Building locations should promote a connection to the neighborhood. By limiting multiple points of public access and developing a single, well-defined public entry, visitors and students can enter through monitored spaces. Lighting on the ground and along the perimeter, on a 24/7 basis, is also advisable,” says Kerry Leonard, AIA, principal of OWP/P in Chicago.
Schools expert Thomas Blurock, FAIA, principal of Thomas Blurock Architects, Costa Mesa, CA, has identified several perimeter site and CPTED issues that warrant attention.
CPTED Strategies and Design Elements for School Security:
1. Perimeter control.
2. Buildings sited to form a campus perimeter.
3. Building penetrations and openings.
4. Distinguishing building exits from entrances.
5. Fencing and barriers.
6. Roof configuration.
7. Sight lines to maximize perimeter surveillance.
8. Multiple perimeters for various functions.
School Building Design
During the project planning phases, says Blurock, design of several interior spaces and areas can significantly enhance personal safety for building occupants.
Key Program Elements for School Security:
1. Circulation throughout the school building.
3. Administration areas.
4. Common areas.
6. Classroom security.
7. Toilet rooms.
8. Locker rooms.
Large-scale urban schools pose many challenges that rural schoolhouses and some suburban schools do not have to address. “We work with many public schools in difficult areas. Our approach to school security is planning for visibility. In a large school, one person is located to see everyone who enters or leaves, similar to a hub and spoke wheel. The layout is not necessarily round, but the concept is that everyone who enters the building must go by the office so that administrative personnel and the principal can see people entering and leaving. Classroom design allows clear visibility outside as a way of monitoring any activity around the building. Being watched is the best security. Many urban schools are vertical, and this affords clear visibility to playgrounds and the surrounding streets,” adds Kodet.
Public areas, such as gymnasiums and auditoriums, can serve as meeting places for after school activities and local organizations. Appropriate planning can secure academic areas after hours, so they are inaccessible from public spaces, says Leonard.
“I’ve noted that school security is certainly tighter in urban areas than in the suburbs. At 7:30 a.m. in some Long Island suburban schools, most of the time you can walk right in the doors - not so in urban Elizabeth, NJ, where there’s only one way in,” says Paul Anderson, RA, senior associate and education studio director, Spector Group, North Hills, NY.
Underground parking is a radical step for many schools (and office buildings in the post-9/11 era), but can be an efficient parking solution as long as security is maintained. “At an urban New Jersey elementary school, we had to ensure that there was no breach in the security envelope on the way up from the lower level and safeguard the ramp going down into the garage. We routed the connecting stair so it led the user to the controlled main entrance,” adds Anderson.
Some areas require special attention. “Pre-k and kindergarten are in separate areas for security and function. They are accessible only via card key access, and those doors are usually locked. They have their own entries and exits into play areas, with a separate courtyard. District policy requires that all students, including at elementary schools, pass through metal detectors as they enter the building, and cameras monitor public corridors. We plan for queuing areas outside the building, and use exterior lighting to minimize hiding places at building exteriors. We avoid locating computer rooms on first floor so they are not too accessible [or] susceptible to theft,” says Peter Braverman, AIA, associate at Spector Group, North Hills, NY.
Homeland Security Concerns for Schools
According to Laurence E. Parisi, AIA, chairman of the AIA-NJ Homeland Security Committee, “The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs has developed Best Practices Standards that have been adopted by the Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force. They are being implemented by the School Construction Corporation for its projects and apply to projects that get state funding and are guidance for other projects.” These recommendations include the following:
- School buildings shall be provided with a securable perimeter. A securable perimeter means that all parking, drives, and roads are located a specified distance away for any exterior building wall. Typically, such setbacks are implemented to mitigate the impact of a vehicular bomb.
- Essential Officials: Interior offices of essential officials shall not be visible from streets.
- Rooms and areas housing utilities shall be physically isolated from the main entrance and parking. Utility service entrances shall be concealed from public.
- Emergency-control centers shall not be adjacent to or visible from public lobby areas or the street.
Specific Security Standards Should Address:
A. Exterior lighting.
C. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.
D. Fire protection.
F. Emergency control center and communication.
G. Video surveillance.
A Maintenance Program is Important
“Students are less likely to commit vandalism to property when durable, high-quality materials are installed and maintained regularly,” says Leonard. Limiting building footprints that create isolated, unlit areas can be another deterrent to vandalism.
“The school must never have any graffiti and should always be clean. Pride and a sense of responsibility are reflected in a facility that respects the occupants. Students and teachers immediately sense an uncaring attitude about the building, and their self-esteem is affected,” observes Kodet.
Remember Veterans’ Day on Nov. 11
Children and safe learning environments are among the most important critical assets in our communities, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge those who serve our country with their own unique sense of pride and responsibility, and contributions to national security.
The nation is at war abroad, and thousands of Americans - from young enlistees to mid-career, middle aged reservists - are risking their lives in military service. They work in dangerous neighborhoods and fractured communities far from home. In recent months, record numbers of brave Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. On Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, let us remember to honor our most valuable assets who form the backbone of this country - those who serve, and have served, in the U. S. military.
Some, like the 41-year old former Marine, computer executive, and reservist boyfriend of a young woman I recently met at the New Orleans airport, are being called back to serve, long after their active tours of duty have ended and as they were about to complete their time in the reserves. When I met her, she was returning to Arizona after enjoying a weekend with him before he left for Iraq. She was upbeat, confident, and proud of his service. There are countless more Americans like him and her. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers in the months ahead so that we will continue to be proud of their service as well.
I was returning to New York after speaking in Sioux Falls, SD, and participating in the Preserve America Summit in New Orleans, where I heard the First Lady, top government officials, architects, and preservationists from across the country discuss strategies for celebrating and securing the nation’s historic resources. The many people I met in those few days, from Alaska and Hawaii to Baton Rouge, LA, and Oklahoma City, served as a reminder that Americans are a strong, diverse, and spirited people with an abiding commitment to serve, honor, and protect this country.
Let’s give thanks this season for those who serve and to our veterans.
A Time Line of Recent Worldwide School Shootings
American School & University magazine: Security/life safety articles
Blurock, FAIA, Thomas, Chapter 20, “School Security: Designing Safe Learning Environments,” Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004. A thorough discussion of issues that contribute to school security, with examples and checklists.
Collins, AIA, Randolph J., “Defensive Design,” American School & University, April 2006
Keep Schools Safe
National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities Resource List: Safety and Security Design for Schools