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Tackling School Safety Through Design

By Laura Fisher Kaiser
February 14, 2013
Photo © Julio Cortez/AP
Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

In the wake of the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, school districts around the country are grappling with “how to marry 20th-century environments with 21st-century technology and make our schools safe,” said architect Irene Nigaglioni, chair of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), at its School Security Summit in Washington, D.C., on February 7.

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Echoing many speakers at the meeting, Nigaglioni, a partner at the Dallas-based PBK Architects and the mother of a second grader, said she was deeply affected by the tragedy. She convened the summit, held at the U.S. Green Building Council headquarters, to bring together architects, educators, government agencies, NGOs, and security experts to discuss school security as it relates to the planning, design, and operational protocol of the physical environment.

Franklin Brown, planning director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission, voiced a frustration among architects trying to improve safety through design: “The main thing schools want is a list of retrofits by cost.” No such list exists; costs vary greatly by region. Locking systems are typically at the top of the security-upgrade menu, specifically “Columbine locks,” which allow teachers to secure classrooms from the inside. Since the 1999 shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, many school districts have looked into installing them, although they are costly and controversial. Still, some planners are pushing for mechanisms that shut and lock classroom doors automatically.

Steve Turckes, a principal at Perkins+Will, winced at the idea of locked classrooms. “We need to think more about the perimeter of a site or a building as a point of deterrence,” he said. Creating “concentric circles of protec­tion”—a tenet of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) theory, in which a series of physical barriers and security systems delay or thwart an attacker—has to be balanced with the need for a welcoming environment. “It’s a constant struggle to create access controls and have a school remain engaging,” said Scott Layne, an assistant superintendent of Irving Independent School District in Texas.“If we make schools like prisons, we’ve taken away designers’ critical mission.”

For many schools, security starts at the front door with cameras, buzzers, and metal detectors. But before going gadget shopping or redesigning their buildings, schools should conduct a security audit to pinpoint their vulnerabilities, said John Fannin III, president of KCI Protection Tech­nologies. He cautioned against focusing all efforts on the “active shooter” scenario. After all, the odds of a student dying at school, by homicide or suicide, were only one in a million at the time of a 2004 joint U.S. Department of Education/Secret Service report.

Yet the perception that schools are increasingly dangerous has been a boon to the security industry. The day of the summit, Maryland’s Prince George’s County School District proposed spending $5.6 million on a slew of security upgrades including a special school police force. Later this year, Ohio will offer grants to schools to purchase a state-of-the-art radio and digital-data network used by first responders. Meanwhile, the Buckeye Firearms Association, an Ohio-based pro-firearms political-action committee, claims that more than 600 people have applied to its Armed Teacher Training Program. “There’s the old belief that we can do everything possible to make kids safe, but if one crazy person gets inside a school nothing can stop him,” said Layne. “But the debate over school-campus security should not be overshadowed by talk that it’s impossible to make schools safer.”

Online Resources for Designing Safe Schools

US Army Corps of Engineers’ Protective Design Center
U.S. citizens employed by a U.S. government agency or U.S. Government contractor can access the website and download documents on building security analysis.

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities
Several primers on designing safe schools, put out in recent years by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Education, are archived on the website. (No new content has been added to the site since September 2012 due to lack of funding.)

Department of Homeland Security
Primer to Design Safe School Projects in Case of Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings
DHS offers funding, training, and resources to enhance school safety.

National Crime Prevention Council
School CPTED Training course includes design guidelines.

Department of Education
2008 Guide to School Vulnerability Assessments

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