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Designing Safe Facilities

Years after the worst school shootings, new building plans, combined with new technologies, make for safer and more secure environments.
A staff resource room is clearly seen from a hallway at the Manassas Park (Va.) Elementary School.

In the spring of 1999,12 students and a teacher were killed by two gun-toting teenage boys at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., making school safety and security an overnight priority in communities across the nation. Eight years later, a second and even more deadly incident on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where a student shot and killed 32 people, brought a renewed wave of concern and attention to security. But these two largest U.S. school shootings to date were by no means isolated incidents, as 60 similar events at American schools were reported between October 2007 and February 2008, according to a 2008 U.S. News & World Report article. "Columbine was the undisputed impetus for a whole new focus on school security, and it had a major influence on the construction of new school buildings and the renovation of existing ones," says Judy Marks, director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, a program of the National Institute of Building Sciences that provides information on designing, building and maintaining safe, healthy, high-performing schools.

School Design: Key to Security

Emerging as a central element of this new focus, says Marks, was the theory of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), a term coined in a 1971 book of the same name by Florida State University criminologist C. Ray Jeffery. The basic principle of the previously unheralded CPTED is that a carefully designed physical environment can deter crime by limiting the opportunities for and vulnerabilities to negative influences. Highlighted in the 1999 National Institute of Justice report for school architects, "The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools," the CPTED concept has since been revised by several experts such as architect Oscar Newman and criminologist Timothy Crowe. Today it remains the security bible for the latest school construction and renovation.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a national consulting firm, suggests that school boards and K12 administrators specify with architects that school designs include input from school security professionals and/or CPTED specialists with K12 experience. "Too often, school administrators, school security officials and school resource officers are not involved in the early processes of new school design," he says. "District officials need to require contracted architects to fully engage these end-users in discussions and planning of security measures and safety into the design of new schools. Architects should also be required to work closely with principals, teachers and support staff who will work in the schools they design so they get input from them on the most practical and useful design that would facilitate education, supervision and safety."

The key concerns in ensuring school safety can be classified under three topics: personnel protection, readiness and emergency management, and building and asset security, says Larry Borland, chief security officer for the Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., which has 33 schools, seven of which were added in the past decade. The district recently initiated security renovation of 23 buildings with $2.8 million in undesignated bond money. "Be sure that each area supports the others," he says.

Architects pass through a secure steel gate at the Miami Beach Senior High School.

Entry Control

The first security priority for schools is always student and staff safety, with entry control as the main focus, say Marks and Borland. Fewer entrances make for safer schools, even though that can mean "herding a lot of students through one doorway," Marks says. Tod Schneider, a private security consultant and crime prevention specialist for the Eugene (Ore.) Police Department, says his work in CPTED circles confirms this trend of installing fewer doors to reduce the risk of intruders slipping into schools. "I've never visited a school where I couldn't get a friendly student or staff member to let me in through a locked door just by standing near it," says Schneider.

New school designs, such as that of Cesar Chavez Elementary in Eugene (Ore.) Public Schools, constructed in 2004, feature fewer entrances and exits. In many cases, they also allot space for metal detectors and security guards near doors, says Marks, though metal detectors can instill a feeling of mistrust in the school. Entrances should also be well-lit, equipped with alarms, locked from the inside, and require nonschool personnel to undergo screening before admittance. Once inside, visitors should sign in at the main office, state the reason for their visit, and don identification badges.

Schneider, who has conducted hundreds of security vulnerability assessments, says sometimes schools don't see obvious solutions to entryway security problems. Scio Middle School in the Scio (Ore.) School District had a horseshoe-shaped yard with an open end to accommodate a weekly garbage pickup. Installing fencing at the end of the yard and placing the Dumpster outside the fence was an easy solution. The school's music building also had an entrance outside the secured area, so security doors were left unlocked during school hours to provide access for students. Schneider pointed out that cutting a new door into the back of the building would allow students access from within the secure area of the school. "Now, all rooms that have students in them are behind locked doors," says Cecilia Swigart, the district's business manager.

Interior entryways are another important aspect of school design. During the Virginia Tech shootings, teachers couldn't lock classroom doors, so new door hardware and punch-number access doors now allow teachers to lock doors from the inside. California law AB 211, the Classroom Safety Locks bill, requires all newly constructed schools to have inside-classroom door locks. Another trend in new school designs, says Marks, is the locking of outside doors to the gym, cafeteria and other public spaces, with inside push bars so students can easily get out of buildings in case of emergencies.

Left, a camera, and right, an intercom at the Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo. Intercoms force visitors to ring a doorbell and video from cameras allow officials to track disciplinary or criminal matters.

Video Intercoms, Smart Cards

Identifying specific security concerns before updating buildings is key to making smart investments that address priorities, says Schneider. As part of the recent Academy School District renovations, Borland installed video intercoms in all elementary school entryways to track activity in the case of a missing child. "Sometimes you have to deal with an angry parent who doesn't have child custody," says Borland, recounting a 2010 incident when a noncustodial parent was deterred by the camera at school and later apprehended in the parking lot by a security officer. Principals initially felt uncomfortable requiring parents to ring a doorbell at the entrance and state their business to staff. "It turns out parents love it," he says.

Many schools are also starting to borrow security methods from the business world. For instance, smart cards with individual identifying bar codes that report attendance and let students open their lockers, check out library books, and pay cafeteria fees are becoming more mainstream as costs decrease, says Marks. At the Academy School District, all staff working four or more hours a day are issued smart cards for building access. Surveillance cameras are also positioned at every entrance, with video manned 24/7 by a 10-person team. Staff are encouraged to report lost cards immediately, as access can be turned off within seconds.

Eliminate Dead Space

Bullying, smoking and other mischief can also be diminished by thoughtful building design. Marks cites airport-style bathrooms without doors and the elimination of secluded spaces, such as hallway nooks and dead ends beneath stairwells, as discouraging misbehavior. Also important in this regard is the placement of surveillance cameras in spots where students tend to congregate, such as at a printer available for student use. Additionally, Borland says, middle and high schools should have male and female security officers on campus so they can patrol all restrooms.

Natural Surveillance

The Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., has a 24/7 command center at the central office building. Security officer Michael Huntingford, above, watches surveillance cameras.

Clear sightlines that allow for "natural surveillance" throughout the school are the next order of business, says Marks. Large glass windows around the administration building with unobstructed views to the street ensure that office staff can easily spot people approaching the main entrance. Other clear sightline trends in school design include shorter lockers that adults can see over in place of the floor-to-ceiling locker banks found in many older schools, glass panels that frame classroom doors and allow for visibility from hallways, and teachers' lounges and offices dispersed throughout the school, instead of in a single location, so more staff eyes are spread throughout the campus.

The Manassas Park (Va.) School District has integrated the dispersed-teacher workspace model into all four of the schools it has built over the past decade. Glassed-in, mid-hallway offices accommodate four to eight teachers with individual refrigerators, microwave ovens and dishwashers. Positioned next to restrooms and with clear views of hallways and outdoor spaces, these offices have eliminated the need for assigned teacher supervision in these areas and have significantly reduced disciplinary issues, says Manassas Park Superintendent Bruce McDade.

"At the old Manassas High School, smoking in the bathroom was fairly common, with at least one or two incidents a week," he says. "But in the 10 years since the new school has been in operation, there've only been two such incidents."


Surveillance cameras can also provide "virtual window" sightlines in cases where schools have limited personnel. Cameras in high-risk areas, such as high school parking lots or low-traffic spaces behind outbuildings, can be useful when districts don't have the security personnel to man real-time video displays.

But Schneider cautions that cameras without eyes watching in real time can be a waste of school money and only serve as a means to assign blame after a breach occurs. "Smart" cameras, which sell for around $1,000 by companies such as Q-See and Clover Electronics and are used mostly by corporations, are likely soon to become more affordable and widespread in schools, says Schneider.

Such cameras can be programmed to detect motion and to trigger a desk bell or other alarm, and they may prove a budgetsmart solution for schools when paired with a video screen prominently displayed in the administration office. Such cameras, when trained on perimeter fences and other vulnerable areas, can alert staff to fights, fence climbing and other situations, says Schneider.

Borland's district has kept track of students in elementary schools, and reduced opportunities for negative interaction among middle and high school students, especially in high-traffic areas. Elementary school cameras cover doors, playgrounds and walkways between portable classrooms and the main building. In middle and high schools, cameras provide 360-degree views around schools, major hallways, entrances and cafeterias.

Secure Assets

As Columbine was the impetus for student and staff safety, Hurricane Katrina has been a driver of sustainable school design. In New Orleans, Federal Emergency Management Agency requires two bottom floors used as parking lots, says Schneider.

As detailed in CPTED, landscaping also plays an important role in crime deterrence. Prickly plants outside building windows can discourage entry, and strategic placement of bushes and trees can prevent kids from climbing onto roofs.

Locking cabinets, protecting school computers with alarms, and using surveillance cameras have also become standard practice in new school design, says Marks. Smart cards can be programmed to allow only certain staff members access to science or computer labs and only during certain hours. And high-tech doors with built-in wiring for entry control are often cheaper than trying to upgrade older doors, say Marks and Schneider. When performing inspections of Eugene schools a few years back for a grant-funded security upgrade, Schneider says he advocated for air-lock entry vestibules that require visitors to buzz in to exterior and interior doors.

ROI Elusive

Schneider, Marks and Borland say hard evidence of a return on investment in safety upgrades for schools remains elusive. But Ellis in Fairfax County cites an elementary school that burned in 2000 after hours due to no smoke or heat detectors. "Replacing an elementary school costs in the range of $13 to $15 million," he says. "Now all 23 of our schools have automated systems."

"The Columbine shootings, Virginia Tech and the September 11, 2001 attacks have spurred a great deal of thought about how to make school buildings more secure," says Marks. "The kind of innovative design we're seeing today, with better lighting, signage, entryway protection, landscaping ... is a result of the best thinking in the education, security and architectural industries."