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Looks Can Be Deceiving

Construction planners now balance safety with education when designing, or redesigning, schools

Administrators in the Metropolitan School District in Wayne Township, Ind., had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish when they renovated Ben Davis High School last year. In addition to adding 250,000-square-feet of space to the nearly 40-year-old school, they wanted to make the high school "clearly" safer.

That meant that hallways were reconfigured to give clear, straight lines of sight, the central office and guidance department were moved near the front entrance so visitors and students have to pass office personnel when entering, and electronic locks were installed on every door.

The district also installed more than 100 surveillance cameras and built a camera monitoring room to view the closed-circuit television. The work didn't stop at the front door; new perimeter lighting was added to the building and lighting was installed in the parking lot.

In past decades, school planners designed new buildings or renovated existing structures with energy efficiency, ventilation, clear exits in case of fire, and wiring for technology in mind. Now, school officials are checking blueprints to make sure hallways have no nooks that prevent a clear line of sight, that stairways have windows and that school administrators' offices are situated throughout the building for better student oversight. When it comes to school construction nowadays, experts say security and armor is a key focus.

"In every school district we work with, security is an issue," says Dennis Young, executive vice president for Wm. B. Ittner architects in St. Louis, which has been designing school structures since 1899. "It's become part of the package."

Schools across the nation are set to spend about $27 billion for about 8,000 new buildings, additions and renovations in 2003. But with school shootings on everyone's mind and heightened terror alerts, school officials are running their designs by security experts before approving any plans.

"Often, a beautiful design doesn't make for the safest building," says Chuck Hibbert, coordinator for safety and transportation services for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana.

Seeking a Balance

School officials say they hope to use crime prevention designs to offset the need for more intrusive security technology. But the compromise is not easy. School officials must balance designs that provide a positive educational environment with designs that maximize security.

"Real security is being able to have an environment that is safe and at the same time not turning schools into prisons," says Corey Duber, senior director of security for Wake County Public Schools in Raleigh, N.C.

School officials must also balance tight budgets that call for certain designs that maximize space. Many educators, for example, like school structures that have many nooks and crannies that can be storage space. But these same spaces, experts say, can provide hideouts for intruders and violent students. Instead, security officials recommend straight hallways that provide clear lines of sight.

Straight hallways are one of several elements in the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design protocol, a recommended design plan by architects with security expertise, that many school designers follow when devising plans for new education facilities. Other elements include:

  • Stairwells with big windows to allow for more light and oversight

  • A central reception office right near the doorway, where students and visitors will enter and exit
  • Small bays of lockers for unobstructed oversight by hallway monitors
  • Clearly visible common areas
  • Wider hallways to prevent overcrowding and heighten tensions
  • Department head offices scattered throughout the building for more natural supervision of students
  • Limited shrubbery and level landscaping to provide optimum oversight of outdoor perimeter areas.
  • "We are looking for things in design that encourage security such as limited places to hide, limiting access to the building, controlled visibility from the principal and vice principal's office," says Jim Lora, consulting architect for the North Carolina Board of Education Planning Section. "A lot of things are just common sense."

    For existing structures, experts recommend districts equip all classrooms with phones, install electronic locks for all doors that only teachers and administrators can control and purchase video monitors for the front entrance and hallways. Experts also suggest limiting public access for new structures and existing building on nights and weekends to just certain common rooms used by community groups and the public after school hours.

    Customize Security Needs

    Many school districts are also hiring police officers for major events like graduations, portable metal detectors and increased perimeter lighting to help prevent violent incidents.

    Hibbert says some of the security measures Indianapolis schools took, which included installing electronic locks and closed circuit television in all of its 20 facilities, may have seemed offensive to the community at first. But he says schools should follow the same procedures that corporations use when it comes to security.

    "I remember in 1988 I sat down with the school superintendent, and we discussed how offensive it might be to initiate signing in of visitors. There was some real consternation at first, but what corporate America does is applicable to schools as well," he said.

    Still, Hibbert says school security measures shouldn't be so invasive that it turns off the public completely. "Another concern is community involvement and getting those people to us, and if they are turned off by security procedures, they will not come back. It's really a fine line you have to walk," Hibbert said.

    Districts should evaluate their chief security threats before approving any designs, says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based school safety consulting firm. Security risks at an urban school may be different from schools in rural communities. A school in one section of town may not face the same problems as another, and, therefore, should be designed differently, he says. For example, officials in a school with many doors facing a busy street might want to secure the doors to prevent random people from entering. Or officials in a secluded school surrounded by shrubbery near windows might want to cut down those plants to increase the line of sight in the area.

    Duber of Wake County, N.C., says the chief concern among school officials is not so much protecting students from intruders but preventing violence among students already in the building. Of the 37 school shootings that have occurred since the 1970s, 36 incidents involved students within the building, he notes.

    "I'm a retired federal agent," Duber says, "but this security job is more difficult because ... the bad guy could be any student in the school."

    Fran Silverman,, is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.