Common Sense Design for Safe Schools

Last year's events at Columbine High School have focused the public's attention on the issue of violent crime in our schools. While we'll never be able to guarantee that a well-planned, military-style strike on a public gathering spot won't succeed, we should take advantage of the current level of public awareness to promote better, safer, and more secure concepts in school design.

Better school design can, in fact, greatly increase the general safety of our children by creating environments that facilitate proper supervision and minimize "uncontested harassment" of individual students. Creating spaces that are "friendly to users and unfriendly to abusers" can reduce the likelihood that conflicts will fester and lead to the more violent reactions.

So how do we make our schools friendlier, more conducive to learning and less likely to become battlegrounds? A few common sense principles go a long way, and technology can help. Here are a few things to consider, and examples of how they can be applied in real schools:

1. Smaller schools are safer. The Annual Report on School Violence, released in 1996 by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, indicated that the percentage of violent incidents in large elementary schools (750 or more students) and large high schools (1500 or more students) was approximately twice what would be expected in more moderate-sized schools.

While local politics and economic criteria may dictate a school consolidation approach leading to fewer/larger schools, a report entitled“School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance, Close-up #20,” by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, suggests that the "school-within-a-school" concept can allow a large school to perform more like a smaller school, from both safety and educational viewpoints. This concept was used in the design of the Grafton Middle School/High School; a large building that was broken down into small "neighborhoods" (see Figure 1).

In the final building design, each neighborhood was clearly defined with an identity of its own, and was "owned" by a specific team of teachers and students, providing a friendly territoriality that makes "outsiders" more visible and less comfortable.

2. Limit building access to those who belong there. Once school is in session, there should be only one main entrance into the school. All other doors should be locked when not required for a specific and supervised function. This forces all visitors to enter the building via an entrance closely monitored by the school administration, as shown in Figure 2 (entry to Center Township Elementary School in Butler, PA). Locating district administrative and maintenance offices separate from the school buildings also limits the number of visitors and vendors who would otherwise need frequent access to school buildings. Other techniques to minimize the possibility of unsecured exterior doors include providing improved natural ventilation and/or air-conditioning (to eliminate the need for propping doors open on hot days) and carefully managing (or eliminating) smoking on school grounds by employees.

3. Good traffic flow promotes safety and security; this applies to both external site planning and to internal layouts. In general, wider hallways and good traffic patterns minimize the chance for conflicts to erupt and make visual supervision much easier. If all traffic between 11:45 and 11:55 in corridor "A" is moving toward the cafeteria, any individual traveling in the opposite direction will feel more obviously "out of line" and be easily spotted by administrators.

4. Avoid blind spots and informal gathering areas that are not easily monitored. Blind spots and informal gathering areas invite problems; they can make offenders feel safe and normal students feel unsafe, reinforcing the feeling that the offenders "belong" there. This concept applies equally to exterior landscaping, as shown in Figure 3 (Grafton Middle/High School exterior entrance) and interior layouts, as shown in Figure 4 (Mars Middle School corridor). Simple concepts, like avoiding locker area "cul-de-sacs" in corridors and locker rooms and locating administrator offices and teacher planning rooms in visual contact with corridors, can go a long way toward providing a safer environment for our children.

At the Grafton MS/HS, particular attention was paid to facilitating visual observation of school entrances and creating easily monitored, more formal gathering spots such as the two-story cafeteria food court (Figure 5). School administrators were located in several satellite offices near their "neighborhoods" (rather than being centralized), and in an office at the second-floor skywalk, which looks down on the food court. This layout approach provides natural supervision centers and clear lines of vision at those areas where the most potential for conflicts and/or unauthorized entrances exist.

5. Use available technologies appropriately. Improvements in telecommunications have driven costs down and increased capabilities in the last decade. Items such as teacher panic buttons, in-classroom telephone/P.A. systems, security cameras, off-hours motion detectors and door access control systems should no longer be considered "budget breakers." The next article in this series, entitled "Appropriate Application of Security Equipment in Today's Schools," provides additional technical details regarding the options, costs and proper management of security equipment in school facilities.

Obviously, one of the goals of any school design should be to provide healthful environments that make educators and learners comfortable, while making would-be criminals uncomfortable. Well-designed, safe schools do not have to evoke images of maximum-security prisons. Rather, vandalism and crime can be discouraged and prevented by good, sound design that uses common sense while remaining sensitive to our need for aesthetically pleasing learning environments.

Paul Scanlon is a principal and engineer with the firm of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, 2000 in Butler, Penn. His primary work during the last 20 years has been with education clients. Rob Pillar is a senior associate at Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, 2000. He has been involved in school planning and design for 13 years.