Safer Than Fort Knox?

Let’s put this media-sensationalized issue into perspective.

“The vast majority of America’s schools are safe places…. Yet, reports … create the impression that such violence is pervasive in our nation’s schools and instill fear in the minds of parents, students and teachers. While this fear is understandable, it is not based on fact.” This is the conclusion of the“1998 Annual Report on School Safety,” published jointly by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. They offer solid empirical evidence to support their conclusion, including the following:

    • The number of serious violent crimes committed against students ages 12-18 is two and one half times greater away from school than on school premises.

    • Theft accounted for 62 percent of all crime against students ages 12 through 18 committed on school premises in 1996.

    • The number of crimes against students ages 12-18, both on and off school premises, declined between 1993 and 1996. In light of these findings, is it possible that educators, parents and entire communities are simply overreacting?

Not exactly. The same report also found that during the 1996-97 school year, 21 percent of all public high schools reported one or more violent crimes to the police or other law enforcement authorities, as did 19 percent of all public middle schools and five percent of all public elementary schools. And the authors of the report concluded,“Any school crime is too much.” We agree.

Solutions to the Problem

In their attempt to establish and maintain safe and secure learning environments, schools are implementing a vast array of solutions: zero-tolerance policies, surveillance technologies, dress codes, police presence, closed campus policies, etc. The effect of each approach varies from one school to the next, depending on a multitude of factors: funding, building age and layout, school board, administrators, security personnel, teachers, policies, procedures, parents, kids, neighboring properties and local law enforcement.

For example, school officials in the Kansas City, Mo., district publicize their tough position against crime with highly visible metal detectors and security cameras in all of their secondary schools because they have a significant threat from their own enrolled students, i.e., carrying weapons or drugs. In addition, all secondary students must wear a photo I.D. badge.

In contrast, public school administrators in the nearby Shawnee Mission District, a white-collar suburb of metropolitan Kansas City, find their biggest threats are from off-campus intruders. Consequently, their approaches are subtler. For example, the principal’s office is strategically located to provide a sweeping view of the lobby/entrance areas, and building access is highly controlled.

Architectural Design: Responding With Location-Specific Solutions

If a school’s violence problems are related to gang rivalries, solutions must focus on drugs and weapons possession. This includes locker searches, metal detection and reducing congestion in high traffic areas. Graffiti (or “tagging”) must be removed before rival gangs have a chance to discover it, facilitated by anti-graffiti sealers and “swat team” janitorial training.

If theft is rampant, access to the campus should be tightened, lighting increased; vulnerable windows secured and alarm systems installed to protect “high-value” computer, music and shop classes.

Architects working with school boards and administrators need to recognize facility design can be only a partial solution to a primarily social problem. Security-conscious design can facilitate easier oversight; discourage illegal activity; and compensate for tight security budgets, fewer security personnel and less sophisticated surveillance equipment; as well as create an environment in which students can study at ease without fear.

Site Planning Considerations

Factors affecting school site planning include parking; vehicular and pedestrian access; the immediate neighborhood; adjacent buildings; landscaping and the relationships among buildings, parking and play fields.

Controlled Access

“Limiting access to outsiders is the single biggest security focus for our district,” says Julie Miller, an 18-year veteran of the Shawnee Mission School Board.

A limited number of site entry points and an open stretch of lawn between the street and the school — ideally 50 feet — force the would-be trespasser to enter more visibly. If buffers, such as landscaped yards, are developed, they provide a discreet campus enclosure that is less severe than chain link fencing. Adequately spacing trees and avoiding dense shrubs in this buffer will discourage the hiding of contraband.


Ideally, staff parking should be separate from student parking. Approximately 80 percent of all secondary schools have implemented a closed campus policy. Single entrances into parking lots allow security guards to oversee each vehicle that enters campus. It is also preferable to provide separate parking lots for work/study students and those who need to leave during the day. A good site plan optimizes sight lines between parking aisles from key points within the building. Bus loading should be distanced from parent and staff parking / drop-off areas.

Hiding Places, Unseen Access

Building additions, if not planned with security in mind, often create recessed entryways and U-shaped courtyards that can conceal illicit behavior and illegal contraband. Exposed utility conduits and drainpipes can allow easy access to a school’s roof and opportunities for unauthorized entry and theft. If such secluded areas cannot be eliminated, flood them with light using impact-resistant and inaccessible fixtures.

Building Layout Considerations

Classroom size, traffic routing, placement of windows, sight lines and the number and placement of student restrooms affect facility security.


Ninety-six percent of all K-12 schools require visitor sign-in. Allow sufficient room at the entry to accommodate queues or to allow for the possibility of adding metal detection, drug detection or a school resource officer.


Position exterior windows out of reach from would-be trespassers. Multiple, small windows are a stronger deterrent to theft than large windows. Interior windows that connect the lobby to the administrative area establish a strong perception of visual control without creating a dominating security presence. Windows between teacher work areas, classrooms and hallways facilitate non-intrusive surveillance.


If hallways become crowded around lockers, between classes and during lunch, verbal and physical abuse, as well as exchange of contraband, can go easily undetected. Design corridors sufficiently wide to handle the predicted volume, and design multiple routes to key amenities such as media center, gym and cafeteria to disseminate student traffic. Design circulation loops instead of spokes, and avoid bottlenecks. When possible, locate student lockers in classrooms or other areas naturally monitored by staff.

Natural Causes of Agitation

Large classrooms prevent overcrowding and the agitation associated with it. This spaciousness also allows teachers to get to students quickly in an urgent situation.

Specify tamper-resistant thermostats to prevent vandalism of controls and the negative behaviors that erupt when students are too hot or too cold.

Threatening Places

Almost 10 percent of students ages 12 - 19 report that they avoid one or more places in their schools for fear of their own safety. Safety-conscious design can minimize hidden corners, prevent unsupervised misbehavior and bolster students’ sense of well being. For example, open stairwells keep students from feeling trapped. Another recent trend involves constructing single-stall bathrooms, interspersed in the building with good visual control by staff.

Secure Zones and Special Needs

Locate rooms that contain expensive equipment (i.e., musical instruments, VCRs, computers, lab supplies and shop equipment) near the center of the building to deter and delay attempts at theft. Both the Shawnee Mission District and the Westerly (R. I.) Public Schools have created special self-contained “planning centers” within their secondary schools where disruptive students are taught in smaller groups. These classrooms require a unique design approach and placement since students typically spend the entire day here.

Limited Access

Many school districts are opening cafeterias and gymnasiums to community groups and offering adult classes after hours. Minimize opportunities for theft and vandalism by locating community classrooms near the front entrance and lock off non-gym and non-cafeteria portions of the facility.

Communications and Security Technologies

Schools considering high-tech security measures should retain professional security and design consultants who are nonproprietary in the equipment they recommend.

Ordinary telephones in individual classroom have proven extremely valuable in some districts. They allow convenient and critical communication among teachers, administration and parents without the teacher needing to leave the class. At Shawnee Mission’s AEP School, an 800 hotline lets students contact the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) from any phone in the building; the KBI then passes the insider’s confidential tip back to school officials.

Additional design considerations affecting security and communications technologies include:

    • Security systems tied into telephone alert systems need to protect cabling from being severed.

    • Adhere to “reasonable expectation of privacy” laws when positioning surveillance cameras.

    • Maintain sufficient light levels, so cameras can record legible images.

    • Straight view lines should be kept free of obstructions.

    • Maintain a good public address system.

    • Build in receivers and transmitters to ensure reliable two-way radio and cellular telephone use from the middle of large, dense buildings.

    • Include a flexible technology infrastructure system to accommodate the inevitable evolution of various technologies, i.e., multiple smaller hub closets, oversized cable raceways and accessible ceiling plenums.

    Include Architectural Design in Crime Prevention Program

    The “1998 Annual Report on School Safety” concluded: “School violence is a complicated societal problem. It is not, however, insurmountable.” A multitude of approaches will be necessary if we are to create secure environments in which students can safely learn. A strategy embraced by one community will meet resistance in another. A successful solution for one school may be entirely ineffective in a different neighborhood. While architectural design cannot solve the complex problem of school crime, deliberate planning and security-conscious design have consistently been shown to have a mitigating effect on school violence.

    David L. Reid, AIA, is an Associate Principal and Director of Design with WRS Architects, 110 Armour Road, North Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at [email protected]