Fun Place, Safe Place

Ask educators what it takes to make a place safe for kids of all ages and backgrounds and you’d get answers like: better screening, surveillance and tighter controls. Ask the same educators what it takes to make a fun place that kids of all ages and backgrounds can’t wait to use, one that creates a setting where they enjoy learning each day and is safe, and you’ll get few sure answers. But that’s what Boys & Girls Clubs do at more than 3,000 sites, 676 of them at public schools and most of them in distressed neighborhoods.

Our after-school drop-in centers affect 3.5 million kids (members) primarily through the ongoing relationship they have with caring adult professional staff. However, the club facility (the clubhouse) plays a very significant role by creating a fun, inviting environment for kids, paid staff and volunteers. It’s your behavior, not your dues (typically $10/year), that determine your Boys & Girls club membership. In a club,“normal users” blend in,“abnormal users” stick out.

Membership, ownership and belonging are qualities that make it possible to distinguish between normal and abnormal users. These qualities are what make a Boys & Girls Club inherently safe. They are also the basis of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a highly successful crime prevention strategy that uses the positive behavior of normal users (those with a legitimate purpose) to minimize the potentially negative behavior of abnormal users. It does this by modifying the environment to increase the perception of risk on the part of the offender. According to criminologists, an offence typically starts with a calculated decision. If an offender is not sure if or when he’ll get caught, then he probably won’t try it.

CPTED uses three key concepts to achieve success: (1) access control, (2) natural surveillance and (3) territorial reinforcement. It also depends upon the presence of normal users (those with authority or belonging) and spectators (legitimate passers-by) to suppress abnormal behavior — often without even knowing that they are doing it.

When they are used together successfully, the result is a desirable, personalized environment that happens to be safe, because it feels natural to the normal users. “CPTED creates the least restrictive, secure environment in schools,” says Sonayia N. Shepherd, a School Safety Consultant with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Shepherd, who evaluates 500-1,000 school sites each year. “And unlike investing in the latest security technology, CPTED is so fundamental it doesn’t get outdated,” she adds.

Boys & Girls Clubs experience has been that more security technology does not necessarily increase security. Many of our clubs have realized that additional cameras without continuous monitoring by properly trained staff can imply more security than can be provided, particularly in off-hours, creating a greater legal liability than no cameras at all.

Clubs that install pass-through metal detectors at their entry usually stop using them in frustration. “Around 1995, Denver was experiencing a fast growth in gang activity,” says Boys & Girls Clubs of Denver Executive Director John Arigoni, “After a couple of incidents of kids bringing weapons into one of our clubs, we immediately thought a metal detector would help. What we didn’t expect was the detector going off so easily by every piece of metal, even by the wind. It was frustrating to our kids and staff. Ultimately we removed it and put more emphasis on training the adult staff to screen the kids as they entered.”

Schools are usually quick to adopt the CPTED concepts of access control and natural surveillance. The facility should have (ideally) one point of entry with alarms on all fire exits. Keeping windows on classroom doors clear of tape-ups and adding windows to blind spots, such as stairwell doors, are logical and easy to incorporate into an existing design.

However, most schools fail at territorial reinforcement from the perspective of the student. “We as architects over-design our schools”, says Prakash Nair, director of Educational Facilities Planning with Vitetta, one of the country’s top firms, located in Philadelphia. “We assume that the décor we create in schools should be complete, when in fact, it takes away from the input and satisfaction of the users. Finding ways to let groups of the kids personalize parts of the décor, particularly informal gathering areas, adds greatly to their sense of ownership. Ironically personal or small group ownership runs counter to the way public facilities are designed and maintained,” adds Nair.

Another important area that Boys & Girls Clubs facilities foster belonging and ownership is in our informal gathering places. The hub of a typical clubhouse is the Game Room, where kids can let off steam after coming from school and before beginning their scheduled program for the afternoon (or evening in the case of teen members). This could be called hanging out with a purpose because it acknowledges that kids arrive with a full spectrum of moods and need many different ways to sit, lean, watch, talk, walk and act to suit that particular mood, that particular day.

“Increasingly we’re seeing ways to add supervised nooks and crannies into common areas to respond to the need for small social gathering places. Social skills are the most important life skills and perhaps one of the great failings of public education is that kids aren’t getting this,” says Nair. “When you think fondly about your days in school, it’s usually the odd gathering areas you remember first. Providing those places helps create a greater sense of belonging on the part of the student and a fundamentally safer environment.”

R. Leslie Nichols, AIA is Vice President of Building Services for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.


Seven Basic CPTED Strategies

1. Provide clearer border definition — school campus borders are typically poorly defined or overgrown, creating a solid wedge between you and the adjacent neighborhood. This removes your neighbors’ ability to help with surveillance.

2. Provide clearly marked transitions from public to private areas — this highlights someone being out of place.

3. Place gathering areas in locations with natural surveillance and access control.

4. Place highly supervised activities in more remote areas — they can help make remote areas safer.

5. Place poorly supervised activities in more visible, public areas.

6. Provide natural barriers to conflicting activities.

7. Increase the perception of natural surveillance.