Safe Schools by Design

A concept that first became popular many years ago has shown a strong comeback in the school setting in recent years. Crime prevention through environmental design, commonly known as CPTED is a field of knowledge that should be applied in every new school construction or renovation project. And, while some unfortunately try to over bill CPTED as a magic bullet that can fix all woes, many schools are still being built today with inherent problems because no one on the planning team is familiar with it’s powerful research-based concepts. I routinely advise school systems that they should insist that architectural firms that wish to bid on school construction projects have personnel on staff who are trained in CPTED.

What is CPTED?

Keeping in mind that CPTED expert Timothy Crowe filled an entire textbook, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, with information on the topic, I will try to do my best to describe it in less than 900 words. CPTED focuses on the built environment, along with a view as to how space is used by those who occupy these spaces. CPTED assumes that there are two types of users of space —“normal” or those who have legitimate purpose and intent, and“abnormal” users who do not act according to our laws, policies and social norms. CPTED helps to make the normal user feel at ease and welcome, while making the abnormal user feel very nervous about engaging in inappropriate behavior.

There are three main tenants of CPTED:

Access control — directing people in and out of areas through the use of a specified pathway or direction. Most often, landscaping features, such as a garden, are designed to control the direction of traffic. Persons walking through the garden would stand out and would quickly draw attention to themselves.

Natural surveillance — using activities or design features to maximize real or perceived visibility. A common example would be the removal of vending machines that cause blind spots in a school hallway.

Territorial Reinforcement — using design features to express clear ownership of areas. One example I observed was a sign written in Cherokee alphabet on the front of an elementary school in Cherokee, N.C. The use of the traditional alphabet creates pride in the Native American students and parents who frequent the school. People who take pride in a facility tend to work to maintain and protect it.

Does CPTED have limitations?

Like any other school safety strategy, CPTED has its limitations. The worst school violence episode in United States history to date occurred in a school designed by CPTED trained architects. As often pointed out in this column, reliance on only a few school safety strategies is a recipe for failure. The biggest problem occurs when CPTED is used in a vacuum. As long as CPTED is kept in perspective, as a piece of the larger picture, and is supported by other measures, it is a viable and powerful concept. Though CPTED is supposed to be a comprehensive and inclusive approach, there is a tendency to use it as a total solution. One example is the concept of a weapons screening vestibule where people are screened by a walk through metal detector manned by an operator watching through a security camera. Proper metal detection requires one or more properly trained persons to be in close proximity to the people being screened to determine what metal objects have set off the detector. Failure to incorporate the knowledge and experience of experts in the field of weapons screening makes this concept questionable at best.

What about severe weather and terrorism concerns?

A similar problem occurs when CPTED concepts that are designed to correct common problems are implemented creating other risks. For example, many CPTED experts commonly recommend the increased use of glass in buildings to increase natural light and to enhance natural surveillance. If not done properly, this can create severe vulnerabilities to acts of terrorism or severe weather incidents. One urban school system built six elementary schools using the same building plan. There is no location in these schools where the occupants can be safely sheltered for tornado conditions without occupants being in close proximity to glass windows. If glass is used that is not properly treated by protective laminates, flying glass will be also be a significant hazard if an accidental or intentionally created explosion occurs near the school. This can result from common scenarios such as an accidental explosion at a clandestine drug lab in a house located across the street from an elementary school or from a natural gas explosion at a residence near the school. Consulting with area emergency management, fire service, school security and law enforcement personnel before plans are finalized can help to avert these types of problems.

When used hand in hand with other safety strategies, CPTED can be an awesome tool to help create welcome and safe learning environments. A search of the Internet can reveal many good articles on the topic to help provide a working grasp of the concepts of CPTED. Attending breakout sessions at conferences or seminars dedicated to CPTED will be even more helpful. For those who have a hand in school construction, CPTED should be a key consideration for every project.

Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for 23 years. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at