Passive Security in Facility Planning

While educational facility planners recognized the need to balance safety and security in school facilities long before the Columbine shootings and September 11, they now implement additional security measures to safeguard students and educators. Building security can be addressed in an active or a passive manner: active security is based on security systems; while passive security is based on program design, building configuration, and community participation. School security should be based on passive concepts with applied active concepts when necessary.

In a perfect world, the ideal school facility would be located in the heart of a compassionate community, on a large green area, and far away from dangerous traffic or railroads. The school would have minimal windows and only one main entrance where a friendly gatekeeper, who knew the name of every student, parent, and teacher, would welcome each individual at all times of the day.

When new schools were built in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate children from the baby boom, educational facility planners didn’t have to consider safety as much as they do today. Instead, they built eye-pleasing, sprawling, one-floor facilities with multiple entrances and windows. Now that we live in a world of political and religious unrest, there are several ways educational facility planners address school security.

Reduce Scale

One of the problems with big schools, especially high schools, is that students stroll several long corridors on a rambling campus to get from one class to another. The hallways are crowded with so many students that a stranger could easily go unnoticed. For these reasons, education facility planners often recommend schools within schools, which create smaller learning communities of students and teachers who know each other well. Schools within schools also provide smaller ratios of students to teachers, resulting in individualized attention. In addition, when the bells rings, students move within zones and do not need to crisscross the entire building to get from one class to the other.

Now, when facility planners create new prototype middle schools and high schools, they cluster the classrooms and avoid corridors. When classrooms are clustered around a common area (like the cafeteria), there is constant student flow, which contributes to overall safety. Instead of a large locker bay, lockers are decentralized throughout the building and located in greater proximity to classrooms. A 500-student building can feel like a 1,500-student building and a 1,500-student building can feel like a 500-student building, based on how lockers are arranged.

Distribute Leadership

Instead of placing all administrative offices by the main entrance, facility planners often disperse the offices. For example, they may put the principal’s office at the main entrance, resulting in one gatekeeper, and place offices for the assistant principal and guidance counselors (additional gatekeepers) throughout the building. However, if facility planners really want to impact security and increase supervision, they create clusters of four to eight classrooms and place teacher planning areas and administrative offices adjacent to the clusters. They also place student lockers and restrooms close to the clusters.

Use of Glass

A critical element of security is the ability to visually observe; therefore, glass can be very useful. It’s obvious that students should not be in unsupervised spaces for long, and if most spaces in a school are enclosed, this has a profound impact on staffing levels. For example, students may need access to a computer lab during the school day or after hours. This is not advisable if there is no adult in the computer lab; however, if the computer lab has glass walls, students can be supervised from adjacent areas, even the hallways. The same can be said for windows in administrative offices. They provide visual connections to the hallways, front doors, etc. While it is not possible to use glass everywhere, it can provide passive supervision and also create an improved aesthetic feel.

Build Relationships

Passive security often results naturally through strong relationships among students, parents, teachers, and the community. The more a school facility is“emotionally owned” by the individuals it serves, the better.

For instance, the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met School) in Providence, RI, serves approximately 400 students who are divided into several buildings (schools) that surround a green area on one city block. Educators take incredible strides to understand each student’s abilities and needs. In fact, learning programs are individually crafted to their learning interests. All Met students are required to apply to college, and they and their families are provided support throughout the application process. Educators have seen nearly every graduate accepted to college, since the first class graduated in 2000.

In addition to focusing on students and parents, Met educators actively engage the public as participants and decision makers in the education process. Students work at internships in community businesses and organizations two days a week, learning academic skills through real-world problem solving. There is definitely a sense of pride and ownership at the Met School — among students, parents, educators, and the community — which creates insular passive security.

Next Steps

Ensuring security doesn’t mean creating a prison-like environment. While no one has invented a foolproof school design that eliminates all security concerns, facility planners can implement passive security measures to avoid potential trouble. A good facility planning firm will involve all interested parties (students, parents, teachers, and community members) early in the process to achieve an effective teaching and learning environment that embraces the community.

Frank Locker, Ph.D., AIA, REFP, is president of DeJONG-Locker. An architect, former educator, and trained facilitator, Dr. Locker has more than 30 years of education and school facilities planning experience.

William S. DeJong, Ph.D., REFP, is CEO of DeJONG, one of the country’s foremost educational facility planning firms. Dr. DeJong is a member of the National School Boards Foundation, was president and assistant executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI), and was the executive director of the National Community Education Association (NCEA). They can be reached by visiting