Through a Different Lens

While preparing for a recent conference keynote, I sought help from a respected colleague Les Nichols, AIA. The conference was an international event focused on designing safer school facilities, and Les is a walking encyclopedia on building design concepts related to safety. As vice president for Club Safety and Design for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Les is responsible for helping clubs around the world improve safety and security in a variety of ways, including the incorporation of specific design concepts. As one of the primary groups in the audience for the conference was architects, Les offered to help me improve my presentation by helping me view the information to be covered through the eyes of an architect. He recommended several popular textbooks used by schools of architecture and met with me after I had read them.

Though I have periodically worked with and trained architects for more than a decade, the discussions with Les were incredibly insightful. His patience in helping me understand how he has been trained to think during his formal education and work experience was quite useful. His take on the dynamics of the relationships and interactions between architects and school personnel on school building projects was very revealing as well.

Among the most important concepts Les shared with me is the idea of problem seeking. After reading the landmark book Problem Seeking - An Architectural Programming Planner by William Pena and Steven A. Parshall at his urging, Les was kind enough to spend a couple of hours explaining his view of problem seeking based on the book and his many years of international experience as an architect working on school and youth organization facilities.

This conversation will forever shape how I view strategic issues relating to campus safety. To oversimplify our discussion to fit this column’s word count, problem seeking means to actively seek potential problems early in the design process in an effort to identify and correct problems before the facility is completed. Les emphasized the importance of asking the right questions at the right time during the design process. He also stressed the challenges often faced in putting the concept of problem seeking into actual practice because many people are naturally resistant to ask some of the most important questions. One persuasive argument that Les presented to me relating to safety aspects of facility design is that we should ask the same questions an expert witness, attorney, a governing body such as a board of trustees, families of victims or the media would ask following an incident.

It is striking when we can learn a valuable concept that is successful in one discipline or setting and find relevance for its application in another very different context. There are often occasions where one discipline can learn valuable concepts from another discipline. For example, campus leaders can learn a great deal about decision making under pressure from public safety and emergency professionals, law enforcement officials can learn valuable lessons from mental health practitioners, and problem seeking is one of several conceptual approaches that campus safety officials can learn from architects.

Learning to view the world through a different lens can be most revealing. Maximizing our efforts to build safer facilities by problem seeking can be an invaluable tool to reduce risk, exposure to civil liability and, most importantly, to improve safety.

As I reflect on the anniversary of my 30th year as a full-time campus safety professional, I realize how much more effective I could have been if someone had enlightened me to this manner of thinking when I was a rookie university police officer. Like many of life’s more valuable lessons, I wish I had been faster on the uptake. I guess we all have these moments in life where we suddenly see the light and wish we had been illuminated earlier on. This was certainly one of those experiences for me.

I do feel quite fortunate to now have another powerful tool to improve my service to others. I will forever be grateful to a brilliant, generous and good friend for taking time from his incredibly busy schedule to share his thoughts with me so I could serve others more effectively. A gifted architect was certainly quite willing and able to teach this old dog some valuable new tricks.

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. Safe Havens provides training and consulting on school safety, security and emergency preparedness for K-12 schools worldwide. The author 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