Selecting Safe School Sites

With the environmental hazards that are present in modern day life, it is more important than ever to be constantly vigilant about the site selection and environmental factors that surround our learning facilities. There are as many solutions as there are problems, it is just a matter of looking for contributing factors that are the cause.

A 2008 report by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Institute for the Environment, Safe Schools: Identifying Environmental Threats to Children Attending Public Schools in North Carolina, had these findings.
  • A total of 1,143 schools, or about half of the schools in the state, were found to contain at least one environmental hazard within the defined buffer zone. These 1,143 schools enroll a total of over 620,000 students, about 42 percent of whom are minorities.
  • At least 806 schools were located within one-quarter mile of a hazardous facility. Several schools were located near multiple hazards.

Issues about site safety are so pervasive that the EPA has a Website — EPA Envirofacts — that allows the user to search for a site to find if there are environmental hazards. However, Envirofacts doesn’t include information about other hazards, such as utilities or railroads.

Selecting a school site is a time consuming and complex task that requires consideration of myriad variables. According to the 2004 CEFPI (Council For Educational Facilities Planners International) report, “Creating Connections – The CEFPI Guide for Educational Facility Planning,” planners should consider the following site selection criteria.

While some of these considerations involve functionality, many involve safety. The safety issues for selecting safe school sites fall primarily into the following two categories.
  1. Land Characteristics — An area that does not contain any harmful elements within or nearby that pose a threat of harm to a school.
  2. Access to the Site — Vehicles and pedestrians can safely access the site.
Land Characteristics
One of the responsibilities of Alex James, AIA, director of the South Carolina Office of School Facilities, is to approve all new school sites in the state. The office of School Facilities has developed the following checklist for review of land characteristics before sites are acquired.
  1. Is there a water source at or near the site to provide the required source for hydrants and sprinklers the building to provide proper code compliance? Is there fire department protection for the site?
  2. Is there law enforcement protection within the jurisdiction?
  3. Is sewer disposal either through lines or septic system obtainable?
  4. Are there any potentially problematic features on or near the site? These could be anything from a nearby railroad line, airfield, industry or high-voltage power line. If a hazard is suspected, has it been researched or tested by a qualified entity to remove that suspicion?
  5. Is the site in a flood zone?

All potentially unsafe circumstances do not always fall within the potential school site acreage; neighboring offsite land characteristics must also be considered. James related the following scenario to illustrate the need to consider adjoin off-site characteristics and how a creative solution was developed.

“Several years ago during the process of selecting a school site, the issue of a nearby manufacturing plant was raised. The EPA had criteria for distances from schools that were safe, and a few hundred feet of the proposed site were within the recommended distance setbacks. The design solution was to fence that part of the property to be used as a retention pond. A potentially harmful element offsite was identified and dealt with to make the site safe.”

For more information, see site selection in Div 2 and Form F-2 (in the appendix) of the South Carolina state regulations for public schools.

Access to the Site
How many schools have you passed in the morning or afternoon when schools are starting up and letting out where traffic is heavily congested around the site? Sadly, even in situations where sites have been designed for walkability, the behavior of the parents and students hasn’t turned out as planned. Here is an example from South Carolina related by James.

“A number of years ago, we designed a neighborhood elementary school in a planned community. The designers and district convinced us that they could reduce the stacking lane distances, since this was a walking community. The first few days of the opening of this facility were a traffic disaster. Contemporary culture does not allow many parents to let their elementary school children walk out of their sight without adult supervision. So, even with all the sidewalks, the car drop-offs did not decrease at this school.”

Fortunately, a creative solution was devised, James says. “Only after the concept of the ‘walking school bus’ was put in place did the vehicular traffic onto the site reduce to the original numbers projected. Each day, a parent would walk with a group of students to school, constituting the ‘walking school bus’ that used those sidewalks. In this case, a program had to be put in place to ensure the pedestrian access.”

The state Office of School Facilities has a strong relationship with the state Department of Transportation. Two persons are permanently assigned to the singular and daunting task of reviewing potential sites before acquisition, as well as dealing with traffic issues that develop after schools open. The common explanation to school district personnel when they begin a site selection is that the state has been fortunate that they haven’t lost a life in a school building because of a fire for many years, but they do lose students in traffic accidents around schools. Consequently, standards of safety have been developed that deal with getting vehicles off and onto school grounds. Factors, such as distances needed to access and leave the site from public roadways, must be considered. Since it takes a school bus more time to get onto a road system than a car, consideration will need to be given to sight lines and distances needed to merge.

Proper distance for stacking lanes for these occasions will eliminate that traffic backing up into public streets and impeding proper traffic flow. The guidelines for proper design of school traffic can be found on the SC DOT Website.

Pedestrian access is receiving increasing attention as communities attempt to provide walkable access to local schools. In Louisiana, one in two students is either obese or overweight, and many experts believe that providing opportunities for students to safely walk to school will go a long way toward providing these children the exercise they desperately need. Dr. Billy Fields, professor of Research and the director of the Center for Urban and Public Affairs at the University of New Orleans, is working on solutions to this problem through advocacy for the “walking school bus” and other holistic approaches (involving behavior as well as infrastructure) to walkable school sites and neighborhoods. He suggests that anyone involved with school site selection should contact the Safe Routes to School affiliate in his or her state to ascertain best practices for “increasing physical activity, reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality and enhancing neighborhood safety.” (For more information, see

Safe Routes to School state affiliate Websites are also a good resource for information about federal funding available for both infrastructure and non-infrastructure projects to improve safe and walkable access to school sites. A potential project could involve identification of cross walks as well as awareness and training for programs such as the “walking school bus.” Ideally, these resources would be considered from the inception of selection and acquisition of a school site.

Dr. Fields also suggested that a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) would be a useful tool in site selection, since healthy children and communities should be a fundamental objective of locating schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Website, the “HIA is used to evaluate objectively the potential health effects of a project or policy before it is built or implemented. HIA can provide recommendations to increase positive health outcomes and minimize adverse health outcomes. The HIA framework is used to bring potential public health impacts and considerations to the decision-making process for plans, projects and policies that fall outside of traditional public health arenas, such as transportation and land use.” More information about Health Impact Assessments can be found on the CDC Website.

As school districts are searching for sizable tracts of land that seem to be increasing in cost daily, and with bus transportation costs soaring, prioritization of land characteristics and access considerations for school sites will be ever more essential. It is comforting to know that there are resources available to help in making the best overall land choices.

Sue Robertson integrates experience in the fields of education and design in her work as an educational planner. She formed Planning Alliance, a corporation that provides facility planning services for K-12, higher education and business clients. She recently served as president of CEFPI.