Designing Out Crime in Schools

Security of schools and their young clients have always been a critical concern for parents, teachers, administrators and school board officials. Life safety requirements (such as codes to prevent building collapse, flooding, electrical malfunctions) have long been incorporated into school design. However, crime safety design has been overlooked in many school districts even in the face of well-publicized, tragic school shooting incidents such as Columbine, at the K-12 level, and Virginia Tech. In a post-9/11 age, school districts are obligated to do everything within their authority to ensure a safe environment for kids to learn from both life and crime safety perspectives. Ensuring safety from crime starts with effective crime prevention strategies.
Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED)
One 40-year-old crime prevention concept getting greater attention is “crime prevention through environmental design” (CPTED - pronounced septed). It is also commonly referred to as designing out crime or “secure by design.” There is significant evidence that CPTED reduces the opportunity to commit crime. Almost as importantly (some would argue just as importantly), applied CPTED principles reduce the fear of victimization and increase the perception of safety.

Crime prevention through environmental design is “place-based” crime prevention and is predicated on making the environment — both man-built and natural — safer. The built environment includes small-scale areas, such as street corners, school corridors, sidewalks, alleyways, as well as large-scale places such as neighborhoods and entire buildings and sites, including schools, businesses and corporations. Any physical feature that can be altered should be able to be made safer. In doing so, the opportunity to commit crime and the perception to the “criminal” that he or she can commit crime is reduced.

The term crime prevention through environmental design is predicated on this concept provided by one of CPTED’s founders, Timothy Crowe, who says, “The proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the fear and incidence of crime and an improvement in the quality of life.”

Key CPTED Concepts
While experts debate actual design out crime terminology, key cornerstones of CPTED involve a few overlapping concepts.

Natural Access Control
— Deals with how you get into or out of an area and is based on crime preventive or inhibiting elements that are part of the essential design of a building or site. Access control is more than just the locks and gates and windows that a school has. Access control also involves the sidewalks, streets and landscaping that surrounds a school, as well as any areas that establish natural boundaries for undesirables who wander onto school grounds. Good access control, as an example, involves one clearly defined entrance that funnels visitors into the school front office for screening.

Natural Surveillance — Defined by the way users can see into, through and around school building and site elements. For instance, unobstructed windows that overlook parking lots or playgrounds provide more opportunities for more eyes to easily view risky or high-liability areas. Good lighting, elimination of dark “ambush” or hiding areas, well-placed benches and tables all contribute to a safer school environment. Research bears out that having more visual attention on an area reduces the chance that someone will commit crime in that place.

Territorial Reinforcement
— What tells someone that they are now on school grounds and that they better shape up and behave? Territorial reinforcement involves physical features that clearly separate public from private places, such as schools from an adjacent park or neighborhood. This can be done by proper fencing, brick pavers or well-defined sidewalks; school colors and logos; signage; landscaping; and well thought-out traffic patterns, amongst other things. These features can help give faculty, students, parents and community members a sense of ownership of their campus.

Other more contemporary design out crime concepts involve extensions of the oft cited “broken window theory." This theory suggests that if you maintain a place, keep it clean and free of physical disorder such as graffiti, and focus on the little problems like litter, then the bigger problems may be easier to grapple with. This is often called “place maintenance” by CPTED practitioners and has numerous applications to schools. Dilapidated fences, old vacant portables, broken lockers or unkempt school ball fields and dugouts can foster a sense that no one cares. In these arenas, crime, disorder and school problems are likely to flourish.

Lastly, current thinkers cite “activity generation” as one way to increase safety. Activity generation, such as public art, walking tours, public water features and street performers can all bring more positive attention and people to campus areas, especially after normal school hours. This, in turn, may discourage illegitimate users from frequenting problem areas. On-campus special events may generate legitimate activity during off hours that could reduce school burglaries and thefts.

Using CPTED in Schools
The use of CPTED principles was recently evidenced by a Gainesville, Fla., high school security project involving police, administrators and the school advisory council. Principal Dr. Wiley Dixon was worried about intruders on his campus. Gainesville Police School Resource Officer Matt Walters came up with a plan for fencing and increased technology in some of the problem areas. The School Advisory Council was so impressed they used SAC funds to purchase secure but decorative fencing and additional CCTV options. Dr. Dixon was enormously satisfied with the results, saying that these school enhancements have “enabled us to control crime and problems on our campus.”

Making a safe school should not have to occur by fortifying an area with barbed wire and armed guards and having metal detectors at the entrances. These may be necessary evils in today’s world, but CPTED takes a complementary approach by making locations feel more welcoming and safe. It may be viewed as a softer and gentler approach, but it is not — it is a practical approach. The ability to design out crime, for example, could involve using good clear signage to direct persons to their designation on campus, as opposed to wandering around unescorted.

Linking CPTED Design and Management
Design out crime principles do not eliminate the need for all persons who work, live and learn in schools to be the frontline of safety. However, teachers, staff, school resource officers and students are not the only line of defense for school security when the school itself is designed in a way to increase safety.

Professor Richard Schneider, an urban planner and CPTED consultant, emphasizes that “design and management must go hand in hand relative to crime prevention, especially in schools. That is, bad management can defeat even the best CPTED design while good management and planning can make mediocre CPTED designs much better, and schools much safer. This also means that faculty, staff and students (as well as facility managers and school resource officers) should have [an] appropriate level of training in place-based crime prevention principles and strategies.”

Critics and skeptics point to costs involved when you talk about changing a large building, a mall, a downtown plaza or a school in order to design out crime. But the reality is that many changes to the physical environment are politically neutral and can be extremely cost effective. Lighting, fencing, signage, surveillance and parking, all in concert with staff training, may be improved with relatively low expenditures. This is especially true when compared with the costs in suffering, fear and potential legal liability resulting from criminal incidents that can occur on school grounds

A simple example of CPTED management and design complementing each other are policies that require teachers in classrooms facing problem areas — usually parking lots — to reduce the number and size of window posters or banners. This increases natural surveillance and reduces crime opportunities. This is especially important because parking lots have been identified as hot spots for illicit smoking, drug use and fighting in schools.

There are many other school safety and security concerns that might be impacted positively by implementing CPTED strategies. These include common school-related incidents such as illicit behavior in restrooms, reducing thefts from staff areas and lockers, parking lot car burglaries and graffiti. What problems may be averted if CPTED principles are used to provide clear direction to parents on proper student drop off or pick up locations?

Implementing CPTED in Schools

All schools should have comprehensive crime prevention and security planning processes, including periodic surveys by CPTED-trained staff and/or local police. These individuals can often point out inexpensive options to reduce crime. Once implemented, these also reduce staff and police time.

According to Art Hushen, president of the National Institute of Crime Prevention, a company that provides CPTED training, there has been an increase in the number of school architects and designers that are completing CPTED training. Not only are architects taking into consideration school safety, but school districts also are now requiring that architectural firms bidding on projects must have a member of that team trained in CPTED.

Further, considering CPTED concepts in the design and building regulatory processes (especially at state department of education levels) may not increase construction costs at all, while potentially saving untold amounts of money and liability on the back end. This can be done by incorporating CPTED guidelines and requirement into state school building codes by savvy architects and school department of education officials.

Ultimately, however, the public must understand the value of CPTED and demand that schools be designed from the outset with crime safety as well as life safety features.

Crime prevention through environmental design concepts cannot guarantee that critical events, school shootings or incidents of this magnitude won’t happen. However, applying CPTED principles at the outset will likely make schools safer in the long run.

Want to Learn More About CPTED?

Gainesville Police Department Captain Ed Book has served in almost every capacity over a 26-year career. He currently serves as an Operations District Commander and commands uniformed patrol, school resource officers and many other community resources. He can be reached at [email protected] or 352/222-7968.