School Security

Ever since two students at Columbine High School shocked the world by shooting and killing 12 classmates and one teacher in 1999, schools have ramped up efforts to prevent such senseless acts of violence. Two years later, the tragic events of 9/11 further heightened security concerns, as terrorism was added to school district officials’ growing list of potential nightmare scenarios.

These and other headline-grabbing incidents have brought much needed attention to the importance of keeping our nation’s schools safe havens for teaching and learning — but they also can trigger knee-jerk emotional responses from school district officials and their communities. Their desire to create high-tech fortresses to protect children is understandable; in many instances, however, simple, common sense remedies may provide better protection at a lower cost.

As preK-12 schools struggle to adopt high standards of security on limited budgets, smart decision making will require a well-grounded perspective on the available options. While technology is usually part of the solution, design considerations — both inside and outside the school — often play a greater role in helping to prevent security problems that most schools are likely to encounter.

Fatalities Rare, Crime Commonplace
When a school shooting occurs, everyone knows about it immediately. But it’s important to realize that fatal violence in schools is extremely rare. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 38 school-associated violent deaths in a one-year period ending June 30, 2009, which is about one for every 1.5 million students.

In comparison, the NCES reported that there were roughly 1.2 million victims of nonfatal school crimes among students ages 12 through 18, divided almost evenly between thefts and violence (from simple assault to serious violent crimes). During the 2007–08 school year, 75 percent of public schools recorded one or more incidents of violent crime, 17 percent recorded one or more serious violent incidents, and 47 percent recorded one or more thefts. These schools had an estimated total of 2 million crimes for a rate of 43 crimes per 1,000 students enrolled.

The same study showed that most schools already have taken the most rudimentary steps to prevent such crimes. Virtually all required visitors to sign in or check in (99 percent) and nine of 10 controlled access to school buildings by locking or monitoring doors during school hours. Forty-three percent reported that they had an electronic notification system for a school-wide emergency, and 31 percent had a structured, anonymous threat reporting system.

Controlling Access: A Challenge at Older Schools
One of the key principles of security best practices is limiting and controlling access through a single checkpoint. This can be problematic at facilities built more than several decades ago, especially at elementary schools in which the administrative offices (where visitors must register) are often located in the middle of the building.

This challenge recently confronted the administrators of four elementary schools in the East Maine School District 63 in Des Plaines, Ill., and was further exacerbated by the fact that these were bi-level buildings with stairways leading up and down from the main entrance. The district was presented with three options to address the issue, which included:
  1. invest in the latest technology for surveillance and identification;
  2. move the entranceway doors; or
  3. build small entrance additions that would include the administrative offices.
District 63 initially leaned toward the first option, but found that even the best technology was far from fail-safe and unable to provide 100 percent visibility into all of the stairwells, nooks and crannies. Likewise, the second option wouldn’t solve the monitoring problem since visitors still had to walk through hallways to sign in at the main office. 

It resolved both challenges by building small administrative/entrance wings (approximately 2,000 to 2,500 square feet) that also freed space for other uses to occupy the former administrative suite. The four schools also upgraded their security with door access control and intercom systems. Designed by Wight & Company, each of the additions had a distinct identity and featured mosaics from local artists in its lobby. The new buildings not only limited access to a single entry point, but also presented a welcoming and attractive face to the neighborhood.

Layout, Lighting and Landscaping

Most schools don’t have to build additions to improve their security. But the above example illustrates an important point: In many cases, smart planning and design can be equally or more effective than technology for improving school security. This is especially true when it comes to the less serious but more frequently occurring incidents such as fighting, vandalism, theft and alcohol or drug use.

A school’s layout, lighting and landscaping can all help make it a safer place. Access control, for example, begins with well-designed parking and drop-off areas that enable the efficient sequencing of student and visitor traffic during school hours. Ideally, the rooms and facilities for after-school events, such as athletic competitions or community meetings, should not be located in the building’s core, but rather along peripheral wings that do not permit public access into the central academic area.

For our new construction at Naperville (Ill.) Central High School, all of the athletic venues were aggregated around the perimeter. Conversely, for younger children, it’s better to have confined play areas within the school, which was the design strategy for both the Ann Reid Early Childhood Center in Naperville and our newest Early Learning Center in Des Plaines.

Another security concern that can be addressed through design and layout is prohibiting access to the school’s roof or upper stories. Look for — and eliminate — building features such as half walls, attached fences and any fixtures or construction elements that can be used for climbing.

Having the right outdoor lighting also can improve security. Distinctive lights (e.g., a different intensity or color) near the main entrance will signal to people that this is where they should go. Adequate lighting around the school’s perimeter not only gives security and law enforcement personnel greater visibility, but also lets troublemakers know that someone (or a camera) might be watching them. Conveying this sense of being observed is in itself a deterrent to crime or other mischief. Indoors, the use of windows or wall openings allowing visibility from adjacent spaces or corridors accomplishes the same purpose.

The landscaping around the entrance should be of a certain height and density to prohibit its use as a potential hiding place. Landscaping (and fences) can be used to define campus borders, but be careful that they don’t obscure the views of police on patrol. Trees also should be maintained so they cannot be used to gain access to the roof or upper-level rooms.

Natural Surveillance
Security can be strengthened by increasing opportunities — and removing obstacles — for natural surveillance, one of the fundamentals of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which was published by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Natural surveillance refers to giving people the physical ability to see what’s going on in and around the school. Putting this concept into practice can sometimes be quick and easy.

The receptionist, for example, is in a great position to conduct natural surveillance. Make sure that computer monitors, vases or other objects are not blocking the view of people approaching the building. Frequently, posters on windows or even closed blinds are obstacles to natural surveillance. If teachers close blinds because of glare, consider tinting windows or installing overhanging eaves to create shade and allow the instructors to see outside.

A receptionist’s desk also needs to be properly positioned. In remodeling the front lobby at the City Colleges of Chicago headquarters, we moved the desk forward several feet to eliminate blind spots and enable better visual triangulation between the receptionist and security personnel.

The Best Security: Attentive People Who Care
The thing to remember about security is that, no matter how many precautions you take, no school is invincible. Defending against security breaches, as well as other crimes and misdemeanors, cannot be accomplished with technology alone. It takes attentive students, staff, faculty, parents and community members who respect each other and the school grounds and facilities.

Applying some of the basic design elements covered in this article can contribute to their efforts by increasing visibility, restricting access and facilitating natural surveillance. Administrators also can encourage a vigilant attitude by keeping their schools clean and attractive. Just as with neighborhood watches, the best security measures focus on crime prevention and are successful because everyone cares and is willing to do their part.

Kevin Havens, AIA, is senior vice president, director of Design, for Wight & Company, Darien, Ill. He can be reached at