Safe & Secure Schools


Violence in K-12 schools has led school administrators across the country to demand ideas that will enhance school security. Some are considering a design concept called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design or CPTED (pronounced SEP-ted).

“The CPTED premise is that proper design and use of the built environment reduces opportunities for criminals while improving quality of life,” says Randy I. Atlas, PhD, CPP, AIA, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Atlas Safety & Security Design, Inc.

Research shows that teachers and students teach and learn better when the environment feels safe, when no one fears being robbed or bullied. CPTED school designs provide that kind of quality of life.

Likewise, security professionals say that environments that feel safe, warm and orderly make criminals uncomfortable. They would rather go elsewhere. CPTED techniques help facilitate that.

CPTED seeks several design goals. The most important four are natural access control, natural surveillance, territoriality and maintenance.

Natural access control

Architects create natural access control by designing a building and site to guide people to well-marked entrances and exits — into the property, into buildings, into rooms and back out again.

Access control design also creates barriers that limit access. One school might need a wrought-iron fence around the perimeter while another needs only a row of low shrubbery. While each school design produces a different level of access control security, both define appropriate entrances.

CPTED access control has a subtle side. “If I design the stairs to the second floor with a railing in the middle,” Atlas says, “students will all walk up on one side and down on the other side. So a big student going one way can’t accidentally — or purposefully — bump into a smaller student going the other way and cause an injury.”

Natural surveillance

Criminals don’t like to be seen. CPTED opens buildings and sites up by adding windows and eliminating hiding places. A designer might design a teachers’ lounge with large windows that look out at a gathering area outside. Students can look in and see the teachers looking back out at them.

Surveillance of any kind deters unacceptable actions. A CPTED design might remove doors from restrooms and create a maze entrance around a privacy panel. The entrance discourages noisy vandalism and smoking in the restrooms because a teacher will surely hear it or smell it.

“Video cameras can add more deterrence to natural surveillance, but use technology last,” says Atlas. “It will take a person, not a camera to stop me from beating you up.”


Territorial design defines boundaries and welcomes visitors. A wrought iron fence that limits access to school property can have a forbidding or aesthetically pleasing design. CPTED opts for aesthetically pleasing. The point of the fence is to guide people to the right entrance — access control — and to communicate that passing through the main gate means entering school grounds.

Other territorial elements might be directional signs that tell visitors that the gymnasium and cafeteria are that way, and the library is this way.


Once an architect and contractor have implemented CPTED, maintenance is up to you. Nothing ruins CPTED security faster than poor maintenance: a rusting wrought-iron gate or graffiti left for all to see. Swift maintenance sends a security message: you care about the school, and you don’t want this to happen again.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management July 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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