Spotlight on Safe School Design

Former Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick once said, “No child will be able to succeed academically if they don’t first feel safe in school. No teacher will be able to teach at their best if they aren’t confident there’s a plan in place to ensure their school is well prepared for an emergency.” Creating a safer educational institution begins with the facility’s design. Mariana Lavezzo, a K-12 Education designer with the DLR Group, recently talked with SP&M about this approach to creating safer schools.

How has the approach and design of educational institutions changed, or how is it being reimagined in the wake of mass shootings and other tragic events?
I’m inspired by the continuing debate about what all school community stakeholders can do collectively to make schools safer. On one hand, there is the mindset to harden schools by doing things like minimizing windows and adding metal detectors. On the other hand, there is a movement of educators and architects advocating for principles that support both 21st century learning and safety. I support the later movement, which encourages more transparency for relationship building versus hardening schools that negatively impact a student’s wellbeing. The goal is to strike a balance between the educational environment of today and potential threats to student safety.

The foundation of safe and secure schools is the development of healthy relationships between students and teachers. As designers, we must create spaces where students feel comfortable with their physical and human surroundings, and also contribute to building a positive culture. Collaboration is key to building that culture. Micro environments like classrooms need to be furnished flexibly to support collaboration instead of individual desks all facing the front. Plus, having an inviting entry where parents feel welcome and want to get involved is important. Features like soft seating, a coffee bar, and display of student work are elements that communicate to parents they are welcome, and the school wants to engage them.

Does the design approach differ by grade level, such as elementary schools versus middle and high schools?
The source of violence we often see in elementary schools comes from outsiders, which requires additional security measures around the exterior and perimeter, but supports a more open interior environment. Elementary schools also have the daily threat of issues such as custody battles, and therefore extra layers of security at the entrance are necessary.

Tragic occurrences at middle and high schools are largely carried out by students who have not made strong connections with their peers or teachers. In many cases, triggers such as bullying or mental health issues have not been identified. To get to the root of the problem, there is a push to help students connect with each other and their teachers. One common approach is designing large schools around small learning communities where students and teachers can establish positive relationships. Breaking down large masses into smaller groupings helps students and teachers connect more easily.

How can you make a school safer without making it look like a fortress?
 Elements that address security should be seamlessly integrated into the design. Using buildings to create a perimeter that protects the edges of the campus and opens up the interior outdoor vistas of the campus can eliminate hiding places, which also helps staff see trouble coming in advance. Creating a longer distance between a school’s entrance and its parking lots, and installing ground level lighting improve safety at the outer zone of the campus. Perimeter fencing with a border of landscaping on the exterior side also serves a dual purpose of softening the fence aesthetically and drawing attention to anyone in that space.

Designing the administration office with clear views to the entrance and street is a top priority. This allows for constant visual monitoring of who’s going in and out of the building. Incorporating transparency throughout the interior of a school provides opportunities for better visualization of the entire building to identify potential threats before they escalate and also creates an open, inviting learning environment that meets the educational needs of today’s generation of students.

About the Author

Mariana Lavezzo is a K-12 Education designer with the DLR Group, whose mission is to is transform the design of education. DLR Group’s K-12 Education Studio helps districts across the country navigate change to better serve educators and communities, and improve educational experiences and outcomes for students.

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