Common Sense Design for Safe Schools

Recent events at Columbine High School have focused the public’s attention on the issue of violent crime in our schools. While we’ll never be able to guarantee that a well-planned, military-style strike on a public gathering spot won’t succeed, we should take advantage of the current level of public awareness to promote better, safer, and more secure concepts in school design.

Better school design can, in fact, greatly increase the general safety of our children — by creating environments that facilitate proper supervision and minimize“uncontested harassment” of individual students. Creating spaces that are friendly to users and unfriendly to abusers can reduce the likelihood that conflicts will fester over time and lead to the more violent reactions that get all the attention.

So how do we make our schools friendlier, more conducive to learning, and less likely to become battlegrounds? A few common sense principles go a long way, and technology can help. Here are a few things to consider, and examples of how they can be applied in real-world situations.

1. Smaller schools are safer. One report completed in 1996 indicated that the percentage of violent incidents in large elementary schools (750 or more students) and large high schools (1500 or more students) was approximately double what would be expected in more moderate-sized schools.

While local politics and economic criteria may dictate a school consolidation approach leading to fewer/larger schools, research on school size suggests that the“school within a school” concept can allow a large school to perform more like a smaller school, from both safety and educational viewpoints.

This concept was used in the design of the Grafton (OH) Middle School/High School; in the final building design, neighborhoods were clearly defined with distinct identities. These neighborhoods provide a friendly territory that makes outsiders more visible and less comfortable.

2. Limit building access. Once school is in session, there should be one main entrance into the school. All other doors should be locked when not required for a specific and supervised function. This forces all visitors to enter the building via an entrance closely monitored by the school administration.

Locating district administrators and maintenance offices separate from school buildings also limits the number of visitors and vendors who would otherwise need frequent access to school buildings. Other techniques to minimize the possibility of unsecured exterior doors include providing improved natural ventilation and/or air conditioning (to eliminate the need for propping doors open on hot days).

3. Good traffic flow promotes safety and security. This applies to both external site planning and internal layouts. In general, wider hallways and good traffic patterns minimize the chance for conflicts to erupt and make visual supervision easier. If all traffic between 11:45 and 11:55 in corridor “A” is moving toward the cafeteria, any individual traveling in the opposite direction will feel more “out of line” and be easily spotted by administrators.

4. Avoid blind spots and informal gathering areas that cannot be easily monitored. Blind spots and informal gathering areas invite problems; they can make offenders feel safe and normal students feel unsafe, reinforcing the feeling that the offenders belong there.

This concept applies equally to exterior landscaping and interior layouts. Avoid locker area cul-de-sacs in corridors and locker rooms; locate administrative offices and teacher planning rooms in visual contact with corridors. These two ideas can go a long way toward providing a safer environment for our children.

At the Grafton Middle School/High School, particular attention was paid to facilitating visual observation of the two-story cafeteria food court. Administrators were located in several satellite offices near their neighborhoods (rather than being centralized), as well as in an office at the second floor skywalk which looks down on the food court. This layout approach provides natural supervision centers and clear lines of vision where the most potential for conflicts and/or unauthorized entrances exist.

5. Use available technologies appropriately. Improvements in telecommunications have driven costs down and increased capabilities in the last decade. Items such as teacher panic buttons, in-classroom telephones, public address systems, security cameras, off-hours motion detectors, and door access control systems should no longer be considered “budget breakers.”

One of the goals of any school design should be to provide environments that make educators and learners comfortable, while making would-be criminals uncomfortable. Well-designed but safe schools do not have to evoke images of maximum-security prisons. Rather, vandalism and crime can be discouraged and prevented by good, sound design that uses common sense while remaining sensitive to our need for aesthetically pleasing learning environments.

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