ARE OUR CHILDREN SAFE AT SCHOOL?

NBC-6 reports another bloody student attack — while arguing with another student in class, a 15-year-old is repeatedly stabbed in the neck and head with a Phillip's Head screwdriver. A police chase shuts down a Catholic school mid-morning, forcing more than 140 daycare and middle school students, teachers and aides to evacuate while police search it and an adjacent church for armed robbery suspects. By 11:40 a.m., two suspects are in custody.


The threat of terrorism sparks political platform debates in Election 2004. Florida is hit with four devastating back-to-back hurricanes during a five-week period. As the building's roof failed, 630 are forced to evacuate from an elementary school in the 60 minutes during the direct eye of Hurricane Frances.


Are our kids safe in school? According to school design experts, there is a threefold threat to our schools — threats from natural or manmade disaster, threats from within (student on student violence) and threats from without (intruders, terrorists).


Natural Disaster


Not since 1886, have four back-to-back hurricanes struck any state, as Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne did in Florida in 2004, providing us with an estimated 40-billion dollars in damage, and an unwelcome laboratory test of the safety of school structures.


Threats From Within


The US Department of Education reports that nine percent of school crimes in 2000 — more than a quarter of a million — were serious violent crimes including murder, rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault. In 1994, almost 2.6 million youth, ages 12 to 17, were victims of violent crimes. In 1998, there were more than 2.7 million. From 1985 to 1994, the rate of murder committed by teen-agers ages 14 to 17 increased 172 percent.


According to a recent national survey, one in five high school-age boys took a weapon to school in the last year. Fifty-five states reported that they expelled a total of 3,523 students from school for bringing a firearm to school; 59 percent of the expulsions reported were for bringing a handgun to school, 12 percent of the expulsions were for bringing a rifle or shotgun to school and 29 percent were for some other type of firearm (such as bombs, grenades or starter pistols).


Threats From Without


The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) May, 2003 Survey reveals the following.


    • More than 90 percent of the survey respondents considered schools to be“soft targets” for a potential terrorist attack.

    • More than 76 percent of the survey respondents reported that their schools are not adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack upon their schools.

    • More than 55 percent said that their school crisis plans are inadequate; 62 percent reported that their school crisis plans have not been adequately tested.


“The floor plans to a school in Ft. Myers (Fla.) and schools in five other states were recently found in Iraq,” says David Harper, FAIA, of Harper Partners, Inc.


What Should We Be Doing About It?


The experts seem to agree. The answer to the problem is twofold — School Safety Assessments and designing and modifying schools according to CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) principles.


“Through School Safety Assessments, such as we recently did for Poinciana High in Osceola County (Fla.) we are able to prevent surveillance of schools and provide protection of vital documents,” says Kevin Donahue, AIA, a CPTED certified partner with Harper Partners Inc.“We also identify and ‘harden’ the most vulnerable points in the school. Sound design based upon CPTED provides natural perimeters with observable lines of influence, both physical and psychological. The school is not only safer, it is a pleasant, sustainable environment that improves the quality of life for the community.” He also stresses the importance of funding new school design, not simply providing unfunded mandates.


CPTED Design in Action


A prototype school design by MPA Architects, designed to CPTED principles and stricter hurricane shelter guidelines, provides an answer to triple pronged security threats. Mandatory state law requires that all Florida schools (not in an evacuation zone) provide hurricane shelter to the public.


The school prototype known as EEE recently provided emergency shelter to 1,000 during the height of a hurricane. Designed to withstand 180 mph winds, (exceeding the current code of 140 mph), the school provides 48 hours of emergency power (instead of the minimum standard for 8 hours), stores sewage, maintains a separate water supply and two 7,000 gallon underground LP tanks to provide power. The school is designed with tilt-wall concrete and steel construction, with 20-inch thick concrete in the taller part of structure.


“Using CPTED guidelines, we are able to deliver a school that is dramatically less vulnerable to risk,” says Rick Logan, AIA, principal of MPA Architects in West Palm Beach.


CPTED principles operate on providing psychological boundaries to control behavior, but there are strict physical aspects to the design of this protoype as well. There is but one way in or out. Student, staff and visitor parking is in full view of the administration, located at front. Trees in the middle of the courtyard sit regally, without blocking sight lines. No trees against the building means less possibility that someone can climb to the roof. High public use areas such as the gym andaAuditorium are also up front, whereas classrooms are grouped and placed at the back, minimizing travel and placing them away from community and night time high public use.


Randall Atlas, Ph.D, AIA, CPP, Architect, anti-terror expert, and President of Counter Terror Design, Inc., notes, “CPTED is a powerful concept. Direct impact against crime is felt through architectural features, structural enhancements and spatial definition that can deter, detect and delay potential violent offenders from entering schools.”



LESLIE MCKERNS, BA,BS, LicID, AIA Allied is Principal of McKerns Development, a writer, media specialist, press and strategic marketing consultant working extensively with those in the built environment, including developers, architects, designers and engineers. For more information see .


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