Locker Options – Thinking Outside the Box

Nothing’s too good for those sweaty Nikes. The University of Oregon football team keeps theirs in custom-built wooden lockers, accessed by entering uniform numbers and thumb scans. Inside are ports for Internet and gaming connections, along with ventilation — nice options if you can afford them. But lockers of this caliber are rarely seen outside such select venues. What options are available for the rest of us? Most public schools have bare bones models, if that. Locker-related crises, usually involving contraband, have led some frustrated districts to toss the lockers altogether. Although such actions may be justified for crisis management, they may not serve students and schools all that well in the long run. If some students abuse their desks, will we eliminate those too?

Lockers are often begrudging investments, scraped from the bottom of the budget barrel. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, one of which is that they often serve as the internal face of the school: endless, grim sentries lining mile-long halls. Alternately, they may be entombed, a catacomb of visual obstacles stuffed into independent locker bays. School lockers are usually relatively rugged, built for abuse, and painfully loud — like prison cells; close your eyes and you can almost hear the clang of tin cups rattled against the bars. This fits nicely into a “Cells-and-Bells,” or “School-to-Jail Pipeline” model school, but how do we move beyond that?

Options can be found in at least two areas: the lockers themselves and their integration into the overall school design.

The Lockers Themselves
Primary issues of concern include aesthetics, acoustics and contraband.

Aesthetics
  1. Prominently displayed lockers should visually reinforce a positive school image. Wood lockers can be beautiful, but may be prohibitively expensive. More economical materials can look good if well cared for. In all cases, adequate maintenance is essential.
  2. Consider using the lockers or the area overhead for constructive communication. Built-in frames and display cases can be used for student art projects, lofty quotes or other positive messages. Pro-social school rules, such as “be safe, be responsible, be respectful,” should be hard to miss.

Acoustics
  1. Solid plastic (high-density polythelene, or HDP) lockers don’t clang the way metal ones do, and are readily available from locker manufacturers.
  2. Rubber bumpers are often incorporated into higher-end metal models, or can be added after-market.
  3. A single point latch eliminates the noise that accompanies moving latches, which crash up and down when the door slams. The single point model has no moving parts — it simply slips through an opening in the door. These are commonly found with smaller lockers.

Contraband and Locker Removal
The biggest challenge involving school lockers is their use for storing contraband, especially weapons, intoxicants and leftover tuna fish sandwiches. As custodians are acutely aware, food can rot, leak or spill. Anti-microbial coatings and even ventilation systems can help address the latter, but for weapons or drugs, nothing short of distance learning gets results as quickly or easily as locker removal. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for a school in the long run; students may not enjoy lugging overloaded backpacks around. Some schools provide two sets of books — one to keep in class, and another to keep at home. But can the price received for scrapped lockers cover the cost of all those new texts?

There are some alternatives to removal, drawing on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) fundamentals: natural surveillance, natural access control, territoriality and connectivity as follows:
  1. Surveillance can be improved by using lockers with transparent, polyethylene doors or metal grilles.
  2. In some cases, consider installing cameras covering lockers from above.
  3. Access control and territoriality can be improved if schools clearly retain ownership over lockers, allowing staff to open lockers when they have probable cause. Staff would need master keys for these lockers, which means the school should purchase the padlocks in bulk and lend them to students.

Location
The most significant locker-location dysfunctions involve density and placement. School hallways typically serve conflicting functions every 45 minutes — cattle stampedes, storage pit stops and speed dating simultaneously. Locker bays mitigate the high-speed traffic, but exacerbate bullying or other violence by providing visual cover for offenders. Toss in adolescent hormones and it’s a wonder anybody survives unscathed.

Thinking Outside the Box — Putting the Locker In Context
To have a dramatic impact on locker issues, we literally need to start thinking outside the box, and integrate locker design into the surrounding environment. Conventional hallways and locker bays are often bleak settings. But if we think of lockers as components of something more purposeful, we might reap some benefits. For example, if lockers are separated into small clusters, and if those clusters are integrated into human-scale gathering places, with comfortable seating, the students using those areas might develop a sense of territoriality. If small counters were included — perhaps something like a breakfast bar — teachers could use nearby niches for informal conferencing or pull-out activities. Acoustical foam tiles and lower ceilings could mitigate nearby noise. Distinct carpeting for each area could help define the area. Pull-down white boards or corkboards would further enhance the area’s usefulness for brainstorming or other joint efforts. Shallow hallway niches could allow locker-users to escape the traffic without becoming so isolated as to pose a risk of misbehavior. When shenanigans do occur, administrators can focus on one cluster without punishing the entire student body.

Use of mirrors, chamfered corners or internal windows could strengthen natural surveillance over these areas. Clusters abutting specialized areas, such as adjacent to rehearsal halls, gymnasiums or science labs, could help students with shared interests establish their own sense of community. Students requiring more supervision might be assigned to lockers by the office, while responsible students could earn more select locations. If cafeteria noise and overcrowding is an issue, students could be permitted to eat in their clusters in acknowledgement of responsible behavior. Any opportunity for students to make choices is another step toward personal empowerment.

Ultimately, as 21st century developments revolutionize our concepts of school design, lockers might be integrated into shared workspaces — a dozen students might share one corral throughout the day, each with their own locker nearby. These students might spend much of their day out in the community, as interns or researchers. The corral might be merely a home base. Most written materials would be on-line, but each student might need storage space for backup drives, and power sources for recharging equipment.

Many of these concepts have already been integrated into successful schools. One example would be the Cristo Del Rey School in Minneapolis. Planner and architect Randy Fielding observes, “Cristo Del Rey is a classic example of what can be done in an impoverished, gang-ridden neighborhood if we focus on inspiring students more than we do on controlling them. Design choices send powerful messages about confidence and support, or frustration and distrust. In this case, we went for the former, and it has served the community well.”


Tod Schneider is a national school safety consultant and lecturer. His Website is www.safeschooldesign.com.

A version of this article also appeared at www.designshare.com.


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