Designing for School Safety

Public safety is at the forefront of nearly everyone’s mind today, and nowhere is the sense of urgency greater than in our schools. As designers of educational facilities, we want to do everything we can to protect the occupants of our buildings—but we know creating schools that look like prisons isn’t the answer. A school built like a fortress might be ideal for security, but it isn’t exactly an inspiring environment that encourages students to learn, explore and grow.

The Kentucky Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) Checklist is now a required part of designing an educational facility and is a great way to open a discussion on how you can make your school safer. Here are some additional ideas to consider in designing safer facilities while honoring aesthetics and providing a safe environment for children and teachers.

It’s All About Layers

Security doesn’t start at the door, it starts the moment someone enters the grounds. Entry drives that can be easily monitored are a great option to think about. Many districts choose to separate school bus traffic from visitors before they approach the school building to provide an extra layer of security. Winding drives are a way to slow down traffic and are a design feature that can give those in the school more time to identify potential threats. These approaches all allow for an attractive and inviting entrance while providing proactive safety measures.

It is common to see schools using bollards to protect their buildings (and students) from vehicular impacts.  An alternative to bollards, which can sometimes be an eye sore, could be elevation of the space directly in front of the building. This can add protection while simultaneously creating attractive spaces for outdoor learning and play. An example of the use of elevations to create security and space are shown in Svigals + Partners’ new design for Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut. It features a stepped site that cleverly balances the need for heightened security with a feeling of openness.

Securing the Building

The most obvious place to start with internal building security is secure entry vestibules.  The entry for an academic building should be welcoming to its students while providing security from those who don’t belong there or may pose a threat. An option that funnels visitors to a single point of entry and directs them to administrative staff is a great way to identify potential intruders as early as possible.  Depending on the perceived need, frontline staff could also be located behind a transaction window providing a physical barrier to conduct initial conversations.  To further increase safety measures, consider creating a nearby area of refuge that enables key individuals to place the school on lockdown and call the authorities should an emergency arise.

Beyond the entry, it’s the thoughtful organization of spaces within the school that can be a school’s biggest safety asset. The principal of layering also applies inside the building, with administrative and public spaces near the front of the school. This enables public areas like the cafeteria, media center and gym to be secured independently from the classrooms. In addition to helping in lockdown situations, this layer can also remain accessible for community events without compromising security to the rest of the school. Classroom wings should be relegated to remote areas of the building. As the layer that is most consistently occupied by the largest percentage of the school’s population, these wings should be the last area an intruder would access, and each should have clear paths of egress.

Smart Design Doesn’t Break the Bank

With the expense of high-tech surveillance systems, impact or bullet resistant glass and metal detectors exceeding what most schools in Kentucky can afford, it’s more important than ever that schools be designed to protect their occupants. Smart design is a cost-effective alternative that can go a long way toward helping districts achieve the safety and security they seek.