Safety at School
Safety at School: The Security Equation

Safety at School: The Security Equation

Since 1996, 81 school shootings have been reported worldwide, with 64 occurring in the United States. Most of these incidents occurred inside a school building, and several occurred on a school site, which includes sniper shooting from adjacent woods. 

Many people characterize school violence as a modern problem. However, the deadliest school killing incident occurred on May 18, 1927. Andrew Kehoe killed 38 elementary school children, two teachers, and four other adults, and injured at least 58 people in Bath Township, Mich. Kehoe killed his wife, destroyed his home and barn, set off a major explosion in a school building, and committed suicide with a third explosion. Most of the victims were children in grades two to six at the Bath Consolidated School.

The Department of Homeland Security has published “Primer to Design Safe Schools Projects in Case of Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings” in its Buildings and Infrastructure Protection Series. This primer provides basic principles and techniques to make a school safe from terrorist attacks and shootings, and at the same time ensure it is functional and aesthetically pleasing, and meets the needs of the students, staff, administration and the public.

Protecting a school building and grounds from physical attack is a significant challenge because the design, construction, renovation, operation and maintenance of a facility must consider numerous building users, infrastructure systems and building design codes.

The CEFPI Open Forum has generated interesting responses following the Sandy Hook school shootings. One primary school principal responded that although security is important, creating high-security schools is not the answer. Schools should be open, comfortable, accepting environments with diverse and flexible spaces to meet the learning needs of each student. 

Also, design is only one part of the equation. Schools should be designed as learning spaces, not as lockdown facilities.

A well-designed school can be effective only if teachers understand the way children learn and can put latest brain research into practice, and all of the supports necessary are in place to help those children with extra needs.

Also, research shows the type of person who commits these crimes is usually a child or young adult who doesn’t fit in. The heart of the problem focuses more on emotional and mental-health issues than building design. 

Although some are seeking enhanced counter-security measures, others are calling for understanding and addressing the lack of institutionalization and proper treatment of the severely mentally ill. 

Some believe the answer is an armed guard. Placing an armed guard in every Minnesota school would cost $138 million a year, according to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In 2012, the Minneapolis district employed 16 in-school officers, a supervisor, and a school patrol officer, which costs nearly $900,000 each year. 

Can we, or do we have to design a school to withstand any type of attack or forced entry? Although it is virtually impossible to design an impregnable fortress, architects can design school buildings to be more responsive to detecting unusual situations.

The technological age may provide one of the best design answers by using visual and detection monitoring throughout the site and building.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. 

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