Building a Safe Environment

Site and facility assessments are crucial for creating a school atmosphere that discourages violence.

Site and facility assessments are crucial for creating a school atmosphere that discourages violence.

Solutions for school violence are as multifaceted as the cultural, socioeconomic and psychological conditions that create it.

Administrators, educators and architects are continually searching for solutions to better resolve these problems.

This much we know: There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Comprehensive Action

Each school and district must thoroughly examine the factors that contribute to social instability within its unique student body and in its particular community.

The result? A comprehensive, custom-tailored action plan incorporating as many solutions as are financially feasible and politically palatable. These include:

- Teacher training that equips faculty members with the authority, confidence and practical techniques to diffuse potentially violent situations.

- Student support programs, such as mentoring, peer counseling and conflict resolution.

- Discipline codes that identify every possible threat to people or property and clearly define in every instance the consequences of code violation.

- Policies and procedural strategies, such as routine locker searches, visitor check-in and closed-campus policies.

- Site and facility assessment to ensure that the environment discourages inappropriate behavior by providing clear sightlines, secure door hardware and ample circulation space.

Comprehensive action that has the support of all stakeholders requires input by every group invested in the eventual outcome: teachers and other staff, administrators, school board members, parents, students, neighboring property owners and taxpayers in the surrounding community.

Removing Physical Threats

Decisionmakers typically reach consensus more quickly when security problems are tangible, visible and obvious - inadequate door locks, for example. Less tangible problems - such as nooks and crannies resulting from ill-conceived building additions that now serve as shelters for illicit activity - require more creative solutions.

Schools easily can address security issues when planning new facilities, but most administrators facing security threats are dealing with existing, outdated facilities. Architectural planners proficient in security-related school design issues are a tremendous asset. These planners are able to balance all facets of a facility in proposing effective and affordable solutions.

Site and Building Assessment

Every security strategy must consider the conditions of the existing facility and address the following aspects of site and building design:

- General appearance.

- Access.

- Surveillance.

- Comfort and convenience.

- Systems and equipment.

- Specialized spaces.

Following are some practical and effective security strategies administrators and educators can use:

- General appearance. A school's physical condition - an indicator of administrators' tolerance for misbehavior - affects student attitudes, behaviors and motivations to achieve. To instill a sense of pride and convey the impression that adult authority prevails, schools must be clean, comfortable and devoid of signs of vandalism.

Cleaning up graffiti immediately is a top priority for the Kansas City, Mo., and the Shawnee Mission, Kan., school districts. District workers remove graffiti before rival gangs have a chance to see the "tagging." Otherwise a chain reaction of vandalism inevitably unfolds.

If vandalism is prevalent, graffiti-resistant sealers and "prison-grade" fixtures - toilets, soap dispensers, partitions and toilet-paper dispensers - help thwart vandals' destructive impulses. Schools can use sensitive spatial design and color selection to help maintain a friendly image.

- Access. Limiting the number of vehicular and pedestrian routes onto campus is imperative. An internal barrier, whether constructed of chain-link fencing or dense hedges, also discourages unauthorized entry.

Schools also must restrict access to buildings. This can be a tough goal - some older schools can have as many as 10 entrances. Typically, all but the main entrance are locked except during recess and lunch. The Shawnee Mission district is upgrading its hardware with card swipes to further secure doors used during recess. Patented keying systems also are available that allow only authorized personnel to create duplicate keys. If the door hardware is old or former employees still hold keys, these new hardware alternatives provide more versatile security control.

Some older schools, especially those built in the early 1900s, are reducing the size of existing windows in order to pare energy expenses. But there's a second reason, too. By replacing large windows with multiple, smaller windows, they're able to deter or delay break-in attempts. Other schools have replaced vulnerable, operable windows with fixed, translucent windows, and often install alarms. Secluded windows, such as those in alcoves, should be well-lighted with tamper-resistant fixtures. By manipulating the site grading near ground-level windows, it's often possible to make these windows farther out of reach.

- Surveillance. The judicious use of vegetation can obstruct certain views - for example, a view onto the playground from a neighboring park - and open others, such as a wide view of the campus lawn from administrative offices.

Because parking lots can be popular sites for drug deals, school officials need clear views of student parking areas. This may mean new surface striping to reconfigure drive aisles, or relocating administrative offices or teacher lounges to exterior walls with windows overlooking parking lots.

Adding windows in or adjacent to classroom doors has proven effective for surveillance between classrooms and corridors.

- Comfort and convenience. Congested classrooms and hallways are proven contributors to student misconduct.

The Kansas City, Mo., district operates its schools below maximum capacity and avoids the agitation and strain that crowding fosters. In districts without surplus capacity, solutions to crowding a new facility - an addition or trailer - can be expensive. As an alternative, many schools are developing "planning centers:" nontraditional classrooms where troubled students are centralized under close supervision. The rationale for this effort is based on the fact that a small percentage of the students are responsible for a large percentage of violence. By removing a few "problem students" from crowded classrooms, a congested environment can quickly become acceptable.

Defining alternative routes to key locations such as the cafeteria, media center and gym can reduce the potential for hallway altercations.

Rooms too hot or too cold not only prevent students from concentrating on their studies but also serve as another catalyst for agitation. When facilities receive HVAC upgrades, new thermostats should be tamper-resistant or otherwise out of students' reach.

- Systems and equipment. Technology has revolutionized the design of schools.

Incorporating server rooms, hub rooms and cable trays into new school designs is a snap, but retrofitting older facilities is anything but simple. For example, schools predating the 1940s have plaster ceilings and limited space between floors to add ducts for HVAC, electrical or communications cabling. Schools must devise more creative solutions that incorporate perimeter soffits, core-drilling the structure, and providing powered furniture panels. Several security-related equipment upgrades are available for antiquated schools.

- Alarm systems detect intrusion in administrative areas and rooms containing high-dollar equipment, such as computer labs, music rooms, shop classes and science labs.

- In-classroom telephones afford teachers immediate communication with administration, parents, and law enforcement personnel.

- Surveillance cameras can deter vandalism and theft, but they come at a price - the initial equipment purchase, installation, ongoing maintenance, personnel (if the system is to be monitored) and inevitable system upgrades. Older facilities will require more cameras because sightlines were probably not considered in the original facility design, and lighting levels will probably need to be increased to enhance image resolution.

- Metal and drug detectors are even more expensive than surveillance cameras to install, monitor and maintain. A building also will need significant queuing space at the entrance lobby and tight controls over the number and width of building entrances.

When schools are open after hours for community use, they need strict measures to prevent trespassers from wandering through the school. Options for control include roll-down gates, locked doors and cameras. However, the effect on interior traffic and building egress must be reviewed carefully to avoid code violations such as dead-end corridors.

- Specialized spaces. Programs and positions that didn't exist 40 years ago now require additional space allocations.

In many districts, a School Resource Officer (SRO), employed by the local law enforcement agency, works on-site in troubled schools. Carving out just the right space for an SRO office can be a challenge. Administrators want to locate these offices near the main entrance and administrative offices, but in a space private enough so students can enter and leave discreetly.

The middle and high schools that have established "planning centers" find these spaces most successful when they are placed in discreet areas of the school. Administrators should consider locating these centers close to administrative offices but away from the busy cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium.

A special equipment room will likely be necessary if school administrators want to monitor surveillance cameras continuously.

Some security solutions are as simple and straightforward as a locked door. Others require nothing less than concerted, ongoing collaboration by all members of the school community. Site and building assessment, with proven techniques for mitigating inappropriate and violent behavior, should be an integral element in every school's safety plan.

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