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Designing on the Outside

Thorough facility planning can create safe and secure school facilities.

Every facet of design, including security, relies on the proven fundamentals of educational facility planning. The same process that administrators, planners and designers use to create effective learning environments also can be used to create safe, secure school facilities. This process begins by engaging all stakeholders to discuss what is important for their community. An architect can serve as a facilitator and provide knowledge gained from experiences with other schools. This process establishes a level of awareness and expectations that serves as the basis for an effective design.

Many schools are ill-equipped to address today’s security concerns. Many administrators recall when security concerns consisted of the construction bomb shelters during the Cold War. Over the years, schools have installed fences, window grates, various locking devices and security cameras to deter trouble and show a security presence. But the potential threats schools face today come from many new and unfamiliar sources.

Influences on security planning

Local communities are demanding leadership and accountability from administrators to "keep our kids safe." This outcry from the community provides the authority necessary to carry out effective and sustainable change. The planning process should begin by involving all stakeholders and posing two fundamental questions:

• What are we securing against?

• What levels of security do we need—and are we willing—to provide?

The perceptions shared by each planning participant provide useful insights regarding the type of threats perceived and the acceptable level of deterrence.

The planning process has identified a number of internal and external influences:

• Social influences, including drug abuse, violent crime and unemployment.

• Economic influences, including reduced governmental funding, restrictive operating budgets, higher construction costs and lack of voter support for taxes.

• Maintaining effective learning environments, including friendly and accessible spaces, and scheduling of extended-day activities and community-use functions.

• Building codes, including occupant life-safety and accessibility standards.

• User perceptions, including the level of safety students and faculty feel.

Community awareness and expectations are two of the initial influences in the security planning dialogue. But, often what makes districts act—or react—is a specific incident that has gained public attention. As a result, community groups are no longer saying, "It can’t happen in our community."

Many schools are taking a leadership role in establishing a dialogue with their community regarding safety and security. This dialogue has created a sense of empowerment and has led to actions that the community supports fully. The planning process is creating sustainable change in the planning and design of school facilities.

Site-specific issues

The evolution of school design through the decades has been influenced by many site-specific issues. Each plays an important part in providing for a safe and secure school facility. Here are examples of ways that school administrators, facility planners and architects have responded to these challenges:

Building site. Land availability and costs are the main factors dictating the size and location of a school site. Conducting a site analysis, inclusive of security issues, will allow districts to consider such important security-related issues as perimeter and setback.

Perimeter and setback. Over the decades, traditional school designs created a well-defined perimeter; it was clear when one had made the transition from community to school property, and one had to walk a distance through the schoolyard before reaching the front door. Today, many urban school buildings are set close to the street, and the front door may be just a few steps from the sidewalk. As a result, some schools are left without a safe perimeter.

Planners and designers need to create safe zones as buffers around the building; where they cannot, they have to erect a hard barrier, such as a fence. The building often becomes the buffer between the street and sidewalk, and the schoolyard, playground and other recreational areas are situated behind the building.

Vehicular and pedestrian circulation and access. Traditional school design provided for building setbacks that allowed cars and buses access to the front of the school, often via circular driveways. At many schools today, the dropoff of passengers from cars and buses into the building occurs within a limited space. The design needs to provide a buffer. The creation of a vehicular courtyard can provide a secured transition space that serves as a deterrent for threats such as car bombs and maintains distance from other undesired street activities.

Front door. Over the years, the symbolic value of a school’s front door has eroded. Buildings designed in the last 30 years often have multiple points of entry. This creates confusion as well as security challenges.

In today’s designs, the front door has recaptured its earlier role as a symbolic point of arrival. This provides many security benefits. The front door is a point where school personnel, including security staff, greet students, parents and visitors. This point of passage should be a warm and friendly environment for students, while providing the staff with a higher level of security assessment and control. The use of metal detectors and CCTV cameras can be integrated carefully into the architectural design.

It is not necessary for the design to look or feel like a security gauntlet. Without reducing security effectiveness, the design can encompass display cases of student artwork and achievements, use natural lighting, incorporate a sound system, and display symbols of student pride and personal responsibility. Secondary control points also should provide building control and be a deterrent to security threats.

Grade, or ground level of the building related to site. Traditional designs often had the main level of the school raised above the street, accessible via monumental stairs. Today, schools are designed to be readily accessible to all persons. Just as building setback buffers are being eliminated, so are height buffers. First-floor classrooms are at-grade, with windows close to the street. Effective security measures will depend upon the type of threats anticipated and the acceptable level of deterrent. Solutions range from incorporating security glazing for street-level windows, to replacing them with the use of clerestory glass or skylights in the corridor.

Knowledge and communication

The "fundamentals" of the educational facility planning process can empower administrators to take a leadership role in creating safe and secure schools. The participatory process provides districts with valuable community insights and a mandate to create sustainable change.

Districts should form a security committee, with members serving a two- or three-year rotating tenure. This will provide both continuity and freshness.

Designing on the outside can protect students, staff and assets on the inside. Training staff members also is vital, and should include awareness and skill development. They should understand the threats and the important role of deterrents. At least once a year, schools should offer students educational programs that will convey a school’s concern for their safety, and teach them what they can do to keep their school safe.

Young is executive vice president for Wm. B. Ittner, Inc. Architects & Planners, St. Louis.

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