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Creating a Safe Haven

Secure school design begins with effective space planning.

School security often is thought of in terms of systems and devices — access control and identification, intrusion detection and alarm systems, closed-circuit television and locking devices. Systems and devices certainly are useful in enhancing interior school security. However, designing a secure learning environment really begins with effective space planning. The school's physical environment either can contribute to students' feelings of security and inclusion or to feelings of vulnerability and exclusion — and the latter is a formula for trouble.

A well-planned school creates a secure learning environment, facilitates learning and fosters positive social interactions among students, as well as among students, faculty and staff. Here is a look at some issues that planners must address at the programming and schematic design phase in all key areas of the building.

The front door

In the past, schools had a formal front door and entryway. In the latter half of the 20th century, the school's traditional front door disappeared, and multiple entry and exit points were common. Today, administrators and faculty want a return to a single entry point for a variety of security reasons. First, they understand the need to plan a space that sets the proper tone for the day. The front entry provides an opportunity for administrators, faculty and, in some schools, the security officer, to greet students as they begin their day, making eye contact and acknowledging each student. This sets a positive tone for the day, and enables administrators, faculty and staff to become attuned to subtle messages and cues that offer insight into the students' general mood.

Therefore, from a planning and design standpoint, it is counterproductive to build a space in which students enter at the intersection of hallways and a stairwell, and are immediately funneled away, becoming anonymous, almost invisible. Instead, the entry area needs to be warm and inviting, and an efficient circulation space. First, it must be of adequate volume — perhaps the total floor area of two to three classrooms, with extra height to create an airy space. It should have attractive lighting, with a few special lighting fixtures to accent student art, awards and announcements of upcoming events. Finishes may include chair rails, non-institutional, yet durable, wall coverings, and perhaps a comfortable seating area adjacent to administrative offices. These goals can be accomplished within a modest budget, ranging from $110 to $130 per square foot for an average elementary school. The need for access-control and identification systems and devices also can be considered at this time.

Safe halls and stairs

Students and school staff often tell school planners that certain elements of the typical school design create anxiety and heighten the potential for conflict. Among these, narrow, crowded hallways are threatening environments with the potential to lead to hostile interactions. Large locker bays are threatening places where hostilities can take place largely unobserved.

Hallways 14 feet in width from the face of lockers, which can run along one or both walls, allow more personal space and give students the feeling of being able to travel the hallways and use their lockers comfortably and safely. This also allows adequate space for teachers to stand outside their classroom doors and observe the movement of students between classes. In a high school of 1,100 students and 190,000 square feet, for example, widening the hallways by two feet equates to about three classrooms.

Avoiding winding hallways enables staff to stand in one location and see as much of the school as possible. There can be a slight jog where there is a transition from one hallway to another, with drinking fountains and restrooms. Hallway ends can be glazed to provide outside views and a sense of openness.

Similarly, extra-wide stairways, preferably on an exterior glazed wall to admit natural light, create a more secure environment. Students say they feel safer because they can see out of the stairway; at the same time, faculty and staff can see what's going on inside.

If we eliminate narrow passages, darkness, hard turns and hard-to-supervise areas through proper space planning and design, we can eliminate an environment that creates a threat of entrapment or isolation. No longer are the hallways and stairways just a way to get from point A to point B; they become positive, well-supervised social spaces. The need for monitoring systems, if any, can be discussed in the context of effective space planning.

Positive classrooms

All too often, classroom space plans are developed without following a clear educational specification. Architects need to know the kinds of learning activities that will take place — individual or group activities — and then design the classroom to support these specialized requirements. Certainly, classrooms must be flexible to enable schools to adapt them to changes in the curriculum over time, yet not all “general classrooms” must be exactly the same.

What does this have to do with security? Proper room sizing, configuration, furnishing and lighting for the subject under study enhance students' comfort, attention and behavior. These elements facilitate appropriate student-student and student-teacher interactions, and provide an environment for learning. Without proper planning, the environment not only detracts from learning, but also it can encourage undesirable behavior and conflicts. Where should the classroom telephone be located in relationship to the door, and what other security features are needed to create the classroom as a safe haven? This is the time to consider these questions, as well.

Secure assembly

Assembly areas such as cafeterias, libraries and gymnasiums have a number of features in common: they have the largest number of users at any one time; they are used in shifts; they often have multiple uses; and they also may be used evenings and weekends by the community. Typically, these areas are zoned so that they can be closed off and secured from classroom wings during evenings and weekends. But a careful look inside these spaces reveals a potentially threatening environment.

Take the cafeteria, for example. This is one of the most threatening spaces in the school, both to faculty and to many students. It tends to be noisy and crowded, with rows of oblong tables and benches, poor circulation and institutional finishes. Spend a lunch period in a typical cafeteria, and it is easy to see why the design does not foster positive interactions.

It is worthwhile to apply some lessons learned from well-designed college dining facilities that, in an effort to attract patrons, have taken cues from mass-market restaurants and retail food courts. These give great thought to access and egress; flow of users; sizes, shapes and spacing of tables and seating; lighting; acoustics; and finishes. Similarly, good, cost-effective design can be used in the cafeteria to make a powerful statement to students about the expectations for their behavior. Variety in seating, including small round tables, stand-up counter space, and fewer of the typical large oblong tables, provide opportunities for student groups of various sizes to get together. It also creates an environment in which students who don't have a large social network can find a place where they can feel comfortable. Similarly, warm lighting, non-institutional wall finishes and good acoustics also contribute to creating an atmosphere that is conducive to social dining, not food fights.

Athletic facilities are another area of special concern. Often, there is one large locker room/training facility with inadequate supervision, security and personal privacy. Perhaps we can take some cues from the design of commercial fitness facilities to create an environment that attracts students and community members alike, fosters a sense of security and belonging, and enables personal privacy without isolation. For example, instead of relegating the locker rooms and training facilities to the basement, make these an extension of the rest of the school. If possible, separate areas for team locker rooms/training and P.E./fitness. Strategically situate the athletic director's office to enhance supervision. Place the equipment-storage room in an easily accessible and well-monitored hallway. Bring in natural light whenever possible.

The library also is a place with special security concerns, where the need to monitor access to and potential theft of books and other materials must be balanced with the need to provide multiple exits. Exiting must be thought of not only to meet life-safety requirements of the building codes, but also to provide an adequate level of security.

A safe place

Planning a secure learning environment is challenging, yet security is more than a series of systems and devices. School administrators can achieve cost-effective, secure learning environments if they rely on the proven fundamentals of educational facility planning.

We must begin addressing security issues at the programming and schematic phase. We must look at these issues from the perspectives of all of the buildings' users: faculty, administrators, staff members, students and members of the community. We need to consider every space in the school, the relationship among these spaces, and the building as a whole.

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

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