Closed Yet Open

Feb. 1, 2000
Barriers and deterrents are important elements of middle school security, but open communication can make all the difference.

As districts focus more attention on school security, the needs of middle schools are sometimes overlooked. Middle schoolers are old enough to heed warnings from their teachers, meaning that one central concern that guides security design in elementary schools-the potential for kidnapping by estranged parents-becomes less critical. And, unlike high schoolers, middle school children are typically very communicative, and a school can often avert problems by paying close attention to what children do and say.

Middle schools require an open environment, yet one that adequately protects children's safety and school property. Maximizing security at middle schools therefore requires a delicate balance: imposing necessary barriers (physical, electronic or psychological) while creating an environment in which students and staff feel at home.

Team spirit Among the most prevalent internal problems that middle schools must face is bullying. Children entering adolescence are subject to rapid growth spurts at the same time that they are first grappling with the rules of socially appropriate adult behavior. The way most middle schools are now organized takes account of this unique stage in children's lives, and it is here that architectural decisions can have the greatest effect in promoting safety.

Most middle schools today are being organized in teams. Generally, each team-there may be several for each grade level-consists of a group of 80 to 110 students, and the four or five faculty members who teach and supervise them. Intensive, daily interaction between children and the same core faculty enhances learning and promotes a sense of belonging that can be critical to children of this age.

Just as important, however, is the careful, physical segregation of each grade level to inhibit any opportunity for cross-grade bullying. At the very least, the different teams are assigned to separate wings or corridors.

At Fairfield Woods Middle School in Fairfield, Conn.-a 1960s-era building that underwent full-scale renovation four years ago-Principal Lynda Cox says that simply painting each team's area a distinctive color has helped reinforce boundaries. Using different colors to mark the teams' areas bolsters each child's sense of having a home base, discourages wandering and underscores the team's connectedness.

At some new middle schools, each team has its own wing-with classrooms clustered around a shared hallway or resource area. A separate corridor leads to each cluster, and students from one team never travel into another team's hallway.

Effective communication among faculty is a key component of security, and school design can enhance this. In some schools with a cluster concept, each cluster contains a faculty meeting room. Such conference rooms serve as spaces for curriculum planning, but they also are used as spaces where faculty can share information about students in private and work out strategies for handling problems.

Architectural strategies Appropriate placement of guidance and administrative areas can encourage better communication. Offices for guidance counselors and related personnel-the school nurse, the speech therapist-should be adjacent to one another and to the school's administrative offices, so that staff can quickly share information.

Corridors are prime trouble spots, as are stairwells. Crowding can occur at the beginning and end of the school day, during changes of classes and when groups of students are traveling to the gym, cafeteria, media center or other specialized areas. Such crowding can lead to trouble. Because of this, traffic control is essential to ensure that more than one route is available for travel to and from any part of the building.

Controlling vandalism Aside from bullying, vandalism may be the most common security-related problem at middle schools. Preventing vandalism and limiting damage when it occurs requires savvy design and speedy maintenance. Vandalism inevitably worsens if the physical plant deteriorates.

"Kids tend to pick away at things like cracks in the wallpaper, or rips in a mural," says Paul Porter, principal of the Seymour Middle School in Seymour, Conn. Making repairs immediately is critical in preventing the spread of vandalism.

Fairfield Woods' Cox says vandalism was rife at her school before the building was renovated; since then, the school has not had a single incident of internal vandalism, in large measure because the school's redesign and organization fosters students' sense of respect for "their own place."

Anti-vandalism measures are being built into new schools. It is now common practice to finish interior walls in a school's public spaces with graffiti-resistant epoxy paints. It may be wise to avoid "soft" ceilings (such as acoustical tile) in toilets and stairwells, where students typically travel unsupervised. Hard, gypsum-board ceilings are more difficult to damage and, unlike dropped ceilings, provide no places to hide items.

Districts plagued by vandalism to the exterior of school buildings might consider using the transparent polycarbonate material called Lexan (used for bulletproof tellers' windows in banks) instead of glass in perimeter windows.

Although this measure might double the initial costs for glazing, the long-term savings from not having to replace broken panes can make the installation cost-effective. In some areas, it may make sense to reduce exterior glazing and use solid glass block.

Keeping outsiders out Security problems are as likely-if not moreso-to originate from outside the school community as from within. Protecting the perimeter of a school's building and grounds is critical. Fences should protect all outside areas used by school children-recreation areas, playing fields. The perimeter of the building should be well-lit, and the lighting kept on all night.

Parking lots, too, should be well-lit. Districts should use Lexan lenses for parking-lot fixtures so that BB gun pellets or rocks cannot damage them.

Peter Orvis, a Wilton, Conn.-based school technology consultant, points out that most schools have too many locks and too many keyholders. Schools can improve security simply by reducing the number of exterior doors that have key-opened locks and by restricting the number of people with keys. Electronic access-control systems also can bolster security.

Common-sense security Experience shows that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders naturally are more open and conversational than their high school counterparts, and some middle schools are encouraging more interaction by adding security officers to staffs.

These security officers are not security guards-they are teachers' aides, often employed part-time, reporting to work at lunchtime and staying through the end of the day. The students know who they are and what their function is, and they interact with them in corridors, cafeterias and other shared areas of the school.

Seymour Middle School's Porter says that communication is the key to maintaining school safety-reporting news immediately, dispelling rumors quickly, and never allowing the impression to develop that anyone is hiding information from students, faculty or parents.

Relatively few middle schools have installed elaborate electronic security-turnstiles, metal detectors, closed-circuit TV cameras, access-card systems and the like-but many are contemplating it. If you are planning a new facility or an upgrade, one of the most important steps you can take is to make sure the necessary cabling/wiring infrastructure is put in place.

After-hours use of a building by student or community groups can present a problem. By zoning the building electronically, you can reduce opportunities for theft and all but eliminate the chance that anyone will wander through the building unsupervised. You can channel after-hours users through certain entrances and exits; lock down sections of the building that are not in use; install an electronic ID system that permits authorized adults to get to other areas of the building as needed, and establish an alarm system that immediately alerts cusodians if an exterior door has been left ajar.

Remember that when you lock off certain areas of the building, you must be sure that the school complies with fire codes regarding egress.

Before installing closed-circuit TV cameras, decide how you will use them. If cameras are intended for deterrence only, it may not be necessary to record images, says school security consultant Peter Orvis. If you want to record incidents for documentation and followup investigation, you may want to opt for a digital system. Unlike older, analog systems that employ VCRs, digital systems permit you to segregate a particular image-of an intruder, say-on a computer screen and to track that image automatically.

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