Defensive Design

April 1, 2006
Effective and low-cost renovation strategies can emphasize school security and maintain sensitivity to learning and aesthetics.

Although violent crime in schools has showed a steady decline in recent years, it remains a serious concern, and administrators are continually looking for more effective approaches to school safety.

At the same time, the best school environments are not only safe and secure, but also attractive and comfortable. The right school setting can generate enthusiasm, self-esteem and academic achievement.

One such setting is an open physical environment. It can enhance a building's aesthetics and encourage learning. Open spaces can increase a sense of awareness, personal control and ownership among students and staff. These factors can promote positive behavior and thus, reduce crime risks.

Smaller school settings provide the best environment to reach these goals. When large schools are reorganized into houses, or schools within schools, staff members and students are more likely to get to know each other; thus, they are better equipped to respond to troubled students or intruders before inappropriate behaviors escalate.

Many design attributes that promote safety can be included in new or renovated school facilities. They can help create a safe school without a prison-like atmosphere.

To achieve an open but safe environment, a design should have three key goals:

  • Controlling individual and vehicular movement.

  • Maximizing visual access to unsupervised areas.

  • Increasing occupants' sense of ownership.

Controlling movement

School access points are a natural focus for stronger security. The key to controlling individual and vehicular movement within school grounds is to analyze the circulation patterns on the site and in the building. Three types of circulation should be separated: bus traffic dropoff and pickup points, parent dropoff and pickup points, and student pedestrians.

Buses should not mix with parents' cars. If parents must go through a bus loop or be at the same location, students being dropped off need two separate entrances. If all students use the same entrance, two separate dropoff areas with defined paths must be created. For students who park their own cars, a third pedestrian path, clearly marked for students walking from the lot to the school, should not cross the dropoff areas.

To ensure that a school has a well-defined entrance, administrators should establish one main point of entry. This can take the form of exterior architectural additions such as a gabled roof or clear signage.

In schools that have multiple entries for different ages, a single public entrance should be designated. All other entrances should be locked to the outside throughout the day.

At the public entrance, the most effective and easily added security feature is a supervised entry vestibule. Visitors can approach a sliding glass window or other fixed way to talk to the school office. Once a visitor is identified and cleared, the interior doors can be unlocked.

An even less costly alternative is to add a security desk inside the main public entry. With either a vestibule or a desk, it is critical that a staff member or security officer always be near the door to intercept visitors.

Another security option is a card-access system. Card access works well for teachers and staff, but the system should be limited to a small number of entrances.

If a school is going to use surveillance cameras, they should be installed so they are not susceptible to damage or vandalism. Recessing a half-sphere cover into the ceiling can provide protection. Also, cameras should be placed in high-traffic areas such as corridors, intersections and lobbies, as well as exterior and parking areas.

A central control point with monitors often is supervised by a local police officer. Motion detectors can be installed in conjunction with a camera system. Both systems can be integrated into existing public-announcement, burglar-alarm and fire-detection systems. New digital technology networks offer a unified control system that combines all services.

Maximizing visual access

Designers should avoid pocket spaces and dead-end corridors. Wide exposure, daylighting, proper illumination and appropriate colors add appeal; scaling an area like an outdoor space creates a sense of comfort and freedom. Common spaces, corridors and cafeterias with these features encourage positive behavior.

One school's outdoor courtyard, for example, was converted to a cafeteria by installing a roof, tables, and built-in banquettes along the walls.

Schools with an 8-foot corridor and side-by-side lockers can become bogged down between classes with traffic congestion. This can be avoided by creating locker alcoves off corridors. Dead-end corridors can be connected to other corridors, creating a circular pattern that reduces congestion.

Windows in classroom doors provide visual access to each classroom. A window blind should be available in case classrooms need to be locked down. Throughout the building, well-placed windows, good lighting and clear sightlines can deter unwanted behavior and allow immediate responses.

A sense of ownership

Developing smaller schools within a large school is also good for safety. A junior/senior high school can separate younger from older students, configuring classrooms by grade level to increase student safety and comfort. Schools within smaller structures can share core facilities — cafeteria, media center and gymnasium. In larger schools, each level may have its own common areas.

Defining separate entrances for each school-within-a-school is important to give students a sense of belonging. This sense is linked to building attachment and ownership. Those attachments can be enhanced through the use of classroom division, color, signage, themes and other design features.

In redesigning for safety, administrators should expect design professionals to walk through the school; listen to the concerns of administrators, faculty, and students; and thoroughly analyze how the building is used. The designer should make sure administrators and the school safety committee review ideas to ensure their input into the new plan.

Collins, AIA, is principal with Collins + Scoville Architects, PC, Albany, N.Y. The firm worked on the Keene and Shaker projects.



Percentage of students ages 12 to 18 that reported security guards or assigned police officers at school, 2003.


Percentage of students ages 12 to 18 that reported locked entrance or exit doors during the day at school, 2003.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2005

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