Fighting Crime by Design

Whether it's gang members tagging a wall with graffiti, skateboarders breaking windows in reckless stunts or burglars trying to pry open a door, vandalism is constantly lurking on school campuses.

Schools can combat the problem by creating a climate conducive to learning. A vigilant staff aided by security officers, neighbors and other community members can help schools spot trouble. And administrators can help discourage vandalism by deciding carefully a building's layout and what equipment it will have.

“People weren't looking at safety when schools were being built years ago,” says Rob Alderson, lead security officer for Spokane (Wash.) Public Schools. “A lot of buildings have unsafe physical aspects. Schools were thinking education, not safety. Now they have to look at both sides.”


The most effective way of ensuring that buildings provide safe environments for students and staff is to design them that way.

“It is imperative that trained security personnel, who are familiar with the area and the community, and who will be responsible for day-to-day security operations in the new facility, are involved in every step of the new design,” says the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in its 1999 report, “The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools.”

Incorporating safety elements from the outset of a project is known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Among the suggestions in the NIJ report:

  • Limit the number of buildings to better control the number of outsiders on campus. Minimize the entrances to a school building. Allow enough room at the main entry in case a screening area needs to be incorporated later on.

  • Minimize the line of sight from secluded off-campus sites onto student gathering areas, the main entry doors, playgrounds and patios. Schools should balance this effort with the benefits gained from the natural, desirable surveillance by neighbors, patrol officers and passersby.

  • Allow for a security person to stop each vehicle entering the campus and identify all occupants.

  • Provide a dropoff/pickup lane for buses only. Minimize the number of driveways or parking lots that students will have to cross to get to the school.

  • Enclose the campus. A robust fence forces a perpetrator to consciously trespass, rather than enter casually.

  • Use windows strategically. In corporate clerestories or secure skylights that allow light in but are less vulnerable than typical windows.

  • Consider installing lockers in classrooms or other areas easy to monitor so that no single locker area becomes a bottleneck, and there is always the deterrence of an adult nearby.

  • Have the necessary receivers and transmitters throughout your facility to allow for dependable two-way radio and cellular phone use.

  • When possible, have buildings and other student-gathering areas set back at least 50 feet from the streets, driveways or parking areas.


Schools can supplement their security efforts with equipment that deters vandalism. Windows reinforced with film are more difficult to break. In cases where windows are continually broken, use plastic panes.

Bathroom partitions and fixtures are available that are more difficult to deface. Surveillance equipment such as closed-circuit television systems can discourage would-be vandals.

Gates and doors that secure most of a school building while leaving public areas accessible to the community can minimize the security risks associated with after-hours facility use.

In addition to equipment that deters vandalism, the threat of punishment can be a powerful influence on students.

“The students know that when we catch someone, we will press charges,” says Michael Langlett, director of facilities in the Cherry Creek (Colo.) School District. “When you start doing that, a lot of people take notice.”

SIDEBAR: Lights on or off?

A school building illuminated by bright lights is sure to draw attention. Does that enhance security, or are schools better off in darkness?

Some administrators believe that brightly illuminated schools give the buildings too high a profile and attract vandals who might have not bothered the facility, or even noticed it, if the premises were dark.

“We have a lights-out policy,” says Rob Alderson, lead security officer with Spokane (Wash.) Public Schools. “We leave them dark, and if someone does break and enter, they will need to turn on lights to see well. When neighbors see lights on in one of our buildings, they notify authorities.”

Spokane schools also have intrusion alarms to alert authorities of any break-ins.

Some schools that have tried lights-out policies have seen their vandalism decline, as well as their lighting bills. But other education institutions feel that bright lights will scare away troublemakers who prefer to work in the dark.

“The police department likes to see the buildings lit up so they can see things better on patrol,” says Michael Langlett, director of facility planning at the Cherry Creek (Colo.) School District.

Alderson says institutions should study the circumstances at each facility to determine whether lights on or lights off prevents vandalism most effectively.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected]. For DAILY news and updates on events across the country, visit our website.

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