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Safety First

According to “Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2003,” a survey done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students were victims of about 764,000 crimes of violence or theft at school in 2001. Of these crimes, 161,000 were serious violent crimes including rape, sexual assault and robbery.

The sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002 enhanced public awareness of school violence, and the need for change in school safety and security. Security measures need to be taken not only within school buildings, but also on school grounds.

Threats, physical fighting, bullying, theft and vandalism are prevalent on school campuses. According to the NCES, in 2001, 8 percent of students reported that they had been bullied at school in the last six months, up from 5 percent in 1999. Students are being offered drugs on school property. Some students go to the extreme to avoid certain areas within their school grounds that they consider dangerous. The reality is that every day, events occur that make students feel unsafe.

How can schools provide the safest and most secure environment for their students and teachers? Developing a safe school environment starts with determining the level of need for security and designing for that level of need. Schools should continue by taking appropriate measures in controlled access and security.

What is safety?

The average public school building is more than 40 years old and was built at a time when school safety was not a high-priority issue. One of the most neglected areas in school safety is the design of school buildings and surroundings.

The first step in creating a safe environment for students is to determine the school's need for access-control and security systems. Factors such as its location and the student population affect the school's level of need.

Identifying and forecasting potential problems on school grounds is a good way to begin a safety assessment. Common problems:

  • Intimidation.

  • Physical and verbal bullying.

  • Vandalism.

  • Trespassing.

  • Theft and robbery.

  • Illegal substances on school grounds including cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.

  • Illegal weapons.

  • Sexual assault.

Defining factors that affect student and teacher safety also should be included in the assessment. Physical conditions include dim, dark or isolated areas; deserted, vacant and seldom-used areas and buildings; and vandalism, unsecured entrances, congestion throughout hallways, and lack of alternate routes. Disorderly and illegal behavior, lack of authority and inconsistent enforcement of rules also should be considered.

The design of a school directly affects the behavior of those who attend. It is important for the school design to create a sense of community for students and teachers.

Creating a safe environment

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) helps guide planners in creating a safe school environment. CPTED focuses on the behavior desired rather than emphasizing behavior that is prohibited. Key elements include natural surveillance, natural access control and territoriality. These principles should be used in the pre-design phase. Gathering input from administrators, school board members, staff and the community is important during this pre-design phase.

Natural surveillance is the placement of physical features to reduce the amount of secluded space, and increase visibility throughout a building and on campus grounds. Examples:

  • Landscaping.

  • Placement of windows as they relate to doors and people.

  • Lighting of hallways, walkways, entrances and exits.

With natural surveillance comes the need for maintenance. If a school does not maintain its natural surveillance, the surveillance efforts will be useless. What good is a light fixture if the bulb no longer works? What good is shrubbery along the perimeter of a building if it has grown so tall that it creates a perfect hidden pathway for trespassers?

Natural access control serves as a way for students, teachers and visitors to get from one place to another. It also controls who is allowed into certain areas. Types of access control include signage, fencing, landscaping and lighting. Creating appropriate barriers such as emergency exits and installing locked doors helps direct individuals so they stay within safe areas. The goal of natural surveillance is to increase the comfort of students, teachers and visitors by making sure they never feel lost.

Using physical elements to create a sense of ownership among students and teachers creates territoriality. Landscaping, fencing, artwork, signs and even school uniforms are a few examples of how this can be achieved. These elements help create a sense of belonging. Defining the purpose of each area on school grounds also adds to this sense of ownership.

Applying these concepts should be done on a case-by-case basis. Factoring in the crime history of the area and determining what types of crime are most prevalent will help in designing a safe school.

The right controls

Traditional types of active security may work best in certain schools. Metal detectors, alarm systems, surveillance cameras and smart cards are examples of active security. Increased community use of school facilities has created a greater need for access control.

Today, door hardware such as locks and levers can be controlled remotely by electronics. For example, all perimeter doors can be locked during the school day. Visitors must come through one entrance to the main office to check in. The locked-down, perimeter doors have proximity readers to allow staff to enter and exit, and to facilitate recess without the need to prop open the doors. During peak times, such as morning dropoff and afternoon pickup, doors can be unlocked. For after-hours use or public functions, various areas can be locked down to prevent people from wandering into restricted areas. This also ensures that trespassers that do get into a building stay in limited-access areas.

Depending on a facility's level of sophistication, surveillance cameras can be installed to monitor each doorway and allow entry via electronics. Passive controls, such as windows, allow staff to monitor everyone coming and going, and greatly enhance the use of a perimeter lockdown system.

Factoring in cost

Security features such as visibility and lighting in hallways, landscaping, and placement of doors and windows should be factored in during the planning phase of a new school. This can be done at little or no extra cost. Often, the design team and the administrators work together to plan ahead for additional security features. Costs are incurred to provide infrastructure for additional features, but not for the systems themselves at that point.

Using active security such as surveillance cameras, alarm systems and metal detectors costs relatively little, but maintaining them can be costly. Whether it is monitoring a surveillance camera, operating a metal detector, or replacing a light bulb, most active security has maintenance and staffing costs. These costs can be justified if they lead to a reduction of crime on school grounds.

Simpers, AIA, is the principal of BSA+A and has more than 30 years of professional practice experience. Based in Wilmington, Del., BSA+A is a full-service architecture and design firm with a market focus on K-12 education facilities.

School safety and security in action

Security cards were incorporated into the overall school design of Beacon and Mariner Middle Schools, part of the Cape Henlopen School District in Delaware. Controlled access is maintained by a dedicated entrance. Hallways are designed for maximum visibility, using a design that helps administrators control and oversee activity.

Visitors arriving at the school must go directly to the administration office. Mike Dmiterchik, assistant principal of Mariner Middle School, says that all visitors get a visitor's badge, and their keys are taken at the administration office, enabling administrators to control who is entering and exiting the campus. He says that this feature, along with keypads accessing certain areas of the school, gives students, teachers and parents confidence that the school is a safe place.

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