Asumag 2554 Rydeen 2013

Safety at School: Safety Reflections

Sept. 19, 2013
Important issues related to school safety go beyond architectural design.

Recently, an elementary-age student in a Minnesota school made several 911 calls reporting a shooter with an AK-47 in his school. He reported that several victims had been shot. Before the authorities determined that the call was a hoax, hundreds of students were placed in lockdown in classrooms, law-enforcement agencies responded in force, and the local hospital was alerted. This incident raised important issues related to school safety that go beyond architectural design. This time the call was a hoax, but what about next time?

There is a universal belief in our society that protecting children from danger is a priority second to none. More frequent acts of violence, along with other changes in our classrooms and hallways, require a re-examination of school design to ensure the safety and well-being of students. Double-loaded minimum-width corridors are an idea of the past. The concept of securing building areas to prevent intrusion after hours may have to be expanded to lock down more areas for safety.

In my 52 years as an architect, planning and designing schools, I have seen changes in aesthetics that have created more humane environments and physical spaces that respond to new educational philosophies. I also have witnessed many advances in how teachers teach and students learn. By recognizing both the collective changes in students’ attitudes and behaviors and the advances in the teaching/learning process, we know that designs need to change as well.

Previous columns have brought attention to the important role school design plays in creating and supporting a positive school environment, developing and sustaining attitudes of collaboration, and providing facilities that minimize security breaches. 

Many educators believe that although security is vital, creating high-security fortress-like schools similar to a prison is not the answer. Schools should be open, comfortable, accepting environments with diverse and flexible spaces that meet the individual learning needs of each student. The security features incorporated into school design are essential, but must not detract from learning. 

Fifty years ago, we focused on designing schools for educational philosophies that emphasized individualized learning. Today, the focus has become individualized behavior and collaborative learning; school design must support this change. Since the 1999 Columbine shootings, many buildings have been retrofitted, and systems and new schools have been designed to deter future incidents of violence—yet violence persists. The Sandy Hook Elementary School killings occurred even though security protocol recently had been upgraded. The doors to the school were locked every morning after student arrivals, but the gunman shot his way through a  locked door to get into the building. 

Much has been written regarding the changing nature of social mores. A survey by the Culture and Media Institute found that 74 percent of all Americans believe that our nation is in a moral decline, and 64 percent believe that the news and entertainment media are a major cause. 

Can we conclude this series by proclaiming that architects, engineers, safety experts, educators, parents, community and our greater society have all the answers to provide foolproof safety? I don’t believe we can, but it is important to keep working with that goal in mind. Designs to create a safe school environment will continue to be refined. When I began my architectural career 1960, schools were being designed as safe havens in case of an atomic bomb attack. Now we are designing schools as a safe haven in case of an attack by a terrorist or a gun-wielding intruder. Who ever would have thought that?

This column is the last in our Safety at School series. Click on the Safety at School blog to see the rest of the series, which addresses school security as it relates to architectural design, technology, and large and small school campuses. 

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