Designing Safe Schools

July 1, 2001
No school design can eliminate security risks, but thoughtful planning can help schools avoid trouble.

Educational facilities are exposed to an increasing amount of complex issues related to school safety. The presence of youth gangs, students with behavior disorders, illegal drug use, child abuse, and angry parents and unauthorized visitors all can affect how a school deals with security.

It has been more than two years since the killings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. Is there anything in the design of the facility that could have prevented such a tragedy? Have schools learned anything about the design of schools that would preclude a similar incident?

No one has come up with a foolproof school design that eliminates all security concerns, but schools and the people hired to design facilities can take steps to head off potential trouble: involve a design team early in the process so that it understands the community's concerns and a school's philosophy and security policies, and choose designs for facilities that can accommodate technological upgrades for security, even if the school can't afford the security measures during initial construction.

Passive and Active

Most school districts have their own building security plans. It is important that the design team obtain an understanding of the school district's philosophy and policies early on in the design phase of the project. Once the team understands the district's concepts, it should meet with security consultants to determine which systems should be considered.

Several solutions can help dissuade crime in school facilities — zero-tolerance policies, dress codes, on-site police officers. These are considered passive security systems. They are extremely important and typically do not affect the construction costs.

Active security systems — closed-circuit television, alarm systems, motion detectors and access-control systems — bolster security even more, but can be expensive. Often, some of these systems are eliminated from a project because of budget constraints. Costs can range from $2.21 per square foot to $3.44 per square foot. On an average school of 75,000 square feet, the cost can range from $165,750 to $258,000.

“Due to the fact that most school districts cannot afford expensive security systems, school design must allow complete surveillance by staff with as little effort as possible,” says Officer Charles Vigil, formerly of the Denver County Sheriff's Department. “The ability to control access doors, especially the main entrance, is vital in maintaining a safe learning environment.”

Even when active security systems are eliminated from the construction program, designers still should plan for the eventual installation of the systems. These accommodations would include conduit and various openings through interstitial spaces and building systems. The average cost to prepare a new building to receive future conduit and systems is insignificant in relation to the overall project budget. This allows for less construction costs when the time comes for security upgrades and minimal disruption in occupied buildings.

Safety Without Equipment

How do schools compensate for the absence of built-in security systems? A building design will not solve all the problems, but by addressing safety and security in the design, a design team will be well on its way to resolving concerns. That means working closely with school districts, advisory groups, neighborhood groups and local law enforcement representatives. In planning an educational facility, a design team must understand the issues and the community's concerns about safety.

Through design critiques held with community members and law-enforcement agencies, several valid concerns arise that affect the final design concepts. Some examples:

  • Site accessibility. Most schools allow access to the playgrounds and athletic fields during after-hours. Having those areas visible from the surrounding neighborhood and thoroughfares allows community members to help monitor the activities that occur on the school grounds. In their plans, designers should consider open fencing, adequate lighting and careful placement of landscape amenities.

  • Facility access. When designing the access routes to the facility, it is important to promote safety and security through proper traffic flow. Try to avoid a conflict between bus parking and private vehicle dropoff and pickup. Separating pedestrian traffic and vehicular traffic also is an important safety consideration. The design also must be cognizant of how many entry doors the building has. It is also advantageous to separate staff parking from public and student parking. Having a clear view from the building to the parking areas and site access routes can enhance security.

  • Circulation management. Wide corridors and appropriate circulation patterns can minimize potential conflicts and enhance visual supervision within a facility. Avoiding the use of unsupervised alcoves and hidden areas can facilitate safer passage and reduce the opportunities for unauthorized groups to gather. Locating staff areas strategically and using glass to allow staff to monitor corridors also can bolster security.

  • Territorial definition. With a large population of students within a single facility, a school can find it difficult to maintain a secure environment. Designing the facility with smaller “pods” gives territorial definition to a building and helps staff members manage students more effectively.

A community partnership in the design and use of a school building brings pride and a sense of ownership in the community. Being sensitive to the concerns of the surrounding community and local law-enforcement agencies will help promote additional awareness among community members of what they can do to help make the school safe for students and staff.

Prager, AIA, is vice president and principal of Lantz-Boggio Architects, PC. He has more than 23 years of experience in all phases of architectural practice with an emphasis on educational facilities.

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