Safety By Design

Sept. 1, 2004
The argument can be made for transparent vs. apparent security solutions for schools.

School security needs have changed in the last five years, and many school officials now believe safety solutions should focus more on the root of the problem. The goal should not be turning a school into a fortress; it should be improving the level of trust between students and teachers. If metal detectors, cameras and steel gates begin to take over a school, student attitudes will degenerate, and a culture of violence will be perpetuated.

But schools can be designed in ways that encourage mutual trust and reduce the need for hardened security measures. In most cases, the safer a campus looks, the safer it is.

“A 10-foot fence is absolutely ridiculous,” says Tom Latham, who recently retired after 34 years in law enforcement in Garland, Texas. “Students need to know they're in a safe place, and this doesn't tell them that.”

Security overview

Communities across the nation have expressed concern about violence among youths and its effect on learning. School communities have taken steps to prevent violence on campuses by acknowledging the problem, allying with others, setting goals and selecting a security strategy. Two categories cover most of the options:

  • Prevention through environmental design.

  • Prevention through school management and education.

A security strategy typically includes both approaches. Blanket solutions don't work — every community is unique. Each school's security program should have its own face, designed with an eye on the past, present and likelihood of future violent attacks.

Environmental design

Certainly, the best time to upgrade security with preventive strategies is during the project design. For example, securing the exterior doors with unobtrusive hardware instead of padlocks offers a warmer, more inviting first impression. Schools designed with suitable air-conditioning systems have less worry about keeping doors and windows shut.

In the Northwest (Texas) Independent School District, superintendent Keith Sockwell has seen an overwhelming difference at Northwest High School in Justin since renovations changed the face of the high school.

“We learned that the atmosphere you create in a school is so critical — and even the building can create the atmosphere,” says Sockwell. “So, almost five years ago the school was gutted, and a whole new school was built around it. We thought that if the students feel safe and secure, that goes a long way toward curbing violence. We wanted it to be a place where they want to be, so we observed where students would go during off hours to study. Starbucks kept coming up, so we built a Java City right into the library. The idea was so successful that although the school closes at 4 p.m., the library and Java City stay open until 6 p.m.”

Education-based techniques

Prevention tactics place a great deal of faith in school officials and students. School administrators should identify teachers whom students would accept or even admire and encourage them to become involved in conflict-resolution courses, mentoring programs or self-esteem initiatives.

One example is the Safe School Ambassadors Program (SSAP). Founded on the very day of the Columbine tragedy in 1999, the SSAP strives “to create safer, more tolerant school environments." SSAP works from the belief that students have the capacity to resolve any level of school violence on their campuses.

This is just one of many thriving school safety programs. “We use the SRO (school resource officer) program in Garland for spot-checking,” says Latham. “Every middle school and high school has been assigned a certain number of officers.”

A happy medium

Schools must readdress security measures every couple of years. The best solutions create a balance between the need for a secure environment and the need for a suitable learning environment. Schools are likely to achieve such a balance when community stakeholders, including administrators, parents, teachers and students, have an opportunity to participate.

Sidebar: Building security into environmental design

Whether it's for an existing facility or for new construction, some of the more common hardware selected for school security includes:

  • Closed-circuit television cameras

    Cost-effective and capable, these television cameras are most effective when used to observe public corridors, stairwells and exterior doors, as well as larger spaces during school, such as the cafeteria and gymnasium.

  • Door security hardware

    Schools that use generators can lock doors electromagnetically, which translates into a force of either 600 or 1,200 pounds.

  • Panic buttons

    These, along with intercom systems, go hand-in-hand with many school security systems.

  • Electronic security panels

    Used primarily to monitor doorways, door hardware is connected to a security-control console that records all alarms.

  • ID cards

    These allow access to designated users, and they monitor and track who enters which room at what time.

  • Metal detectors

    Metal detectors can be costly, and each one requires three people to operate it. Furthermore, it doesn't make sense to guard one of the school's entrances with a metal detector if there won't be one at every other entry and exit. A better investment might be a handheld metal detector for use on a case-by-case basis.

Hensley, a senior vice president for SHW Group Architects, works in its Fort Worth, Texas, office. The firm worked on the Northwest High School project.

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