School Climate & Safety

Does Limiting Schools’ Entrances Make Them Safer?

By Evie Blad — May 21, 2018 7 min read
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When Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to a school shooting in his state by calling on schools to reduce entrances as a safety measure, advocates of stricter gun laws panned his comments online. To avoid talking about the role guns played in the shooting at Texas’ Santa Fe High School, in which 10 people died and 13 others were injured, the Republican state official was calling for “door control,” they argued.

But limiting and fortifying entrances to schools has been a school safety best practice since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., part of a broader strategy of designing schools to promote visibility of doorways and hallways and to limit access, especially to student-filled areas, like hallways or classrooms, experts said.

The arguments that followed Patrick’s statements echoed a greater chasm in the debates that have intensified since the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Should concerns about students’ safety be addressed through broader efforts, like gun control and mental health initiatives, designed to prevent violent acts from happening in the first place? Or should schools regard some violence as inevitable, preparing for the unlikely worst-case scenario through physical safety measures? Is there a middle ground?

Patrick’s comments to the media came hours after a student used a shotgun and a handgun, apparently legally purchased by his father, to open fire in an art classroom at Santa Fe High School. The student was confronted by two armed school police officers, officials said, and he later surrendered to law enforcement. Officials said he apparently brought the weapons into the school under a long trench coat he was known to wear, and Patrick said schools need to do more to monitor entrances, perhaps even staggering student start times so that they can come into school through a single door monitored by law enforcement.

“We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward and retrofitting schools that are already built. And what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses in Texas, over 8,000 campuses,” Patrick said in a news conference, adding that schools don’t have not enough guards to monitor every doorway. “We’re going to have to be creative. We’re going to think outside of the box because, from what we know, this student walked in today with a long coat and a shotgun under his coat. It’s 90 degrees. Had there been one single entrance possibly for every student, maybe he would have been stopped.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, plans to hold discussions on school safety this week in which school design and security measures may be among the topics of discussion.

School shootings are statistically rare worst-case scenarios, but they are often the focus of discussions about student safety. Several previous school shootings have caused schools to rethink entrances, typically as part of a greater safety strategy. After the Columbine shooting, architects began emphasizing clear sight lines between a school’s front office and its entrances.

After a gunman shot through the glass at the entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., school safety consultants recommended schools apply a shatter-resistant film to front windows to slow access for would-be intruders who try to break them. After the Parkland shooting, many wondered how the school could have better secured entrances to its multi-building campus, particularly at the end of day, as it opened gates to prepare for student drivers to leave its parking lot. And investigations that have followed several lesser-known school shootings have determined that gunmen gained access through exterior doors that were propped open in violation of safety protocols.

Designing Schools for Safety

Architects who design school buildings with safety in mind say entrances are important, but no single factor or policy is enough to keep a school safe, particularly in a violent situation. And schools should avoid measures that have a “bunker-like” feel that can cause distrust between adults and students and actually make them feel less safe, they said.

“No single design solution is going to prevent school shootings or even tragedies within a school,” said Karina Ruiz, a Portland, Ore., architect and vice chair of the American Institute of Architects’ committee on architecture for education leadership group. “It has to be a comprehensive approach, both to the design problem and to the larger issue as well.”

In a position paper it developed after the Parkland shooting, the committee recommends clear sightlines to parking lots from administrative offices, glazing windows with film, “enhancing passive supervision” by designing interiors that allow adults to very easily see large swaths of hallways and classroom entrances from one vantage point, and, yes, “limiting building access to a single entry point with a sallyport design.”

But physical safety measures should not be so severe that they make a school feel “like a prison,” Ruiz said, and schools still need to ensure proper training for both adults and students so that other exterior doors, needed for fire safety, aren’t left open.

Rather than “hardening schools” through aggressive physical security measures as many have proposed since the Parkland shooting, the committee proposes “softening” school environments through unobtrusive safety measures that promote a sense of well-being for students and encourage healthy relationships within a school. That sort of design can help serve as a preventive factor as well, Ruiz said. Research shows that school shooters often discuss their intentions beforehand, and that students are more likely to seek help for themselves or others if they believe that they can trust adults and that their concerns will be taken seriously.

“While we believe the safety and security of students, educators and administrators on school campuses are of paramount importance, it is our responsibility as architects, however, to serve as a counterpoint to some of these hardening tactics,” the position paper says. “We cannot let fear dictate design or advocate for designing our schools to resemble prisons. Our schools and communities deserve more from us. It is important to create spaces that are warm and welcoming to students, educators and communities. We often work with schools, districts and colleges to balance the need for safety and security with a strong desire for flexibility, collaboration and connection.”

Some schools have managed such a balance. The $50 million redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School, for example, balances features such as low-profile security cameras at its entrances and a fortified main entrance with a design that includes plenty of art and natural light.

Such designs are often best accomplished during new construction, architects say.

But many schools also factor safety and school climate into their priorities when they overhaul existing buildings. The average school building is 44 years old, a statistic included in a 2017 Education Week special report about school facilities, and the average building has gone 12 years since a major renovation.

But school design on its own is not enough to make students safe, the architects committee wrote in its statement. And some schools that have been targets of violence had already done much to “harden” their buildings.

Through policy, practice, and design, schools should promote social and emotional growth in students to reduce bullying and social isolation for students that can be contributing factors to violent behavior, the statement says. The architects also called for improved access to mental health and new gun laws, echoing calls from an interdisciplinary group of researchers earlier this year.

“Although it is an uncomfortable and often controversial topic, no conversation about school safety and security can be complete without addressing the issue of gun ownership and safeguards,” the statement says.

Top photo: Santa Fe High School students, parents and the community observed a moment of silence outside the school on May 21.Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for a moment of silence at 10 a.m. Monday morning to remember the victims of the Santa Fe school shooting. --Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP

Bottom photo: A rendering of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School--Svigals + Partners

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.