Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Making School a Safe Haven, Not a Fortress

By Alyson Klein — March 12, 2019 8 min read
The new Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., built in the wake of 2012’s school massacre in that community, incorporates features intended to assure student safety while fostering a positive school environment. Among them is controlled access via three footbridges, and a sunken rock rain garden that acts as a buffer as well as an educational tool.
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Big, airy windows that allow for clear views of the street and plenty of natural light. Meditation rooms. Koi pounds. Carpet that resembles prairie grass to evoke a sense of nature. A centrally-located school counseling office.

Those touchy-feely sounding features probably aren’t the first ones that spring to mind when you imagine designing schools to thwart or mitigate future school shootings and other physical threats. But they can bolster student safety, well-being, and even learning—all without making students feel like they are going to school in a fortress, say architects who have spent years designing building to improve school safety.

“Security and designing beautiful spaces are actually symbiotic. They don’t work in opposition to each other,” said Jenine Kotob, architectural designer with Hord Coplan Macht, a design firm in Alexandria, Va., and an active member of the American Institute of Architects, which is championing this design philosophy. “I can successfully design a school that functions as a school, that the learning environment functions in a healthy and inspiring way. I can also integrate the safety and security into that, so that … students can feel safe without being burdened by fear.”

Kotob focuses on school design in part because she has personal experience with school shootings. She was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a student shooter killed 32 people, including her close friend, Reema Samaha.

Kotob and other members of the AIA have been working for years with school districts to add features to newly designed schools, or even existing buildings, that will help improve students’ safety while at the same time enhancing their sense of well-being. They’ve worked to steer clear of features that can feel unsettling for students.

To be sure, student perceptions of a building aren’t usually top of mind as administrators try to make sure children are protected from outside threats.

When students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after 17 people were killed there last February, some of the new safety measures made them uneasy, said one architect who spoke to Parkland students.

“They came back from this tragic event and they had to have clear backpacks and go through metal detectors. And one student said, ‘We came back from this and we were the victims and we felt like we were being punished,’ ” said Karina Ruiz, a founding principal at BRIC Architecture, a firm in Portland, Ore., specializing in educational facilities. “That struck me as really powerful, that for them it wasn’t about making them feel safer, it was about providing a sense of discomfort and distrust. And that is sort of the antithesis of what we want to create in our school environment.”

For Ruiz, there shouldn’t be a trade-off between keeping students safe and giving them a relaxing, supportive learning environment.

That’s why many architects also add more tangible safety features to the buildings they design.

Those can include doors that lock from the inside, not the outside, so students can shelter in place if a gunman enters the building. Windows added for transparency and natural light can be outfitted with shatter-resistant or even bulletproof glass. Emergency exit doors can be added, with alarms that will sound if they are propped open for more than a minute. Classrooms, even those with windows on the door, can be designed with blind spots so that they appear empty to a potential shooter.

But architects try to ensure that those safety features are behind-the-curtain so that students hardly notice them.

“If somebody is coming into school with mal intent, you want to be able to provide all of those levels and layers of safety and security,” Ruiz said. “You want to be able to stop them in the street, stop them at the door, and be able to provide that barrier, but we are also designing in such a way that we are creating these cultures of care in our schools.”

National Model

One of the best examples of this philosophy in action: the brand new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The original school was the site of one of the deadliest school shootings in history, in which a gunman killed 20 children, as well as six adult staff members.

The $48.5 million new school includes features that architect Jay Brotman, who helped design the building, believes would help prevent, or at least mitigate, a similar event in the future, while contributing to a positive learning environment for students.

There are clear lines of sight to the front of the building, so that the principal and administrative staff can see who is coming and going, and large windows in spaces where adults are likely to be throughout the school day, such as the principal’s office and the library. And in front of the school, there’s a rain garden that teaches students about the natural environment—but also acts as a natural barrier for anyone seeking to enter the school. Visitors must cross one of three footbridges to get into the school, giving adults inside a chance to see who is coming and going.

“Somebody who wants to approach the front of the school, they are observed right away, without it looking like a moat, it looks like a landscaped feature,” said Brotman, the managing partner of Svigals+Partners, an architectural firm based in New Haven, Conn., that focuses on educational environments. “You don’t want to harden your entrance so much that it feels like you’re entering a prison not a school.”

The emphasis on visibility continues once you enter the building, which also includes plenty of open spaces and natural light. “Sandy Hook is wide open on the inside. You’d think that would be anti-security but it’s just the opposite,” Brotman said. If those at a school are readily able to observe their surroundings, “you can see what’s happening around you. You can see if the appropriate people are approaching your school—or the inappropriate people are approaching your school.”

The new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., incorporates features balancing security and an environment conducive to learning. Impact-resistant windows provide for natural surveillance as well as plenty of daylight. Visibility into the school is limited since the ground slopes away from the building, but windows give children ample views of nature.

Another common element architects encourage schools to embrace: “biophilic design,” the technical term for infusing natural elements into a school building and into classrooms.

That design can include incorporating nature-inspired patterns on carpeting and walls and giving students plenty of windows so that they can look outside at nature. Windows can even be covered with drapes that adjust the amount of light they let in depending on the time of day, so busy teachers don’t have to do it. Some architects add water features to buildings that can connect students to soothing, natural white noise. (Green Street Academy Charter School in Baltimore, for example, has a koi pond in the lobby.)

Those natural elements are calming, said Jim Determan, an architect who is a principal at Craig, Gaulden, Davis, an architectural firm, located in Baltimore. “By introducing design elements inspired by nature to learning environments, we believe students will have improved well-being, which should reduce student aggression, bullying and tendencies to act out violently.”

Classrooms stretch along two main hallways of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School and feature doors that can be locked from the inside providing safe places to hide. The open hallway and the central entrance atrium aim to help build a sense of community within the school.

Architects stress that each school community will have to decide for itself what design features will best fit local needs.

The AIA has been pushing for a federal clearinghouse that would help point school districts and states to strategies for making their schools safer, while contributing to students’ overall sense of well-being and learning. The Federal Commission on School Safety, set up by President Donald Trump in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, embraced the recommendation in its final report, issued late last year.

Fixing up Older Buildings

To be sure, there are some practical limitations to these approaches. School districts have a limited budget for new infrastructure projects. According to a 2014 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 53 percent of schools need to spend money on repairs, renovations, and modernizations to be in “good overall condition.”

Just getting schools over that bar would cost nearly $200 billion nationally, or about $4.5 million per school, NCES found.

Designing a building with an eye toward safety and student well-being from the start—while challenging—is less difficult than trying to update older buildings, district leaders say.

When building a new school, “you’re able to consider all the variables and the elements that are necessary and bring them together in a way that makes the most sense in service to the students and staff in that building …. without having to sort of backwards map, ‘Let’s try to figure out how to squeeze this in here and retrofit it here,’ ” said Heather Cordie, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Sherwood School District near Portland, Ore. “Doing your very best to do that, I can’t imagine will ever be as good as it will be when you’re able to just start that from the very beginning, with those considerations in mind.”

But the same principles used to build new schools can be employed to retrofit older ones, Ruiz said. She’s worked with schools, including some in Cordie’s district, to add “secure entry vestibules” that funnel visitors through a single-entry point, put in new lines of sight for administrators, or move the guidance office to a central part of the building where counselors can stay in closer contact with students.

The key to retrofit is “being able to do that in a way that prioritizes getting as big an impact for as small an investment as you possibly can,” Ruiz said. “Relocation of the guidance office, that’s free, it’s just swapping one location for another.”

While new or revamped buildings can help provide a supportive learning environment for students, it’s only one part of the picture. Building relationships between students and staff and supporting children in developing social-emotional skills matters deeply, Cordie said.

“The architectural piece, as amazing as it is, that’s one piece of a complicated puzzle to create a culture that is warm, welcoming, safe, both physically safe, but also safe as it relates to the socio-learning of our students.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Making School a Safe Haven, Rather Than a Fortress

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