School Climate & Safety

Shootings Spark Debate Over School Design

By Evie Blad — May 29, 2018 4 min read
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When Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick responded to the Santa Fe High shooting by calling on schools to reduce the number of 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 that killed 10 people and injured 13 others, the Republican state official was calling for “door control,” they argued.

But limiting and fortifying entrances 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 such student-filled areas as hallways or classrooms, experts say.

The arguments that followed Patrick’s statements echoed a greater chasm in 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?

School shootings are statistically rare worst-case scenarios, but they are often the focus of discussions about student safety. After the Columbine shooting, architects began emphasizing clear sightlines between a school’s front office and its entrances.

Designing for Safety

After a gunman shot through the glass at the entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, school safety consultants recommended schools apply a shatter-resistant film to front windows to slow down 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 multibuilding campus, particularly at the end of the 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.

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 “bunkerlike” 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 chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects’ committee on architecture for its 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 drafted after the Parkland shooting, the committee recommended 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.” (A sallyport is a secure entryway.)

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 their concerns will be taken seriously.

“It is important to create spaces that are warm and welcoming to students, educators, and communities,” the architects’ position paper said. “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.”

New Sandy Hook Elementary

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.

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as Santa Fe Shooting Sparks Debate on School Design

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