How Schools Are Increasing Safety

In every survey asking parents what their number one concern about school facilities is, we see the same answer: safety and security. As designers, we’re constantly asking ourselves, “How safe can we make schools?”

We know students cannot learn when they don’t feel safe. The same is true for their teachers. They need to feel secure to create a positive learning environment and effectively roll out their teaching strategies.

It’s a topic that gains more attention this month as the nation remembers the tragic events that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012. In every school, security is a part of a larger safety design and plan. It begins with access to the site and the front entrance, as we shared in a recent blog on crime prevention through environmental design and 3 ways to make buildings safer.

Effective security design includes both passive measures and active measures. When we talk about access to a site, we encourage leaders to consider both who can enter and who can see out – and how far. Law enforcement advocates for three key ways to survive an active shooter: Run. Hide. Fight. with an emphasis on having enough time to flee, as shown in this video.

Here are a few key ways schools – and buildings of all types – are improving safety and security through design, and a visual example of how one school implemented changes:

BEFORE: The school site layout led to confusion among visitors and a conflict between visitors and buses. It did not have a secure entry control and faced heavy traffic on the street to the north causing additional safety issues.
  • Main office upfront with eyes out
    One of the best ways to improve safety and security on any site is positioning people inside the facility to naturally see outside to the street or other surroundings. The research is clear. The farther people can see, the faster they will see a threat, the quicker they can respond and the better that response will be.
  • Single secured entry
    Visitors should always use the same door and not be permitted to enter the facility without first being given access into the school office. All access to the school should be through the main office, and only then to the rest of the school. All other doors to the facility should be locked to people trying to enter from the outside.
  • AFTER: The new site layout provides a clear and consistent visitor entry and parent drop off, a secure entry where visitors must enter before entering the school, separate bus drive and student bus entry, north street entry at a controlled intersection and eyes on the street from the entry.

    Active badging system
    Security cannot stop at the doors. Measures schools take once someone enters the office and before they enter the school are also critical. Requiring all visitors to check in to the front office, asking them to present a form of ID, scanning that ID into the system and then issuing them a badge has become a best practice in schools to mitigate threats. In some cases, schools are even using those picture IDs or photos that they take to create the badge. Just saying you’re a parent should not be enough. How do you prove it? How do you then ensure everyone in the building knows they are cleared? A standard visitor badge that gets used over and over again is becoming an outdated practice.

  • More glass – visibility – all around
    There has been a shift to encourage more window placement around school facilities. It starts with windows around the front entry and offices to provide the highest level of visibility out by staff. But it also has led more schools, like the proposed new Sartell High School, to add glass walls between classrooms and the corridors when building new. When initially hearing about the design, teachers often share concerns about distraction. But they most often find that it actually promotes a more positive and flexible learning – as well as safer – environment.
  • Compartmentalization
    Through this strategy, a building is separated into compartments that can be closed off. When the system is activated in the case of a fire or another threat, it is designed to allow for proper and safe exiting while not allowing people into the compartment. This strategy can be combined with other life safety standards to minimize duplication and conflict between systems.It also can enable schools to more securely open their facilities for after hour activities or community events by providing access to an auditorium, gym, pool or performing arts space and closing access to classrooms and other corridors not being used. This provides schools more opportunities to welcome the community in.

Blending safety and security in a new facility is achieved with good initial planning for a new facility, and with ingenuity and experience in existing buildings. As we design, we do so with safety and security in mind at all times.