Can Architects Make Our Schools Safe?

Shootings and Teen Violence Inspire New, Safer School Design

Illustration looking into a classroom through prison bars
Illustration looking into a classroom through prison bars. Illustration by pixhook/E+ Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

A dangerous stranger wanders onto college campus. A depressed student lashes out in violence. A disgruntled employee storms into a classroom and opens fire. Shocking and horrifying acts like these may seem impossible to predict or prevent. However, architects and designers are finding ways to make our schools and colleges safer.

The Challenge

Many school buildings in the United States have big windows and many entrances.

Often rambling corridors and pathways connect several buildings. Students are encouraged to learn in an open environment where they can work in groups or pursue private projects. However, schools with open floor plans are difficult to keep secure.

Some architects have responded to the need for school security by designing schools with almost no windows. These dark buildings can resemble prisons. While providing safety, windowless buildings can seem drab and oppressive.

Preventing Crime Through Safe School Design:

For schools that are both safe and appealing, architects are turning to principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). In a report titled The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools, the National Institute of Justice outlined ways architects can design new schools that incorporate CPTED principles.

Safer Buildings

  • Limit the number of buildings.
  • Provide locking barriers between classrooms and publicly used facilities such as the gym.
  • Use skylights, clerestories, and other types of windows that can't be easily reached.
  • Clear corridors of obstructions and hidden alcoves.
  • Provide large, wide hallways and common areas.
  • Consider installing student lockers in classrooms instead of hallways.
  • Build single-stall bathrooms.

Safer Doorways

  • Limit the number of entrances.
  • Locate the office at the front of the school, where staff will have a clear view of the entrance.
  • Provide a separate, controlled entrance for staff.
  • Install classroom door locks that teachers can lock from the inside.

Safer Driveways and Parking Lots

  • Provide a drop-off/pickup lane for buses only.
  • Minimize the number of driveways or parking lots that students will need to cross.
  • Close the main student parking lot during the school day.
  • Provide a separate parking area for those who attend school only part of the day.

Safer Campuses

  • Enclose the campus inside a fence or wall.
  • Block views from the outside community.
  • Where possible, set buildings and playgrounds back from public streets, driveways, and parking areas by at least 50 feet.
  • Avoid secluded hiding places inside and outside the building.
  • Provide ample exterior lighting.
  • Provide attractive, well-maintained trees and landscaping.

Emergency Alert Systems

  • Provide dependable two-way radio and cell phone use.
  • Install a security alarm system throughout all hallways, administrative offices, and rooms containing computers, shop equipment, and other high-value property.
  • Allow a law enforcement officer to live on campus. (In some school districts, an officer is allowed to move his or her own trailer to a strategic location on campus and receive free utilities in exchange for responsibilities.)

    Technologies for a Safer School?

    Designers can draw upon a variety of technologies to help keep schools safe. For example:

    • Video Surveillance
    • Metal Detection
    • Mechanical Entry-Control Devices On Doors And Gates
    • Alarm Security Systems
    • Motion Sensors

    Before relying on technology solutions, become informed with the regularly updated School Security Technologies by Tod Schneider and published by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. The author describes not only the most recent technologies available, but reminds us that technology is not a one-stop solution:

    " Identify and priority rank the problems you want to address or the risks you want to mitigate, such as hurricanes, intruders, drive-by shootings, graffiti on the north wall, bullying in the cafeteria, or smoking in the bathroom. Each of these requires very different solutions, only some of which involve high technology."—Tod Schneider, January 2010
    " Beware of mission drift. Always go back to your originally identified problem and ask yourself, 'Do the solutions we chose match the problems we wanted to address?'"—Tod Schneider, January 2010

    Also by Tod Schneider is Ensuring Quality School Facilities and Security Technologies, September 2002, Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (PDF). Tod Schneider is a consultant in Safe School Design at todschneider.com.

    More About Safe Design

    If you would like to learn more about CPTED, see Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, by Timothy Crowe. Not just about school design, this book explores in detail ways to minimize crime in a variety of settings, including playgrounds.

    Learn More:

    Sources: The National Institute of Justice provided information for this article: The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools (PDF), 1999; School Security Technologies by Tod Schneider, 2010, p. 13 (PDF) [accessed October 15, 2016]