"You Can Tell if You are in a Safe School by What You See and Hear"
School security is a topic of utmost sensitivity and great importance. Although I’m not a law enforcement officer or mental health professional, I do play a role in making schools a safer place to learn.
A few years ago, I was invited by a Superintendent to attend a tactical walk down of a new middle school. The purpose of the tour was to familiarize the first responders with the layout of the building and how they could approach a security situation. “It’s beautiful,” the first responders said to me as we walked in the front door. Several times during our tour, the officers pointed to windows from/into spaces as potential areas of concern. At each location, the group discussed how they would address the lines of sight. The tactical approach at the time was to shelter in place.
The design community’s response has been a careful balance of facility hardening and passive design measures as a means to secure our schools. All too recent events in Sandy Hook and elsewhere have illustrated that hardening a school facility with security vestibules and cameras isn’t the singular answer.
Last fall I attended a school safety session at the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) conference. I was hoping to get a simple formula for design – do this, then that, and add this…and presto - you’ll have a safe school. Of course, there is no simple equation by which to design.
The presenters included Dr. William Pfohl from Western Kentucky University and Dr. Thomas Huberty from Indiana University. Dr. Pfohl is an expert on school violence and victim response who leads crisis response teams to sites of school violence. Dr. Huberty is a children's mental health researcher who focuses on the association of stress and anxiety with personal and school functioning. As you might imagine, their perspectives related to the social/emotional aspects, not the tactical ones.
Here are a few paraphrased thoughts and sobering statistics that these experts shared with us:
- School violence is less than 1% of the total violence in the US and is often bullying.
- School violence is usually known by someone other than the perpetrator; in other words they have told someone about what they planned to do at least 24 hours before the crime was committed. At Columbine, the preplanning was shared three years ahead of the event. Dr. Pfohl called this the "conspiracy of silence" as these acts, to a certain extent, were preventable.
- Despite increased spending on devices (cameras, metal detectors, etc.) there has been no correlation to a reduction in violent acts.
- School shootings are committed by those who are known to the school; they are not random. One horrifying story shared was of an honor school student who walked into school carrying a fishing pole bag filled with weapons. He was confronted by a teacher and explained that the weapons were for a project. The teacher let him go because he was an honor student. Two minutes later, violence broke out. The experts emphasized that no number of devices or hardening of the buildings would have stopped it, because that student belonged there and was known as a good kid.
- Welcoming and nurturing environments lead to safe schools. Caring communities lead to safe schools. Environments that foster mutual respect lead to safer schools.
- School facility hardening is the “illusion of safety;” it often conveys mistrust and an attitude of suspicion.
- From a design perspective, there are some basic principles: NO dead ends; NO isolated rooms.
- Passive and transparent security design measures are appropriate; windows are not “bad.”
With my eyes now more open to the social/emotional aspects of school security, I approach my visits to schools around the Midwest through a different lens. Just weeks ago, I visited a small K-12 School district near the border of Illinois and Wisconsin. The end of day announcements came on during my meeting with the Superintendent and Business Manager. All of the usual announcements, "Suzie" ride the bus today; "Joe" your Dad will pick you up...etc...Then at the end, the principal said "In case you haven't heard it lately or yet today, we love you, see you tomorrow." I stopped for a moment. For kids from different backgrounds, with parents running in two directions, this was the fuel that they needed to know someone cared.
School safety affects all of us, no matter whether you’re a parent, brother or sister, or community member. We all know someone who goes to school. Dr. Pfohl said that you can tell if you are in a safe school by what you see and hear. He asserts that if you can see and hear the relationships between students, teachers and community members, you’re likely safe. Get involved in your communities’ schools and listen to your children and neighbors. Avoid the “conspiracy of silence.”
It’s up to us as designers to provide appropriate design measures, like transparency and no isolated rooms, but that doesn’t mean that schools should become “pretty prisons.” We practice passive design, looking for solutions that are suited to the risk and are sensitive to others. We all want the same thing - safety and security for our kids. Let’s not let the potentially unthinkable affect the rational design expression of a community and a school.