Building Connections: The Role of Architecture in School Safety

Building Connections: The Role of Architecture in School Safety

In the current debate over school safety and gun violence in our country, we, as designers, have a role to play in determining how schools of all shapes and sizes build safeguards without jeopardizing the education and wellbeing of students and faculty. IKM Principal and K-12 design leader, Matt Hansen, is passionate about the influence architects have on safe school design and regularly educates himself on best practices in safe school design. As an expert in learner-centered environments, Matt strives to ensure that politicians and educational leaders understand the power that connected, inviting atmospheres have in mitigating threats to student safety. In this Q/A, Matt provides his take on the questions surrounding this sensitive issue and addresses misconceptions oftentimes propagated by the media during times of crisis.


Chartiers Valley Middle School, Completed 2018


Q: Is school “hardening” an unavoidable reality in school design?

A: First of all – I don’t like that word.  Schools are, in many ways, the heart of a community and I believe schools should be welcoming and inviting places.  When mass-casualty events occur, knee-jerk reactions are common and lead to obvious solutions like metal detectors, covering windows and armed guards.  While an argument can be made for these strategies, they don’t address the underlying problems that are at the root of these events, and in some cases, may exacerbate the issue and send a message to the kids that “we don’t trust you.” This is not the message that we want our kids receiving as they enter a space committed to learning.

I recommend evidence-based decision making when it comes to safety and security design.  We should absolutely protect entrances and control guests coming and going from the facility.  Secure vestibules, cameras and Safety Resource Officers (SROs), and trained administrative personnel are all part of a layered approach to security protocol that can provide appropriate protections without compromising the inviting nature of a school main entrance.


Q: Should schools be more concerned about external threats or internal threats?

A: It’s easy to think about school safety through the lens of simply protecting students, but that doesn’t capture the whole picture.  While a school’s primary function is education, the building itself is also a workplace for the faculty and staff that work there.  Workplace violence is actually far more common than school violence, and that has to be considered in the design of a safe school.  This goes back to the layered approach to a secure entrance sequence for guests.  The administration should have a chance to screen visitors and understand their purpose for being there prior to giving them access to spaces within the school.  For both internal and external threats, a layered approach is required. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) protocols are strong foundational elements that add layers of protection to the entire campus, not just the school buildings.

Internal threats are much harder to protect against because perpetrators, in this case, are granted relatively easy access to the interior of the school.  Thoughtful use of interior transparency, sight lines, and visible safety personnel all enhance interior safety levels. Most mass casualty events require moments of privacy to initiate, so minimizing these opportunities are in everyone’s best interest. The same attributes also serve to minimize other safety issues such as bullying and horseplay which are far more common.

Another element when addressing internal threats is egress.  Being able to evacuate a facility quickly in an active event is critical to minimizing casualties.  While similar in nature to fire egress, they require a different protocol to initiate and can be coupled with lock-down procedures and other preparedness programs.  Fundamentally, a comprehensive plan needs to be in place to secure and evacuate in a non-fire emergency.


Pennsylvania Senate School Safety Roundtable, September 2018


Q: Whose responsibility should it be to protect kids at school?

A: Everyone who interacts with our students plays an important role in ensuring their safety.  These roles, however, are different based on the ways in which they interact – which is an advantage.  We often look to educators or administrators as the key individuals in minimizing violence in schools because their jobs include various forms of discipline, but I think there are others throughout the school day that can make a difference. Bus drivers, crossing guards, custodians and food service employees all interact with our kids, and they should be empowered and trained to recognize warning signs in student behavior.  Any chance we get to intervene before an issue escalates reduces the threat of violence, and the key to this intervention is early identification.

Safety Resources Officers play an obvious role in the protection equation but can be an asset in other ways as well.  When officers in schools are connected to township police departments, they have greater access and knowledge of students lives away from school and can provide critical information to school psychologists, counselors, and teachers.  There are certainly issues with privacy that must be protected, but these broad connections are another asset to early detection and intervention.


Q: Should architects be more involved with school safety?

A: When possible, building design should be leveraged to improve and enhance student safety.  This sounds like a no-brainer, and it really is – but it is not a solution to school safety when standing alone.  For every new school that we design, or existing school that we renovate, there are hundreds of schools that won’t be renovated or replaced for many years to come.  This reality places the responsibility on our society to recognize the importance of investing in our youth by investing in the facilities in which they are educated, as well as the professionals that we entrust to educate them.  I believe that the role of the architect is to maximize the investments that communities make in these facilities.  We are able to do this because we have found that schools that promote more collaborative, cross-disciplinary learning typically perform better when it comes to school safety.  Characteristics like transparency, visual connections, acoustical control and thoughtful sight lines are all elements of progressive educational design – but they all serve to enhance school safety.  It’s a bit of a buy one, get one free when it comes to thoughtful educational design strategies.


Stakeholder Visioning Workshop


Q: Where should districts invest?

A: This is certainly an important question that districts across the country are grappling with.  School Districts are increasingly being asked to do more with less when it comes to educating their students, so adding a layer of financial burden for increased safety and security can be a tremendous struggle.  Adding to the complexity is the emotional connection between learning and feeling safe.  How can we expect our students, and our educators for that matter, do be at their best if they don’t feel like they are in a safe space?

This is why balance is important.  There are some relatively simple first steps that districts can take with regard to securing their campuses.  Following CPTED guidelines for perimeter barriers, secure entrances and faculty communication are a good start.  Training of faculty and increasing preparedness have to be a top priority for districts.  We have largely eliminated fire-related casualties in our schools because we have utilized a layered approach, from smoke detectors, to fire alarms, to sprinkler systems and equally important – regular fire drills.  The same layered approach should be taken in our schools to address incidents of violence.

The market has responded to our societal issue of school safety with a variety of quick fix gadget devices.  I would strongly encourage school districts to avoid the temptation of these products.  Many of these devices offer a way to quickly barracade the door from inside the room, presumably keeping an intruder out and the occupants of the room safe inside.  Sounds pretty good.  However, almost all of these decives violate multiple life safety requirements.  They can be clumsy to use and difficult to engage for educators with mobility issues. They also require the operator to spend additional time near the door, placing that individual at greater risk while they try to operate the device.  It is also possible to inadvertently trap occupants in a room during evacuation procedures or by the perpetrator to barricade the room in an effort to avoid first-responders. These devices all too easily increase the risk to students and educators as opposed to reducing it.



In Conclusion:

When it comes to safety in schools, everyone has an idea or an opinion because it deals with the most important people in our lives – our kids.  It’s important to sift through the media headlines and click bait and seek out factual data that can improve our understanding of these events.  While no two mass casualty events are the same, they do have similarities and characteristics that can be used to formulate a thoughtful response in design.  In almost all cases, for example, the perpetrator is disconnected in some way.  Our response then should be to design spaces that do a better job at fostering pupil connectedness in schools.  Student-to-student connections and student-to-teacher connections can be enhanced by thoughtful planning and intentional design.  Being tuned into this data and actively pursuing solutions that help address them are obligations that the design community must embrace as we strive to deliver safer places for kids to learn.


Guest Author: Matt Hansen, Principal, AIA, NCARB

Designer, maker, rule breaker. Harsh critic of coconut water.

Mantra: “Keep no company around that you cannot build with or learn from.”
-Biggie Smalls