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School Security through Architectural Design

By Jack Mousseau


Rawlins Elementary Secure Vestibule Exterior

As tragic as it is, school shootings have become part of our modern world. Most everyone remembers the nightmarish events that took place at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Scores of other shootings have taken place in K-12 schools and on college campuses across the nation and around the world, and they continue to raise the issue of safety and security at educational institutions.

While schools continue to be targeted, the architectural layout and design of a school building can play a key role in making sure that our students are safe, and deter acts of violence. Forward thinking school administrators are working with creative architects in order to develop design standards that help make schools as safe and secure as possible.

As an example of what is taking place in regards to “secure school design”, the Wyoming School Facilities Department worked with a team of design and security consultants to develop security standards and guidelines for K-12 schools statewide in 2014. Based on four critical categories – Deterrence, Detection, Delay and Response – the security standards and guidelines provide a framework from which existing facilities can be evaluated and new facilities can adhere.

Deterrence is the act of discouraging someone from taking an action. Fencing, video surveillance, exterior signs, marked personnel and bright exterior lighting all make it readily apparent to outside observers that a school building and its staff are on alert for any suspicious activity.

Detection is the ability to discover undeterred activities and incidents as they occur. Unlike deterrence, detection systems can be measured. Forms of detection include access control measures, communication systems, video surveillance systems and intrusion detection systems.

Delay slows the movements of an adversary. Locked doors, windows and other possible entry points delay intruders. Locked interior doors, gates and other forms of delay impede the progress of perpetrators. Other delaying tools include fences, vehicle barriers and speed reducing features.

Security programs succeed or fail based on the quality of the response. School resource officers, security personnel, administrators and any faculty and staff that happen to be in the building can positively affect various incidents. Response effectiveness is often determined by training, tools and supplies.

Two elements that afford the most protection for students, staff and visitors are access control and communications. Access control means that schools must be able to account for persons that are in the building and/or are no longer in the building at all times. Communications means that persons in duress must have means to contact others when in need and must be able to be reached when an emergency announcement is made. These two elements must be carefully examined in developing safety standards and guidelines.

Upon establishing security guidelines and standards, and identifying the elements that make each one effective, it’s the responsibility of educators and architects working together to make sure that school buildings are welcoming, safe for our students and focus on learning. School buildings are important components of any community and they must maintain the look and feel of an inspiring and comfortable learning environment. There are many ways to make a school building safe and secure, while maintaining a “human touch”.

A few examples include:

Rawlins Elementary School Secure Vestibule Interior
Rawlins Elementary | Rawlins, WY – A secured vestibule is one of the most important features to incorporate into a school. Note the single door that passes from a locked vestibule directly into the administrative space, for processing of visitors.
Bear Creek High School Signage and Visibility
Bear Creek High School, Lakewood, CO – Signage for identification of, and wayfinding to, different spaces in the school establishes a sense of ownership and an ‘us and them’ atmosphere. Clear, wide open spaces and hallways provide good visibility for staff monitoring.
Hinkley High School Single Entrance
Hinkley High School | Aurora, CO – Clearly defined single points of entry contribute to the ‘territoriality’ of a school and support the concept of a ‘closed’ campus. Low vegetation around the perimeter of a school aids in visibility from inside the school to out.
Lincoln Elementary School Secure Corridor
Lincoln Elementary | Casper, WY – Design of corridors to aid in visibility and minimize hiding spaces helps the detection aspect of a response should a perpetrator enter the school.

Architectural teams can also identify and work with security technology that isn’t obtrusive, and helps keep the school from having an institutional look.

For example:

Secure school design is among the highest priorities of any school district. Knowledgeable architects will take the time to interview administrators, staff and parents to learn as much as possible about what they feel are the most important features for heightened security. Through a shared conversation about the safety of a particular school, we will find solutions that allow for optimal learning in safe environments. The role of the architect in secure school design is to enable security solutions to be at their most effective, without making a school look and feel like a cold, unwelcoming fortress. Children are our most precious resource and their education is our future. Let’s keep them safe, let’s keep them engaged and let’s keep the conversation moving forward.

A version of this article was previously published in Educational Facility Planner.