Apr 17, 2018

Designing Schools that Keep Kids Safe

Perkins+Will, Dena'ina Elementary School, Wasilla, AK. Photo credit: Kevin G. Smith Photography

By Steve Turckes, Phil Santore and Rachael Dumas

On March 14, 2018, students across the United States staged a walkout to voice their objections to the normalcy of gun violence in our schools. Given the staggering statistics, their actions are understandable. According to CNN, there has been an average of one school shooting every single week in 2018.  An ongoing Washington Post analysis finds that more than 150,000 primary and secondary school students have experienced a campus shooting since the massacre at Columbine High School. The numbers continue to rise and have ignited student-led campaigns like the #NeverAgain movement and the “March for Our Lives” demonstration that took place on March 24.

The onslaught of these tragedies has school communities throughout the U.S. evaluating their safety protocols. The obvious goal: to keep our children safe and to minimize the chances that their school will be the next to receive national coverage for a violent, life-ending act. The debate on how to accomplish this rages on.  Some say we need to design fortress-like facilities with windowless cell-like classrooms. Others highlight that the generally accepted prioritized order of response — “run, hide, fight” — suggests a more transparent environment so that you can see and react to dangerous situations. Then there are those who promote the arming of teachers. 

One thing that should not be debated is the value of human life and that the primary function of our schools is to educate our children. Safety and security in learning environments is a complex issue and while we do not profess to have all of the answers, here we hope to provide rational and justifiable safety measures that can support educational missions and prevent or mitigate threats.

Research on ideal learning spaces calls for agility, student choice and collaborative environments where students and teachers easily move between classrooms and a variety of other flexible spaces. In these environments, transparency gives teachers visibility and puts learning on display. We understand that balancing school security with the innovative, future-ready learning environments our kids need is a complex challenge leading many to ask if it even is possible. We believe it is. 

As design professionals we strive to meet project goals and in the case of schools, the primary mission is to educate. As we work with clients to create safe, future-ready schools, we feel it is important to ask the following:

• How do we balance safety with the educational mission?
• Do we want our children to feel like they are entering a more institutional environment?
• Are we ready to look at physical, technical, and procedural alternatives to maintain the educational mission?
• Are we willing to review rational and justifiable mitigation strategies to meet students’ future needs?

Through our work on the new World Trade Center as well as the new Sandy Hook Elementary School we have learned a great deal, but most importantly we learned that we cannot plan for the irrational. And, if past is prologue, we should not have confidence in our current lawmakers to enact meaningful gun control legislation (although we are inspired by the promise of change resulting from the work of today’s student activists). This understanding leaves us with this: how can we protect students and staff in the immediate future? We recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Our team encourages a participatory community dialogue to find a solution. That being said, we believe in a balanced and layered approach to campus security that begins at the perimeter of the site and integrates Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Additionally, there are three areas that we focus on: architecture, technology, and operations.

A balanced and layered approach to safety seeks to deter, detect and delay a threat by looking at three areas related to the built environment: campus perimeter, building perimeter and classroom or academic perimeter. The approaches outlined in the CPTED principles — natural surveillance, natural access control, territorial reinforcement, and maintenance — have proven effective in decreasing incidents of crime while improving the quality of space. Since, in emergencies, people follow people, we must always make accessible egress available with well-marked pathways. There are several points to keep in mind here:

Campus Perimeter

• Define the area and express ownership through signage, fencing, landscaping or other features.
• Maximize natural surveillance so one can see possible danger (and so that there is an awareness that someone is watching).
• Develop traffic patterns to help control parking, and separate vehicles from pedestrian walkways.
• Utilize video surveillance where natural surveillance is not possible.
• Manage landscaping as to support natural surveillance.
• Implement lighting programs supporting CPTED principles.

Building Perimeter

• Create an easily identified and secure single point of entry. 
• Discourage easy access.
• Layer the building from the front entry inward with secure zones that can be locked down when necessary. 
• Proactively manage visitors and how they access the building with their understanding that they may be momentarily inconvenienced with questions and perhaps a quick background check.
• Manage after school activities when multiple visitors are present on campus and in the school.
• Secure windows and doors knowing that a door left propped open will quickly undermine other security measures.

Classroom Perimeter

• Secure academic wings — strengthen and utilize smoke partition doors to create another interior layer of resistance. 
• Sight lines — like the exterior, maintaining interior sight lines can be critical to view potential threats. 
• Door Hardware — all door hardware should be a minimum “Grade 1” quality and should be properly installed and maintained.
• Doors and frames — inspect for proper alignment for closing and latching, and review door closers and hinges to ensure full functionality. 
• Enhance glazing with products such as School Guard Glass to delay a forced entry attack.
• Communication — the ability to call for help is the second most critical asset after the ability to secure the building perimeter and interior spaces; multiple means of communications should be available and regularly tested. 


In addition to the aforementioned architectural strategies, technology is also important. The ability to remotely monitor and control doors is paramount and predicated on knowledge of the incident. The use of well-designed video surveillance systems and other ancillary components provide the supporting data to effect actions of initiating a lock-down or other incident response procedure. When designing a technological system that supports safety measures it is important to remember several points. These include:

• Designing a security program first and then determining the technological tools that will best support that program.
• Use technology as a tool to help mitigate the campus risk profile.
• Understand the capabilities of the staff tasked with monitoring the technology put in place. 
• Organize and implement security technology so it can be used as a force multiplier.


Operations include communications, information sharing and situational awareness for everything related to campus activities. However, no amount of planning can prevent a threat if those within the school are not properly trained, empowered, and supported. When designing the operations plan there are several points to keep in mind: 

• Develop programs to increase awareness of the campus population including interactive sessions, technology-based reporting, and a means to report anonymously. 
• Ensure there are effective communications protocols to transmit information in a timely fashion. 
• Develop security staffing programs that are dedicated to campus or schools with specific duties. 
• Develop student participation programs that allow students to report in real time to security and/or administrative staff.
• Utilize “day time” alarm monitoring of emergency egress doors and other low traffic areas to provide security with the maximum time of intervention of a potential criminal act.
• Utilize hand-held technologies such as tablets and smartphones to provide security staff with real time video and alarm conditions.
• Develop communications and greeting procedures for first responders to provide response directions and access to areas as needed.
• Manage security review programs to ensure all physical security components are functioning. 

In addition to the potential threats that originate beyond the borders of the school campus, we need to recognize that many dangerous situations are caused by those on campus everyday — namely the students themselves. Fighting and bullying should be considered when organizing a comprehensive school safety plan. A recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that students age 12-18 reported most incidents of bullying take place in transitional areas between classrooms such as hallways and stairwells. In instances like these, transparent design that utilizes glass and clear lines of sight can help to diminish opportunities for bullying. 

While the physical environment and technological solutions are critical in security solutions, we cannot underestimate the incredible importance of human relationships. Our best school leaders understand the critical need for every student to have a meaningful relationship with at least one adult in the building. These relationships make it more likely that negative changes in behavior will be recognized early when interventions and additional help can prevent issues from spiraling out of control.

Our schools have a responsibility to keep our children safe, but they cannot do it alone. It needs to be done in concert with local first responders and the entire community where it is understood that safety is everyone’s responsibility. This is a complex issue, but we believe the balanced and layered approach that elevates the safety and security of our schools — while still prioritizing learning — is a sound approach when tackling the issue of school safety.

Steve Turckes, FAIA, ALEP, LEED AP, is the Global Practice Leader of the K-12 Educational Facilities Group of Perkins+Will, an international award-winning architectural firm specializing in the research-based planning and design of innovative and sustainable educational facilities. In Steve’s 30-year career his work has focused on the programming, master planning and implementation of over $2B award-winning K-12 projects across the nation and abroad. 

Phil Santore has over 39 years of experience in consulting and design engineering for numerous educational, cultural/historical, residential, commercial, and federal and high risk facilities. Phil was the Principal in Charge for the New Sandy Hook School as well as all five towers at the World Trade Center. He possesses extensive experience and knowledge in Threat and Risk Assessments and Security Program Development. Phil provides specialized security technology assessment, recommendations, and engineering strategies for all projects.

Rachael Dumas is the Research Knowledge Manager for Perkins+Will’s K-12 Education practice.  She holds a Master in Architectural Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Bachelor in Consumer Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also an avid reader and lifelong learner, in addition to an explorer of the world’s cultural offerings.

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