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The Link: Design Strategies that Support Safe and Secure Schools

Learning can happen anywhere with a teacher showing a small group of students something in the hallway spaces.
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If you went to school in the 1990’s or earlier, you were probably in concrete block-wall classrooms with rows of seats, and very little views in or out of the classroom to adjacent spaces – the product of a teacher-centered learning model. In fact, there is a good chance that the only adjacent spaces were other classrooms and a window-less corridor lined with lockers. As the ways in which students learn continue to evolve, school districts have moved towards learner-centered education models, where students take a more active role in their education, and how they work and relate to their peers and instructors. With an emphasis on collaboration and learning spaces outside of the classroom, the changes in this new educational model are influencing the design of learning environments. In addition to these changes, the educational landscape poses additional challenges to student wellbeing. With every design change, safety and security remains a top priority for school districts, raising the question, “how do you design for modern learning while still addressing security?”

Safety and security are at the forefront of all environments that we design, and this is never more important than when we’re creating spaces to serve and inspire learners. While the conversation on safety and security today is dominated by “active shooter” events, the reality is there are multiple risks that our students face each day, such as bullying, natural disasters, sexual misconduct, sickness and many more.

Fundamentally, the best option to combat unsafe situations in learning environments is to look at safety and security from many angles, on a day-to-day basis, using a network of strategies to create a comprehensive approach.

Here are some fundamental safety strategies to employ when designing schools.

Site Strategies

Safety and security in schools is multifaceted and needs to be addressed from many angles; from student wellness programs and initiatives, to policy, procedure and protocol. The physical environment is also a part of this and when designing safe and secure environments, we recommend implementing multiple strategies and layers that begin as soon as you enter the site. While conversations around the subject of safety usually tends to be inside of the school environment, many threats to students and staff occur outside the building, and thoughtful design of the site surrounding the school is crucial. 

The largest percentage of school related fatalities from 1998-2012 was attributed to School Transportation (36%), which includes pedestrians killed by vehicles on school property. (Satterly, 2014).

Teacher gives a class lecture in the outdoor class space

Outside Learning Area at Waunakee Intermediate School

The design of site circulation is crucial to student safety. Here are some recommendations on how to organize and design your school site.

1. Create separate circulation loops for parent and visitor vehicles, buses and service and delivery vehicles. This will minimize congestion, make it easier to control traffic and most importantly, better control the distribution and location of student pedestrians on the site which eases supervision and enhancing safety. Additionally, delivery and service vehicles should be separated from other circulation zones to allow building operations to occur during peak traffic times, or when students are outside on recess.

2. Make vehicle and bus loops one-way. This simplifies circulation and makes driving and pedestrian conditions much safer on the site.

3. Separate outdoor spaces such as playgrounds, fields or outdoor learning environments, from vehicular areas. This is especially important with visitor loops and service drives, that typically receive traffic throughout the school day. Access along the street and student areas should be fenced along the perimeter to ensure student safety and supervision during outdoor activities.

4. Create a clear pedestrian path leading to the school should be controlled by a crossing guard with minimal vehicular crossings.

5. Use curbs, bollards, gates or natural features to control and limit vehicle access to pedestrian areas on the site.

 Baraboo High School entrance at night

Building Entrance at Baraboo High School

Other key safety components to keep in mind when designing school sites are surveillance and ensuring there is a clear line of site to and from the building. This allows teachers, students and staff to passively supervise the site from inside the building, with the ability to alert the appropriate persons if there is a threat outside. Clear line of sight also allows first responders unimpeded visual access to the building, which allows for faster response time in an event. Clearly numbering windows and doors is another strategy that can improve response times by first responders. By providing these indicators, they can get to the area of the threat much faster.

Considering nighttime and after-school activities, all exterior entrances and paths should be clear, well-lit and monitored with security cameras if possible. Depending on the size of the site, streetlights may also be needed.

Utilizing CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) principles such as access control, casual surveillance and sense of ownership, can have far reaching effects beyond reducing crime.  Environments that support these principles create a higher likelihood of positive social interactions.

Access Control + Compartmentalization

The next physical layer of defense is Access Control. All school personnel need to know who is in the building at all times. This can be addressed at the building perimeter access points, as well as inside the school. When addressing visitor access, a Secure Entry Sequence needs to be provided that allows controlled access through an office or vestibule where a visitor can provide identification for a background check before being admitted to the school. It is important to maintain visibility with the visitor, allowing school staff to assess the person. Does this person appear to be concealing a weapon? Does this person appear agitated, upset or disturbed? Therefore, high-resolution video surveillance systems, and reinforced security glazing is necessary at these locations.

Parent brings student into the school office. Increased transparency with all the full glass walls to see who enters the school.Secure entry at Sun Prairie Area School District

In addition to the main entrance for visitors, monitoring access points throughout the building with electronic and video surveillance is a great way to prevent security concerns. Also providing door contacts on all perimeter access points allows staff to monitor when a door is open. Surveillance of exterior doors with video or audible alarms also helps to control access points and deter students from entering and exiting the building at unsupervised locations.

Movable walls allow teachers to open their classroom into larger collaboration spaces in the grade level.Transparency and small learning communities at Sun Prairie Area School District

Within the school, there are many strategies that can be employed to control access and provide an overall better experience throughout the building. This is important because today, many school buildings are larger than they used to be, which brings new challenges in student safety and wellness.  While it is more efficient to operate one larger school instead of two smaller schools, larger facilities can be overwhelming, induce anxiety in students and take longer for staff to reach students in crisis situations. How does one balance the operational benefits of having a larger school, with the impact it may have on its student population? Many of our clients have done this through Small Learning Communities (SLC’s) within the school, creating “smaller schools within a school’. SLC’s can be designed in a multitude of ways, from grade-level based communities, to interdisciplinary environments. By providing designated themes for student identity and wayfinding, students not only take pride in their “Community”, but find these environments easier when navigating the building, all making a large school feel smaller, and more manageable. 

Not only do these SLC’s provide more manageable and small scaled environments, they also inherently provide natural locations to compartmentalize the building. Being able to compartmentalize allows additional layers of barrier defense should a person gain unauthorized access to the school. The SLC’s can address security needs by integrating lock down procedures and fire doors at the threshold of each pod, slowing down or prohibiting the progress of an intruder and allowing greater time for the school to address the situation and first responders to arrive. Not only does compartmentalized spaces provide a barrier defense, each learning community can be designed with multiple egress options if the need to escape were to arise.

Teacher reads a book to students seated on some colorful furniture.Learning Community at Lake Mills Elementary School

Creating small learning communities within a school has many other advantages as well. With about four or five rooms per community, these areas become designated “home bases” for teachers and students. Classrooms circle a larger collaboration space which features moveable glass walls and windows. Rather than a heavily fortified space, learning environments that emphasize transparency and visibility can help reinforce safety and prevent security issues from arising in schools as a result of children’s behavior, especially in middle, intermediate and high schools. Some people fear that transparency would make staff and students “sitting ducks,” but on the contrary, it makes students feel less trapped and allows those in the space to spot potential warning signs sooner. And by designating student services, such as lockers and toilets, within each community, teachers are afforded better visibility, control and supervision over their students, all located near the classroom.

For some schools, however, upgrading to new a building is just not feasible, so enhancing the existing building becomes the best option. In more traditionally designed schools with multiple classrooms along a single corridor, a renovation strategy could be to transform adjacent rooms into learning communities. The middle classroom among three or more spaces can become a collaborative, breakout area for individual or group work. Depending on the layout of the rooms along the corridor, collaborative areas could zig-zag along the hallway to create a combination of enclosed and open learning areas. Walls that are not load bearing can be demolished to eliminate the presence of a corridor and create connectivity across rooms. Walls can also be transformed to be writable surfaces, movable or glass, flooding once windowless double corridors with daylight. Compartmentalization strategies can still be initiated by incorporating control doors at the ends of the corridors.

Large glass windows allows students to work in small groups within the hallway while still being monitored by teachers.Collaboration Corridor at Williams Bay Elementary School

As more schools move toward 21st century, student-centered learning spaces, students and teachers are finding immense benefits. According to more than 1600 teachers who participated in a survey on learning spaces, creative learning spaces greatly impact student engagement and development, with increased transparency improving students’ teamwork and social skills as they take ownership of their spaces outside of the classroom, showing maturity through lowered voices and polite behavior. Additionally, learning environments that feature increased collaboration spaces and technology encourage students to be experimental and develop critical thinking skills.

Stairs at Menasha HS opening into collaboration areasCollaboration spaces at Menasha High School

Security Protocols and Procedures

Beyond the building, safety protocols and procedures should be planned and understood in advance by teachers and administrators. Providing secondary escape options in case of an emergency will create additional safety possibilities should “hiding in place” not be the best option. Student services are also fundamental to addressing safety issues. According to a study by the CDC, nearly 50 percent of school perpetrators gave a warning signal prior to the event. Through student services, individuals that express any warning signs or questionable behavior will be identified before a problem develops. These services can ensure students that are struggling, feeling lost or battling external issues such as poverty are identified and being supported. 

In the end, the environments within which our students learn must create one of safety and comfort, while at the same time must not impede staff and students from teaching, learning, exploring and developing into the next generation of life-long learners and leaders. Given that safety is effectively addressed in modern learning spaces, what changes can be done in your learning environments to address student-centered learning? Are there additional tactics that can be implemented to address daily safety and security?

Chris Michaud, RA, LEED AP
Senior Design Architect : Associate

Chris is a Senior Designer Architect and Associate in our Learning Environment Studio. He is passionate about designing dynamic learning environments to create transformational experiences for students, staff and communities.