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Designing for US School Safety and Security

In the wake of increasing threats that have occurred in American schools, precautionary measures must now be put in place in order to prevent future violence and shootings.

By and Jenny Bright


August 31, 2018

In the wake of increasing threats that have occurred in American schools, precautionary measures must now be put in place in order to prevent future violence and shootings. While there is no universal answer, many schools across the US have begun to implement solutions such as reducing the number of entry points, increasing gun regulations, creating firearm free zones, arming teachers, and assigning law enforcement officers to schools. Given that any act of violence in the classroom is one too many, there is an understandable immediacy that’s tied to addressing this issue. It is, however, important to acknowledge the sensitivity and complexity of school attacks which is why we must engage in dialogue with others looking to tackle this problem. The urgency for schools to address students’ safety is more pertinent than ever, but it must be understood that sustained change will take time.

Some initial ideas to consider are:

  1. People respond to their environment. – Research confirms that people’s environment directly impacts their behavior. It is important for schools to still feel like comfortable spaces that are conducive to learning.
  2. Designers must learn the local risk tolerances and opinions of the community. Each community has their own needs, beliefs, criteria, and financial constraints which must be understood.
    1. No one solution will fix the problem. Each environment and issue is highly contextual. There must be a multi-faceted understanding and approach.
    2. Each solution may create its own new set of problems. For example, by implementing a controlled single-entry point into the building this may conflict with fire codes, concentrate strain, increase routine time to enter the facility, and potentially still not address the possible threats.
    3. Threats are changing. A threat is no longer just a knife or gun. They can be chemical, motorized, psychological, or something we have not yet experienced.

As ideas are considered, stakeholders must be thoughtful of retaining school identity. Learning and development must remain the primary purpose of the school. If a building’s only focus is on security to prevent a shooting, it could potentially infringe upon the learning environment as a whole.

While this commentary on school violence solutions by no means covers the issue in all of its complexity, keep in mind the following ideas as you carry the conversation forward:

  1. Understand both the intended purpose of the building and the tolerances of the local community in which it is to be located.
  2. Have the right players in the room when designing a learning environment. Gain input from all stakeholders including the community, business partners, administration, students, maintenance personnel, staff, and the local law enforcement. No sole discipline has the answer.
  3. Practice real life training for all systems that are designed or put in place. Know what happens and where people will go in case of an emergency.
  4. Research, consider and debate all components of the building and evaluate both the intended and unintended risks.
  5. If you hear or see something, say something. Create an environment where changes or concerns can be identified, addressed and immediately acted on in a positive manner.


Photo by Senior Airman Ryan ZeskiReleased

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Written by Stuart Campbell

Associate Principal | Education, Buildings
Houston, TX

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