Designing For Safety
Staff posted on October 17, 2006 |
Designing For Safety
School security is on everyone's mind these days, but there's more to security than metal detectors and other hardware. If your district is building new schools or renovating old ones, bear in mind that good school planning and architecture — together with integrated technology — enhance building security and help prevent the kind of violence that has been making headlines.

Architect Oscar Newman, author of Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, argues that when groups of people come together, they automatically have a beneficial impact on each other because they become, in effect, each other's supervision. It is healthy to have built-in supervision in a public place, Newman says. Rather than isolated buildings in a residential neighborhood, for example, it is better to have many doorways and windows looking out. This has the effect of many people monitoring each other all the time.


Visibility is crucial when planning a school as well. School security is not unlike security on the street or in any public place where groups of people have an inherently positive effect on each other by providing accountability and supervision. In schools, faculty and administrators strive to have students move around amicably. Straight lines of sight are useful for navigating, keeping the peace, and maintaining safe areas of passage.

The advantage of straight corridors with clear lines of sight is that everyone — students, faculty, visitors — is visible at all times. The disadvantage is that unarticulated, straight corridors can make the school feel institutional, as though "big brother is always watching," and that can lead to a sterile environment of mistrust that lessens creativity or warmth for students.

Inside and out
Working closely with the New York City Board of Education and the New York City School Construction Authority, Gruzen Samton employed these concepts in developing a prototype design for elementary schools located on tightly constrained sites in a variety of urban neighborhoods. The prototype is based on a system of architectural components consisting of modular classroom clusters. Each module consists of four L-shaped classrooms that are grouped around widened areas in the corridors. These corridor nodes have been provided with a variety of glazed openings into the adjacent classrooms, thus allowing teachers to keep an eye on the activities in the corridor or "street." Linking these modules sequentially provides the desirable straight lines of sight; the articulated corridors lend a spatial richness to mitigate against a sterile institutional environment.

Security is not only an indoor issue, however. Suburban schools tend to have large grounds around them where students and intruders can hide. Proper site and landscape design should ensure visibility from all points of access. We took that principle into account when we developed a series of single-story classroom additions for the Central Islip Union Free School District in Long Island, N.Y. The spaces that link the additions with the existing buildings were developed as glass corridors to provide for greater visual supervision of outdoor spaces while enhancing their internal spatial and visual qualities. Bringing children together--both inside and outside — encourages group activity that can make spaces feel safer.

Open to the public
Should schools be designed as public spaces for the community at large? There are security considerations on either side of this issue. Making a school more than just an educational facility that closes at 3 p.m. is one way to make it safer for students, many designers say. A school that is considered a civic building and valued by adults throughout the community is seen in a special way and treated that way--as a city hall or police building or court. For example, graffiti is rarely found on buildings that are valued and central to a community. Scheduled activities in the evenings and on weekends signal that the school is a community facility. And keeping the school open after mid-afternoon creates a safety net for those students who choose to stay later. If the school is a constantly active place, children won't be isolated.

All school leaders do not share this opinion, however. Rose Diamond, senior director of capital planning and development for the New York City Board of Education, says "having schools open for other uses can make them more vulnerable to break-ins." But Diamond recommends that, if a new school is to be used after hours, it should be zoned and designed with separate entrances for public spaces.

We designed PS-161, the seventh prototype school, with these ideas in mind. The instructional and common-use areas are separated on all levels by glazed lobby spaces that connect the main street entry with a throughblock passage and play yard. The gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium can be used independently from the secured instructional spaces. The generous lobby provides breathing room for children to move easily in and out of the front door. The design of PS-161 will encourage more active parent involvement with PTA groups and other organized evening meetings. This involvement of parents in the life of the school enhances communication and helps parents become aware of the social issues and pressures that surround their children. The goal should be to identify problems before they erupt into violent behavior.

Movement and scale
Other security considerations include crowd control and school size. Stuyvesant High School, located in New York City's Battery Park City, includes a 10-story classroom wing that was revolutionary when it was designed in 1988. A major functional problem was how to allow massive numbers of students to move quickly through the building between classes. Gruzen Samton, in association with Cooper Robertson, resolved this issue by providing stacked escalator banks that connect two floors at a time. The benefit of this arrangement is that there is constant activity and vision on each floor and more space, which reduces crowding and jostling.

Diamond says that the smaller the scale of the school, the safer it will be as children will be less anonymous and, in turn, more responsible to themselves and their academic community. In addition, she feels that the more open spaces that exist, the safer the school will be. Clear lines of vision are important--in a corridor, in a playground, and in a classroom.

Advice for planners
There is no single formula for designing safe schools, although some principles apply in many instances. First and foremost, the architect has to be knowledgeable about the student body and the needs of the community.
"Architects, and school administrators who work with architects must realize that design comes second, and functionality comes first," says Howard Koenig, superintendent of the 6,271-student Central Islip district. Koenig has several pieces of advice for architects and school administrators for designing safe schools:

  1. Shorter corridors on a square building plan make the building easier to secure via clear lines of sight. With a square floor plan, two staff members can see the entire building at any one time. With a circular plan, it would take five or six hallway personnel to secure the school. Central Islip's high school was built in the 1960s with a circular central wing with curved corridors surrounding the auditorium. The school is difficult to secure because the corridors have constant blind spots. The classroom additions at Central Islip were designed to provide clear lines of sight.

  2. Schools should be planned with sufficient locker space so students can put their coats or other outdoor wear away when they arrive. No student should ever wear outdoor gear inside the classrooms or other instructional areas. In addition, students should understand that lockers are school property, and as such, are on loan and are subject to inspection at any time.

  3. Internal and external TV monitors should be installed in schools. At the Central Islip schools, all major assembly areas--cafeteria, hallways, auditorium, parking lots — have closed-circuit cameras constantly monitoring activity. In addition, a uniformed patrol force is on constant watch at the schools and on school grounds.

  4. All staff, students, and visitors must wear a visible identification badge with photograph at all times. The badges make it easy to know at a glance who is supposed to be in the school. Anyone who is not identified is assumed to be looking for trouble.

  5. All entrances should be manned. The responsibility of the individual at each entrance is threefold: to welcome entrants; to log in visitors and provide them with an identification badge, and to direct visitors to where they wish to go. It is preferable not to have many entrances to school buildings. The more entrances, the more difficult it is to maintain security. Simplified access to the school can prevent problems.

School security is a two-pronged issue. One aspect includes the physical plan of the classrooms, the location of the site, video monitoring and other security devices, and the overall layout of the school. This includes putting the public spaces that may be used by others in the community on one side of the building with its own entrance, while housing the purely instructional space on the other side.

The second aspect, though, has little to do with design, and everything to do with reaching out to the students through violence-prevention initiatives. Kishore Kunchum, the assistant superintendent of the Freeport Union Free School District on Long Island, believes that reaching out to troubled students early on is the best and most effective way to maintain safety in schools. "Freeport takes school safety seriously," Kunchum says. "Both the physical plan and the outreach program are equally important. You have to prepare for a crisis in order to manage one successfully should it occur."

Although there are few violent acts in schools, those that do occur have escalated in severity. As a result, safety and security issues have become increasingly important not only to community members and school leaders, but also to the architects designing new schools and renovations to existing buildings. Social problems will always find their way into the schools, but careful planning can serve as a hindrance to violence and help ensure the safety of teachers and students alike.

By Geoffrey Doban, AIA, associate partner, and Peter Samton, FAIA, partner (from Learning By Design 2000 - American School Board Journal)
Geoffrey Doban, and Peter Samton, are architects with Gruzen Samton Architects in New York, N.Y.

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