Enhancing School Security Through Design

By Jarrod Sterzinger, AIA, LEED AP, Principal – O’Connell Robertson;

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 71 percent of public schools recorded that one or more incidents of violence had taken place during the 2017-2018 school year, totaling more than 960,000 violent incidents.  As the number of incidents continue to increase, school safety has become an ongoing concern.

Architects, engineers and designers of K12 and higher education facilities can play an important role in supporting the safety of the students, faculty, staff, and community members that attend or visit the schools we design. A one-size fits all approach is difficult to implement, and may not be appropriate though, as officials look to ‘harden’ school facilities by implementing an enhanced level of security to ensure students can learn in a safe and secure environment. Best practices within the industry can be guided by the National School Safety Center (NSSC), Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), and the Department of Defense’s Force Protection Standard. However, when adopting these standards, the design team must also balance the need for 21st Century educational design, maintaining flexibility and adaptability, and tailoring the facility for its unique needs.

 “School safety and security measures should incorporate many different solutions that work together to provide a safe and secure learning environment for students,” said Tom Kelley, School Safety Specialist for Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. “Districts are currently inundated with quick fix solutions, devices and systems designed to enhance security.  Determining which solutions are most effective and meet the district’s specific needs provide a big challenge.”

Overall design strategies for educational facility security are often centered around an overarching vision following three of the more common core concepts:

  • The 5 D’s (Deter, Detect, Deny, Delay, and Defend);
  • ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate); and
  • Surveillance (Access Control and Territorial Reinforcement).

School planners can and should work closely with owners and administrators to support the organization’s comprehensive vision for safety and security early in a facility planning process. Once the overarching strategy for a campus is defined, the design team can support evaluation of the various systems and tools, or equipment, identified below for appropriateness. As these systems are implemented, costs at each campus can vary greatly, depending on school design, size, and current systems in place.

Physical Barriers Around Campus

Barriers can control and/or limit access to the building and site amenities for vehicular and pedestrian access.  The physical barrier can create a need for a fence, bollards, berm, and vegetation. To support the district or campus administration, designers can help determine the type of barrier, areas to enclose, and access needs for emergency and maintenance personnel.

Secure Entry

A secure entry into a campus implements a layered entry into the building. This can include a 2-way communication system outside the facility, secure entry vestibule, or a transaction window. The secure entry is enhanced with electronic door access, raptor system, magnetometers, ballistic resistant glazing, and video surveillance. These systems directly engage administration, security officers or trained staff to verify a visitor’s credentials prior to gaining access into the building.

Building Compartmentalization

Delaying and/or preventing access to unauthorized individuals may limit the damage created by an event. This strategy should be activated with limited human interaction and can help support acute emergencies as well as help control day-to-day access for afterhours events. Building compartmentalization creates barriers to/from the classroom neighborhoods (macro control) and limits access to individual classrooms (micro control).

This strategy is implemented with an emergency lockdown system locking strategic doors, and includes push-button classroom door locks. It can be enhanced with blinds or curtains limiting visual access. Organizations will need to determine the strategic locations to support an emergency lockdown system and determine the total number of classroom openings for lock replacement.

Mass Notification System

This system allows for communication to all occupants inside and outside the building to hear important messages.  The communication can occur through an appropriate fire alarm system, telephone system, dedicated PA system, and/or scrolling message boards. It is important to work with districts to select the appropriate system and determine the number of rooms and outdoor locations where the message needs to be received.

Video Surveillance

This system allows for the visual monitoring of spaces inside and outside the building and usually includes a live video image as well as active digital storage for content.  Video surveillance has typically been used as a method to review an incident that has occurred rather than an active monitoring of events.  It is critical to identify the strategic locations for video surveillance cameras which would include entry and exit points, high valued areas, and high incident locations.

Electronic Access Control

Electrified door hardware allows a District to schedule and instantly control access to the building and within the building.  When a keycard is issued to an individual and used, it records who accessed which door and when. Each key can also be set up so that people only have access to specific doors at certain times. Additionally, electrified door hardware can schedule locked and unlocked periods facilitating student arrival or exits at the beginning and end of the school day.  Use of this system can also be a strategy for reverse evacuation situations allowing quick access to exterior doors without a mechanical key.

Fundamentally, implementation of this system can support providing a staff member receiving an electronic access card to gain access to the building and a mechanical key to access only their room.  As any issue arises, for example a lost key, only one electronic card and one mechanical key would need to be addressed.  This system is a fundamental part of the secure entry process and building compartmentalization.

“School Districts are searching for that one solution to protecting our students and the community from active shooters and school violence.  Unfortunately, there is no one solution to stop violence in our schools and communities,” shared Kelley. “Safety and security is an ongoing process of education, training, facility improvements, and application of effective technology and planning to allow our schools to prevent and mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies and incidents in our schools and communities.”

The design team plays a significant role in school safety from the beginning of planning and design of a new campus, building or renovation. It is critical that design professionals continue to adapt to evolving requirements and develop strategies that allow us to provide 21st century learning environments where our communities can be protected.

O’Connell Robertson is a full-service architecture and engineering firm whose mission-driven approach creates education and healthcare environments that enrich the lives of the people they were designed to serve.  Visit us at www.oconnellrobertson.com to learn more.