Schools Behind Bars?

Designing safe and secure environments for schools and colleges doesn't mean they need to look like detention facilities


Recessed entries: Blind Spots should be avoided whenever possible. When the configuration of a building demands a blind spot, corners can be tapered with 45 degrees to allow the eye to see around a corner to avoid an ambush situation. Bathrooms are required to have recessed entries or blocked line of sight of the toilet areas, however, having an opening that allows sound and smell (of smoke) to be transmitted to the hallway deters many illegal or inappropriate behaviors.

Courtyards and gathering places: Formal gathering places should be well-defined. There should be no doubt where people are intended to gather while within the school grounds. Observation, lighting, accessibility, and safety are all design and management considerations. The basic hardware and furnishings of construction are merely the stage props for young people to engage in extreme sports. Skateboard, rollerblades, razor scooters and dirt bikes use curbs, planters, railings, stairs and more as their stage to practice. But with minor architectural design innovations the builder can remove the opportunity and ease to engage in such activities.

Interior circulation: Certain functions and spaces require access control by definition, such as the library. However, the same strategies are being used now in some schools for screening of persons coming into the main entrance comparable to courthouses and airports. If screening is required by function or need, special consideration are needed for cueing, staffing, equipment and requirements of package and person screening.

Walls: The characteristics of a wall directly influence the potential for crime. Walls should not be placed in a way that will provide hiding areas. Landscaping along walls should reduce hiding areas, not produce them. Walls located in high-vandalism areas should be constructed of durable material resistant to graffiti and vandalism. Using plant material on the wall can deny the artist a good surface. This strategy is referred to as a living wall. The architectural choices for finishes of the school must reduce the potential for acts of vandalism.

If exterior windows of the school face a road, bullet-resistant glass may need to be considered. Though it is expensive, properly framed glass will resist burglary, wind damage and the threats of drive-by shootings. Another alternative might be polycarbonate and security-laminated glass for high-risk areas, though these glazing materials are costly compared to regular insulated tempered glass.

When the buildings themselves become the exterior perimeter, as compared to a fence around the property, then openings between the buildings must be connected and secured. Careful selection of fencing to reduce climbing and cutting is critical.

Interior walls of schools can use a finished concrete masonry block that is fired or glazed on one side, or painted with grafitti- and scratch-resistant epoxy paint.

Screen walls: Screens provide physical access barriers to windows and walls, and provide privacy where needed. Make sure the barriers do not negatively effect ventilation. Decorative materials should be used for aesthetic value, but the walls must be designed in a way that makes climbing impossible.

Building exterior shape: The form that the school buildings take should be designed to create open spaces, yet eliminate blind corners and increase natural surveillance by students and staff. Adequate exterior lighting and the correct type of building material choices will reduce the opportunity for vandalism.

Windows design: Groupings of smaller windows function as a large window but increase security, while still providing ventilation and natural lighting. The smaller size makes it difficult to crawl through or remove property. Clerestory windows, which are windows constructed high on a building wall to admit natural daylight, and provide multiple functions with high security benefits. The goal for the school architect in designing some classrooms and spaces is to provide natural light, natural ventilation, and shield occupant privacy, yet does not permit easy entry. Glass block combined with clerestory windows will minimize wall penetrations and provide good security and natural lighting. Exterior windows on classroom buildings, labs or libraries must be secure from outside intrusion.