Securing today’s schools takes more than locks and metal detectors

This past week in Atlanta we experienced an extraordinary moment thanks to the cool head and empathetic heart of an elementary school secretary. Sitting in my office north of the city on Tuesday, I got the alert that there was an active shooter event in progress at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, an elementary school outside of Atlanta. Considering the recent past, hearing the phrase active shooter associated with schools induced an immediate gut-wrenching reaction.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the deadly attack on Sandy Hook elementary school in New Town, Connecticut, the thought of another shooting disaster involving small children was unnerving at best. I immediately tuned into our local news radio station to follow the events as they unfolded. Shots were fired in the administrative office where the shooter was holed up. And at the same time teachers quickly herded young students out back and side entrances and into a nearby field and Wal-Mart.

As the drama intensified inside the school office, it turns out that part time school worker Antoinette Tuff had things in hand. “He had a look on him that he was willing to kill,” Tuff tells a local media outlet. “He said he didn’t have any reason to live, and he knew he was going to die today.”

At one point, the man exchanged gunfire with police. Tuff says she convinced the man to stand down so that he wouldn’t be killed. She says she prayed for the gunman during the crisis, and credited God with helping her maintain her composure. She also shares some personal demons with the gunman to ensure him that he too could work out his crisis.

“I just explained to him that I loved him,” she relates. “I didn’t know his name, I didn’t know much about him, but I did love him.”

As Tuff juggled her phone negations with both police and the 911 operator she persuaded the man to surrender to police.

Tuff’s heroics, however, are the exception to the rule when it comes to deterring a mentally disturbed and highly motivated school shooter. The fact that the Atlanta shooter was able to piggy-back his way into the main office demonstrates the vulnerabilities open-campus, public schools face.

After the Columbine shootings public schools around the country responded with "hard" programs that included mandatory expulsion for bringing a weapon to school, zero tolerance policies, improved crisis response plans and random locker checks. While hard programs have their place, some experts believe increased use of "soft" programs, a collective term for programs that teach conflict resolution, anti-bullying, anger management, and emotional intelligence is what will fundamentally improve school safety.

Schools also reacted to the escalating wave of violent threats by hardening their campuses with access controlled gates and doors, basic video surveillance systems monitored by administrative staff, metal detectors and school security officers.

But one aspect of securing a school environment that has picked up champions from not only security professionals and consultants, but architects and engineers, is the philosophy of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). This concept is nearly four decades old and has been used as a baseline for enhancing security in everything from corporate towers to resorts. It is also commonly referred to as designing out crime or “secure by design”. There is significant evidence that CPTED reduces the opportunity to commit crime. Its applied principles also reduce the fear of victimization and increase the perception of safety.

Art Hushen is a former law officer with the City of Tampa, who immersed himself into the CPTED concept before creating the National Institute of Crime Prevention in Tampa in 1999 after leaving the force. His company does CPTED training throughout the world.
While with the Tampa Police Department, he helped develop a CPTED unit that worked directly with the Hillsborough County and Tampa schools. The unit worked to establish standards for the city through planning and zoning, incorporating them as code requirements with urban designers, city architects and engineers.

“It was mandatory CPTED compliance in the county schools,” says Hushen, whose group then we went on to work with the Florida state’s attorney general to create a state-wide CPTED designation that mandated a standard for law enforcement, architects and designers, and provided a path for them to be recognized as certified practitioners of CPTED. “When training architects on the principals of CPTED, they can look at the design of a school as a standalone structure or how it can influence positive social interaction. We emphasize that they focus on social management through design.”

The concept of CPTED is all encompassing. It is a “place-based” deterrent predicated on making both the man-made and natural environment safer. Criminologist Timothy Crowe, one of the founding fathers of the CPTED concept says, “The proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the fear and incidence of crime and an improvement in the quality of life.”

The CPTED philosophy not only espouses the harmony of flow, light and open spaces, it facilitates positive social engineering. There is an increase in both the cerebral mantra of a safe environment, along with the hardened physical security aspect of the space itself.
“We encourage the interaction of students with one another, but design the facility so you have maximum visibility through video monitoring and visual surveillance, with a concentration on gathering areas and open walkways,” explains Hushen. “Students will come to school now knowing they are being monitored without feeling it is intrusive. By increasing visibility in places like stairwells and restrooms, where incidents tend to take place, we eliminate a lot issues.”

There are several universal key concepts related to CPTED, although practitioners and criminologist still debate the nuisances. They include:
• Natural Access Control — deals with ingress and egress from an area based on crime preventive or inhibiting elements that are part of the essential design of a building or site. Basically, it says that access control is more than just the school’s locks, gates and windows. It also involves the sidewalks, streets and landscaping that surrounds a school, as well as any areas that establish natural boundaries.
• Natural Surveillance — defines how users see into, through and around school buildings and site elements. For instance, unobstructed windows that overlook parking lots or playgrounds provide easier monitoring of risky or high-liability areas and proper lighting eliminates hiding areas.
• Territorial Reinforcement — lets visitors and potential intruders know they are now on school grounds. It involves physical features that clearly separate public from private places, such as schools from an adjacent park or neighborhood, and can be achieved with proper fencing, brick pavers or well-defined sidewalks.

Creating a safe school environment in today’s world should not force us to resort to barbed wire, armed guards and metal detectors. Unfortunately these are realities in many of our schools across the country. But with the use of CPTED, we can arrive at a complimentary solution that can make the school campus safe and inviting.

“The social aspect of CPTED is big on encouraging more social interaction between parents, teachers and students. Once you get all parties involved in the design aspect of the classroom they can appreciated the aspects of security and safety design they might never had considered,” adds Huschen. “You build off of that. You integrate the social aspects of safety with the physical tools of security to create the optimum environment.”