New Minn. School Takes CPTED to Heart

From window designs to camera placement, elementary school is a study in CPTED

The building, designed to house and secure more than 600 people, has 23 security cameras inside and out that record 24 hours a day.

The windows do not open, in part so no one can sneak in. They also are extra-large so the outside perimeter can be monitored, and they are scaled so even small children can easily look out. During business hours, all of the facility's doors except one are locked, forcing every visitor to enter through the office.

Welcome to Watertown-Mayer Elementary School, one of the newest - and most unusual - schools in Minnesota.

The Carver County school has all the latest educational accoutrements - state-of-the-art computers, multimedia learning centers and ergonomic classrooms. But it also sports enough security features to make some prisons proud.

That's because the school was built using Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) concepts, principles that have been around for decades but which recently are becoming more commonplace.

What makes the Watertown building unusual is that CPTED principles are being used not only in a small community - population 3,029 - but also at an elementary school.

"You have to nowadays," said Judy Hoskens of Cuningham Group Architects, the Minneapolis firm that designed the school.

Hoskens said one of the early planning meetings to talk about the school's design happened to occur on Sept. 24, 2003, the day two students were shot to death at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn.

"Everyone realized, you know what, no one's exempt," Hoskens said. "This could happen anywhere. This could happen to anyone."

A new old concept

While CPTED has been around since the early 1970s - since author Oscar Newman coined the phrase "defensible space" to explain why crime rates seemed to be higher in high-rise buildings - the widespread practice of using design as a crime prevention tool is relatively new.

CPTED concepts have been used in Canada and in such places as St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Dayton, Ohio, and Sarasota, Fla., to fight crime.

Although school shootings have been more common at high schools and colleges, they have occurred at grade schools, such as the 2006 killings at an Amish school in Pennsylvania.

"We're responsible for children so [school security] is very important to us," said Principal Nick Guertin. "It's important that parents feel that their kids are well taken care of. We want to be able to control who comes into the building. We're the only school, as far as I know, that has a design that ensures that everyone passes through the office."

The $16 million school opened in September to rave reviews from students, parents, teachers and staff.

The school features the standard security cameras, low bushes outside so people can't hide, sight lines inside the building that keep students in plain view and a special entrance that funnels visitors through the school office.

"Sight lines and visibility have always been important," Hoskens said. "But I would say that each time we begin a new project, those issues come to the surface more and more because it has become such a critical issue for schools."

Eco-friendly, too

While it has institutional features, the school is also one of the most ecologically friendly schools in the state, according to the architects, who are trying to get it certified as a model of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the U.S. Green Building Council.

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