Providing a safe and secure environment at school is imperative to helping students succeed academically, socially and emotionally. School leaders have the responsibility and obligation to protect all occupants of a school building at all times and at all events. No one should ever feel unsafe when going to school regardless of where the school is located.
However, we all know that this is simply not the case. Especially in light of the many incidents of gun violence at and around schools. The gun violence and school shootings are just horrendous for all those involved and appalling for others who read about it or see it on the news.
Therefore, it is of significant importance that school officials look closely at every angle, leaving no stone unturned, to keep students safe at school. Simply put, school districts across the nation need to create not only academically, socially and emotionally safe schools, but also a safe facility that is well designed and constructed.
Many national organizations have begun providing much needed recommendations on how to best deal with and try to prevent these horrific acts of violence by creating more awareness of mental health and behavioral issues. Unfortunately, school construction has not been in the forefront of these discussions yet. The need for healthy and rich discussions about facility design and utilizing the best and most useful materials must become a significant part of these discussions. We must “harden” school facilities that are currently viewed by many experts as “soft targets”. The challenge is not to design schools that are unwelcoming or present a prison atmosphere. The goal is to prevent and/or limit the availability of dangerous intruders and other site dangers through design and construction.
Gun violence has grown significantly across the country and especially in schools. Research is showing that most of the school shootings involve someone wanting to protect themselves from others or they feel like an outcast as a result of another person or group of people. Also, most school gun violence is a result of targeting someone or a group to cause them harm and/or cause harm to themselves.
Gun violence is rarely an impulsive action. Therefore, creating a school facility that is designed with safety and security measures built in may actually be able to help prevent or deter a person from causing significant harm. The new vision behind facility design must be to de-escalate the gun violence before it happens. While nothing will be totally fool proof, designing a facility with this in mind will increase the survivability from such a horrific act.
In the past I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit several schools in various parts of the country and speak to numerous groups, local school districts and state officials about school construction. I have seen many different designs and building materials utilized but the one common concern I found in discussions with these groups is the associated costs and timelines of school construction and the need to cut corners.
As an example, some have shared with me that cost cutting options for interior walls have driven some schools to build what would be described as penetrable walls that do not provide adequate options for classroom lockdowns or safe rooms that would deter or delay gun violence. Fortunately, I have recently seen a change in that theme and now hear many educational leaders asking how we can build safer schools on the inside without jeopardizing the need for student and staff safety?
Students, staff and parents alike need to be assured by school officials that schools have taken every step to prevent their children from being targeted in a non-secure or unprotected facility. School security options on both the inside and the outside of a facility can provide multiple layers of defense and even prevention of violence.
So, how can we make schools welcoming and yet as safe and secure as possible? Similar to the human threat assessment teams, a school district should begin by creating a construction threat assessment team, which would be an integral part of the building planning before the implementation of any facility design begins.
The team would be comprised of school officials, state and local police departments, state and local first responders, parents and students. This team should look to provide valuable data in creating guidelines, standards and best practices that the decision makers could implement to make the facility design better to deter gun violence. This team should also be actively involved in ongoing “risk evaluations” for flaws that may be taking place and offer corrective action ideas.
The risk assessment team should begin their review with site work and for maximum safety and security on the exterior of the building. It starts with the first line of defense around the school facility that often includes locked exterior doors, schools built at higher elevations than the area surrounding the facility, office areas that monitor entrances and security checkpoints, decreased entrances and windows and doors that are shatter and/or bullet resistant.
Schools have utilized masonry walls to transform entrance pathways where traffic patterns impede easy intruder access but are still aesthetically pleasing. This is done to eliminate extended range of sight where someone could be in one spot to cause significant harm to many people and because masonry is impenetrable to gun violence. Many schools have also constructed the exterior walls of the building with masonry. It only makes sense that the design and construction using masonry walls will lead the way in safety and security efforts to help curb the impact of gun violence from the exterior because it is the largest square footage.
However, it is not only the exterior of a building and the site that are significant. The interior wall construction should utilize masonry that is impenetrable to the impacts of gun violence that keeps the option of classroom lockdowns available and can provide a secure environment for students while in class.
In addition to providing impenetrable walls for gun violence, schools must be constructed with materials that can withstand “all hazards” that include but are not limited to; tornados, hurricanes, fires, floods and earthquakes. For instance, in the Midwest some schools have built weather shelters that are also doubling as safe rooms from an intruder.
Constructing schools with proven resources, best practices and supplies that are highly impenetrable to bullets from gun violence as well as natural disasters will be a great place to start. Over the last three decades of being involved at various school construction oversight levels, I am convinced that the best and most beneficial product to construct these types of areas in a school facility is masonry.
Classrooms and building exteriors constructed of masonry are also very safe and secure and help to protect students in a large part of the building. Of course, window and door design are just as important; however, the largest square footage of a school building is its exterior and interior walls. If school walls are constructed with pervious materials, students and staff in a classroom run the risk of being a victim of gun violence from a purposeful and even stray bullet. Students need the safety of nonpenetration walls especially when gun violence is involved.
One of the biggest problems I see right now is building or renovating a school facility primarily creating an opportunity with a building that creates safe areas in-penetrable to gun violence. In today’s day and age, I don’t think you’ll be 100% safe in any realms. You’ll actually start, in my opinion deterring other people from doing this sort of thing at a school. We need to Harden the school facility instead of making them a soft target.
I am convinced prevention begins with proper design and construction materials of masonry that are impenetrable. However, this should only be the beginning of the discussion and not the end. Students are the most important people in our business and it is time we treat them that way.
Words: Dr. Don L. Bell, Sr. Educational Consultant @ Bell Consulting Services
Photos: courtneyk, ridofranz, blue_cutler, skynesher, lawcain