Design as a school security solution

Arlington Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington, recipient of a 2018 Education Facility Design Award, designed by Mahlum. Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.

By Katherine Flynn

In the wake of mass shootings at US schools, architects are putting their unique skills to work, collaborating with administrators to prevent harm during tragic events.

For architects who design schools, planning for safety starts early, before the first brick is laid. Strategic thinking about how to keep students safe is now baked into the design process of every school and learning institution— with the added mandate of preventing a school from looking or feeling too similar to a prison.

“For communities that don’t yet have that emotional distress in relation to a shooting scenario, it probably doesn’t come up as often,” says Jenine Kotob, Assoc. AIA, who designs schools at Quinn Evans Architects in Washington, D.C., and is an active member of AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE). “So it [has] kind of been up to [the architects] to work with the client at the highest level to talk about it and figure it out. But I definitely think, moving forward, that’s going to be completely different.”

When schools put stronger security measures in place with the intended outcome of keeping students safe, they can have unintentional adverse effects.

“In a daily experience, it really impacts the students and how they feel about themselves, and it kind of perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline issue,” Kotob says. That pipeline in turn perpetuates prejudices as well as harmful paranoia and anxiety.

And that’s why architects make it their job to pursue solutions that are all but invisible.

In working on a redesign of the Marie H. Reed Center, an elementary school and community hub in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Kotob says that Quinn Evans took a layered approach: planning for the worst-case scenario of a violent mass shooting incident but also accounting for the more commonplace security concerns that students and teachers were likely to encounter, such as bullying and sexual harassment. Kotob and her colleagues didn’t want to provide too many dark, out-of-the-way spaces, but they did want to include hiding spaces and escape routes in case of an emergency.

Karina Ruiz, AIA, the 2019 CAE chair, has over two decades of experience in public school design in the Portland, Oregon, area. She says that an essential part of the design process is thinking strategically about where to place doors, windows, and wheelchair ramps in proximity to one another.

“As we’re dealing with active-shooter planning and prevention of mass tragedies, part of that has to do with just time for first responders to arrive,” she says. “You’re building these layers at the front entry where you’re slowing people down and putting obstacles in their paths.”

“You’re building these layers at the front entry where you’re slowing people down and putting obstacles in their paths.” – Karina Ruiz, AIA

In the process of working on security strategies for schools, architects also recognize the importance of prioritizing space for school support and mental health services.

“Simple things like moving a counseling wing and putting those where students are located—near commons, near libraries—and then making them transparent,” says Ruiz. “Design can be an engager in prophecies that allow us to build softer schools—places where kids don’t feel disenfranchised and lost in the first place.”

Architects stress that design isn’t going to singlehandedly solve the problem of students encountering danger at school—or perpetrating it. Pamela Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, says it’s important for K–12 schools to put an emphasis on addressing social-emotional learning, and for staff to be trained in looking out for warning signs of declining mental health in students.

“I think you have to take a multifaceted approach,” Moran says. “How do kids develop that personal social-emotional competency? We want to make sure we have kids with as many skills as possible to cope with the things that might turn into anger towards themselves or others.”

Kotob also emphasizes that design can only be one piece of a larger whole. “There is a pie, and the pie is comprised of legislation, policy, education, awareness, and technology—and then architecture is one small piece of it,” she says.

Successful school design ultimately hinges on centering the needs of those whom the school is intended to serve.

“Working with students specifically so that they can be co-designers with us, rather than recipients of a design that is imposed on them, is really important,” Ruiz says.

As architects continue to innovate new ways to design for effective security measures, Ruiz emphasizes that conversations around designing safer schools should always recognize the vital role that public schools play in their communities.

“We, as designers, are uniquely situated—through our training and through our work experience—to bring a myriad of people together from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, to solve complicated problems in beautiful and elegant ways,” she says.

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Read more on how architects are working with communities to create more secure campuses in the second installment of the Blueprint for Better series on WIRED