After QEA’s recent Insight discussing ‘School Safety Today’ that focused on school environments in the aftermath of the horrific killing of 17 individuals at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, many are wondering what measures are being taken in the design of schools to ensure that students are protected from potential violence. This essay picks up on the question raised in the previous Insight issue: after an incident, especially one that has resulted in violent death, we wonder, “Could we have done something differently?” The short answer is, yes.

 
As designers for a wide range of urban school environments, QEA most recently completed the renovation of Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Originally opened in 1977, the 136,000 sf building features a concrete frame in Brutalist Style architecture. It was designed as an inwardly focused, open-plan concept school—an educational approach that was popular in the 1970s. In addition to the elementary school, the Center accommodates several community organizations, including the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, the Community of Hope, Children’s National and the United Planning Organization which house recreation facilities, public health clinics, and an infant care center.

Before Renovation

Post Renovation

When QEA adopted the project in 2015, the school had a long list of issues that negatively impacted learning, including: dark spaces with no natural light, poor air quality, limited acoustic integrity, and no access to green spaces. Furthermore, the school’s safety was compromised all along its perimeter and from within. The complex program resulted in many access points between the several partners, students could get lost in the medical clinic and patients could enter the school. All around the building, doors could be propped open and intruders could enter the school or partners’ space without being screened by security. Also, outside the building were several dark, hiding areas that were shaded by overhangs and that invited homeless guests or after hours gang-related activity.  
 
QEA's renovation sought to alleviate many of these issues, and the design team implemented several passive and active security design strategies that were developed with the DC Department of General Services, DC Public Schools, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and all the partner groups.

 

Community Participation

It is crucial to include students, teachers, staff, and parents in the design process. The participatory design process makes school designs more relevant and helps to identify issues that the design team may not be aware of. Conversations around safety and design can also serve as a launch pad for school staff and communities to create plans, put procedures in place, and think about cultivating a climate that teaches staff to be observant and diligent.

Program Efficiency

The design team re-organized the circulation around a newly defined internal “street” that is punctuated by a sky-lit Grand Commons that connects younger students on the ground floor with the older/mentor students on the upper floor. Classroom neighborhoods were created around commons areas, preserving the former culture, but providing the school with improved acoustics and display space for technology and artwork. The design team separated each of the partners into zones that improved programming while increasing safety. Dark outdoor spaces that wrapped the perimeter were infilled with new construction, increasing the building size from 136,00 gsf to 153,600 gsf, and adding to much needed interior programming space.

Increased Visibility

In an effort to improve both learning and security, QEA strategically employed glazing throughout the facility. Glazing allows increased visibility of movement and potential intruders inside and outside of the facility. At the main entry of the school and recreation department, QEA employed bullet-resistant glazing. Glass break censors were installed on glazing at the ground floor in lieu of metal screening devices. Large panels of brick and concrete masonry were removed from exterior walls and replaced with windows to bring natural light into classrooms. Increased glazing improves lighting in learning environments, commons spaces, and creates stronger connections with the natural environment.

Site Work

The 18th street outdoor area became a plaza that straddled the public street and the facility. The expansive nature of the plaza allows everyone to have clear visibility of all visitors and potential intruders. New lighting that turns on automatically at dusk was installed along the site and building facade. A switch back ramp and new garden beds create an obstacle to enter the lower level of the site and simultaneously bring natural beauty to former black tops. Playgrounds are now divided by age, the older kids play on 18th street and a playground for the younger children sits at the back of the school. Pre-K classrooms have their own doors that allow teachers to take kids directly to their playground and more closely monitor their movement.

Playground Fencing

New, low fencing with narrow pickets was installed very selectively, around playgrounds and to infill potential hiding spaces that were adopted from the original design. The fencing ranged from 4’-0” – 8’-0” in height and the narrow pickets make it difficult for someone to climb. Furthermore, gates were utilized at entry points and remain locked most of the day unless it is time for student play. The fencing selected was light-weight, a soft aluminum color, and almost disappears when you stand outside.

Classroom Design

Walls were installed that defined classrooms spaces, where before the interior was just an expansive void with cubicle partitions. Classroom doors received full glass panels and a sidelight. Hiding areas that could hold an entire class of up to 30 students were designed in classrooms. Every classroom door locks automatically and requires a key to be opened. Studies show that most intruders continue passing by a room if they perceive it to be empty or too difficult to access.

Video Surveillance and Alarm System

Video cameras were located around the perimeter of the building at all entry points and throughout the interior of the facility. The cameras were tied into the door alarm system; and, in the case that specific doors are opened, security officials would be able to identify intruders. Studies show that video cameras can instill fear and deter intruders.

Door and Access Control

All exterior entry doors received security card readers with fob key access. Aiphones were installed at the main public entries to allow security guards to monitor visitors.

 
 
The passive and active security measures that were implemented at Marie Reed are site and community specific; as such, other schools can utilize this list as a launching pad for more concise and productive discussions on security for their own community. As mentioned in the first point, community participation with stakeholders, families, and school staff will help to determine the specific strategies that are desirable for a given school. Districts and schools must determine how best to utilize their current funding towards security in order to discern if supplemental financing is required. Notably, electronic security made up a small portion of the overall construction budget for this project. Thus, designing more secure buildings does not necessarily require an unreasonable amount of money; but rather, an intention by leaders to make security a priority.  
 
Most importantly, the above mentioned security features are seamlessly installed throughout the facility and are upheld by thoughtful design. Bright, transparent and healthy spaces not only inspire young minds, but also eliminate dark hiding spaces that were once promoted by more outdated school designs. Inside and out, the design of Marie Reed facilitates gathering and interaction to engender a strong sense of community. Strong communities, much like those that nurtured the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, better equip the next generation to be resilient in the face of danger, promote peace, and become stewards of a safer nation.

Did you miss Part I of this School Safety Insight Series? Read Part I