A photo of students gathered at a fence in front of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

In the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where 17 individuals were killed, many are wondering what measures are being taken in the design of schools to ensure that students are protected from potential violence. The Center for Disease Control reports that,

Approximately 40% of public schools reported to police at least one incident of violence during the 2009-2010 school year. Of these public schools, approximately 10% reported at least one serious violent incident during the same time period. A nationwide survey of high school students in the United States found that 4.1% of students carried a weapon (such as a gun, knife, or club) on school property in the 30 days preceding the survey. The same survey found that 6% of students missed school in the 30 days preceding the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.

The ultimate question after an incident, especially one that has resulted in violent death is, “Could we have done something differently?”  In Maryland, the governor recently announced that an additional $125 million will be provided for school safety improvements, including secure doors, windows, metal detectors, security cameras, panic buttons and more, plus $50 million towards improving operating funds for safety grants, resources for counselors, and safety technology. For architects, the challenge ultimately becomes responding strategically in moments of tragedy and integrating these security features in a sustainable manner, so as not to undermine the overall purpose of schools: to educate and inspire for years to come.  
Safety in school design and in the built environment, generally speaking, is not new to the design world. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, or CPTED, was introduced as a balanced approach to security design in 1971 by C. Ray Jeffrey. CPTED focuses on reducing crime opportunities and promoting positive social behavior – it cannot, however, claim to change the motivation of perpetrators. CPTED has several principles that can be considered by schools that can increase safety and promote a more welcoming environment:  

  1. Natural Surveillance: Maximizing visibility by strategically placing certain physical elements, i.e., windows that can look out onto a school’s entrance.
  2. Access Management: Utilizing features such as landscaping, signage, and real or symbolic barriers to guide people and limit access to certain areas.
  3. Physical Maintenance and Territoriality: Improving a community’s sense of pride by maintaining the property’s beauty and operation, providing displays for student artwork, celebrating school colors, and so on.
A diagram labeled "2nd Generated CPTED" showing how CPTED principles interact.

The CPTED approach makes the point that the promotion of good behavior and a positive, welcoming environment are just as crucial as preventing crime and violence. They go hand-in-hand and ensure more sustainable solutions to school design. The opposite, fortified schools with no regard to aesthetics, could result in having devastating effects on students’ success, academic outcomes, overall well-being and recognized self-worth. What would our schools look and feel like if they became overly hardened, with high-fenced barriers, barred windows, metal detectors, and less windows?

A Personal Journey

As a school designer, marrying aesthetics with safety has been both a professional and personal endeavor for me.

A photo of students gathered on the Virginia Tech campus.

On April 16, 2007, I experienced my first mass shooting at Virginia Tech University as a young 20-year-old architecture student. I lost a good friend that day, Reema Samaha, a talented dancer with whom I became close through dance practices that we both led as choreographers for a university dance troupe. April 15, 2007, the night prior, was our troupe’s big debut – and the last time Reema’s parents would ever see their daughter shine. Now, 11 years later, I can still recall the trauma of that day, the hours of searching for Reema, and the shocking news of Reema’s tragic death.  
Fast forward to 2013, I had become a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in their Masters of Science in Architecture Program. Exactly six years after the VT shootings, on April 18, 2013, I found myself once again eagerly waiting for cell phone updates from the university after the Boston Marathon bombers took our community hostage. Later that night we heard about MIT campus police officer, Sean Collier, who lost his life by gunshot in his squad car.

A rendering of a stone memorial on a plaza.

As an architecture student, I could not understand at that time how deeply these violent moments would impact me and my career. I became drawn to school design and schools as places that house the most vulnerable members of our society: children. I focused my master’s thesis on schools in conflict zones – assessing the most extreme cases – where schools are literally situated on the front lines of war.  Many of the schools I documented were often considered safe zones – just the very act of traveling to and from school was heroic and many children were left handicapped after a shooting, bombing, or some catastrophic event. And yet, they pushed on.  
School grounds were wrapped in high concrete walls and the only entry points were guarded by military or police officials, sometimes with weapons. At the beginning of the day, a large gate was opened and young children ushered in, ready for the day in their matching uniforms, fully aware that their circumstances were unfair. The buildings were made of heavy limestone pierced with barred window openings, one per classroom. Rooms were bare, colorless, without technology, and lacked stimulation for students. One school principal lamented that the physical barriers and layers of security were also mental barriers – students could not imagine their own futures beyond the high concrete walls that kept them contained. Fences not only kept the bad out, but they also filtered all that is good.

A photo of a building surrounded by a high masonry wall.

These words still echo in my mind today, especially as I am confronted with schools in urban Washington, D.C., where school is an escape for many youth struggling with issues beyond school grounds. Much like the schools I visited abroad, schools are no longer just places for learning; they are places for survival. This survivalist mode is extremely exhausting for a child and is not the trend we want to take our nation and school designs in America. A school building cannot eliminate violence, but it can promote ideas about our society’s impressions of our children, what kids deserve, and what is a dignified environment for learning. My research was eye opening and I discovered that children, their teachers, and families are extremely resilient. Despite the conflict and daily fear, education and learning become both an escape and a sort of hope.

Coming up:

Insight Series – Part II: Case Study of Marie H. Reed Community Center