Violence in the nation’s schools is a harsh reality. According to a Washington Post report published in March 2018, between 1999 (Columbine) and 2018, more than 187,000 students across 193 primary or secondary institutions experienced a shooting on school campus—during school hours, nonetheless. Meanwhile, a study produced by the Department of Homeland Security shows that generally speaking, Americans feel that schools are the one place kids should feel eminently safe—in some cases even more so than in their own homes. For decades now, architects have done their part to meet those expectations through designs that key in on safety and security. And they have done so partly by leaning on the principals of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).
The concept of environmental design as a preemptive safety measure is far from new and spans beyond criminology. For example, some experts point to a time in the 1850s, when a London-based medical doctor removed the pump handle from a contaminated well, halting a deadly cholera outbreak. But when it comes to crime prevention, research starting in the 1960s laid the groundwork for the involvement of architects—including studies funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development examining the differences between opposing complexes, some of which thrived, others of which never exceeded 60 percent occupancy. That is when criminologists began dissecting designs, pinning down the structural and environmental characteristics associated with crime.
Today, CPTED goes so far as anticipating the thought processes of potential offenders amid design processes, in order to create environments in which they feel discouraged from follow-through. And though this practice has been part of school design for decades, Jim Henderson, operations manager for Moseley Architects’ office in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and a managing principal for K-12 projects across Virginia and Maryland suggests it was Columbine that helped to boost those efforts.
“There were incidents in schools before that, but that was the one that got people’s attention and really got everyone thinking a lot more about these concepts,” Henderson suggests, who was then seven years into his career as an architect.
Despite our best collective efforts, however, Henderson points out that these incidents continue to occur on a much too regular basis, reminding us, he says, that there is more work to be done. In February 2018, 17 people were fatally shot and 17 more injured at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At Santa Fe High School in Texas, 10 more were killed that following May. And for this reason, Henderson and other architects at Moseley Architects say—with hard evidence pointing to CPTED’s effectiveness—the concept is more than just a set of checkboxes; it is a guttural urge and a moral responsibility that fuels their creativity.
“I have a young son. He’s in the first grade,” reflects Ashley Dennis, AIA, operations manager for Moseley Architects’ North Carolina-based studios and managing principal for K-12 projects. “It hits close to home when we discuss this topic at conferences because it’s heart-wrenching. As a designer, you want to do the best you can for any and everybody—for every district, every school and every group of students, teachers, and parents.”
No One Formula is Best
At a basic level, CPTED calls on four principles: natural surveillance (on the premise that criminals do not like being seen or recognized), natural access control (denying a sense of control through marked approaches), territorial reinforcement (clear distinctions between public and private spaces) and maintenance (on the premise that well-maintained structures show that people care about what happens inside). Over the years, however, evidence-based research has resulted in countless other concepts—including the culmination of individual ideas by various architects. As a result, “We’ve got a lot of institutional knowledge, just from the volume of schools that we’ve done,” Henderson says. But he and Dennis both warn that, in their opinions, CPTED should never include a formulaic approach, but rather applied during the creative process, based on the uniqueness of the project.
“Not every site is the same, nor is every district,” Dennis remarks. “We really approach this on a school-by-school basis to avoid cookie-cutter designs.”
In most cases, that process starts with a fresh take on the perimeter, Henderson says, where fencing is incorporated, along with appropriate levels of lighting and clearly visible entry systems. Beyond those fences, roofs are made extremely difficult to access and electronic door locks prevent entry by unauthorized individuals. However, research shows that most school shooters include students, faculty or staff—all of whom have access. For this reason, architects are pressed to also consider what happens on the inside, after those individuals have gained entry.
“Instead of just thinking of the building perimeter, like the front door and other access points, and systems for centralized lockdown, we’re also creating things like clusters of classrooms, where we can generate sub-perimeters and partitions,” Henderson says. “For instance, you may hit a panic button to close doors and lock off one section, which might include four classrooms around one open area.”
Inside those individual classrooms, Henderson says their designs often incorporate small sections of wall to partition off views from doorways.
“Sometimes you might not have time to, or want to, go to the door to pull down a shade, or close blinds, especially if an intruder is right outside,” he advises. He also says that studies show criminals are apt to skip over classrooms they cannot see into. By designing classrooms around that fact, he says teachers can then be trained to move students to a part of the classroom that is obstructed from windows and doors, where an active shooter cannot see without gaining interior access. Therein lies what Henderson and Dennis both suggest is an added layer for CPTED, and one they feel is most important: training occupants to understand the designed environment.
According to information published by the American Institute of Architects, 70 percent of schools run active-shooter drills, but Henderson and Dennis suggest that training must go deeper than that.
“When we’re designing new schools, additions or renovations, ensuring that we’re educating teachers, administration and staff is such an important part of the process,” Dennis says. “You’ve got to help them understand how buildings are designed to be secured—things like points of entry and security. But it’s also about being educated to know what you should expect—like what they should see and not see at various times in various locations throughout the day, as well as when to say something.”
Part of that process, Dennis says, includes helping school personnel and administrators to understand how and why Moseley Architects arrived at a design. “That way it isn’t just a last-ditch effort of reactionary lockdowns,” she continues. “It’s everything leading up to those moments that may help prevent future incidents.”
That component is what some experts call the organizational aspects of CPTED, which, “… includes how we incorporate management strategies, operational strategies, and people-based strategies,” says Randy Atlas, Ph.D., FAIA, CPP, president of Atlas Safety and Security Design Inc. in Ft. Lauderdale. That extends to emergency personnel outside of the building, Henderson adds. For instance, he says that architects will sometimes develop numbered systems for access points, then provide local responders with maps, which school administrators can then use to communicate for strategy.
“We can place these big, three-foot numbers right next to all of the entrances,” he says. “They have the school plans and can call them up when they’re approaching a building.”
Henderson and Dennis both warn that there’s a point at which architects have to begin dialing back security, for the sake of avoiding schools that feel like prisons.
“We do have a moral obligation to make these schools as safe as possible,” Henderson says. “But, as educational designers, we also have a real obligation to make them the best learning environments they can be. That remains our first objective.”
To his point, a 2010 study found negative correlations between the presence of metal detectors and students’ sense of safety. And some experts suggest that, in its earliest days, those sorts of unintended consequences plagued CPTED. But when approached from the right angle, the Centers for Disease Control also suggests the right elements also can bear out opposite effects—including benefits like the perception of warmer and more welcoming environments, improved physical and social order, and a sense of ownership among students. That’s a concept that John Edmund, Moseley Architects’ security systems specialist, says he considers when advising the firm’s design teams.
“We’ve got to find that middle ground,” he offers. “And that makes it kind of tricky. You want to give students the best security possible, but you also can’t turn each school into Fort Knox. I don’t want it looking that way for students.”
Instead, Edmund suggests that there are plenty of ways to get better results out of fewer components. For instance, he suggests that in lieu of bullet-shaped (directional) cameras, dome-style cameras be used instead.
“Sometimes you’re limited, so you want to do the most that you can,” he continues. “A single, dome-shaped camera with a smoked lens might help to deter more than one camera pointing at a door, where they know that’s the only place they’ve got to worry about being seen.” And that, he suggests, has fewer psychological impacts on students (than an abundance of cameras). Plus, “When the budget doesn’t allow for cameras everywhere, I’d rather have one that makes you think it could be looking anywhere,” he adds.
An Artificial Sweetener
As far as the future of CPTED is concerned, it will no doubt include more creativity, but it may also include artificial intelligence, Edmund suggests. For instance, he says already there are artificially-intelligent cameras, programmed to detect when individuals are in areas they should not be. And those cameras, he says, could be where some of the next advancements come for CPTED, via artificial intelligence.
“For years, cameras have activated on motion, but now you can actually program some systems with if/then commands, like, ‘If you see something that looks like a person in this area, send an alarm,’” he says. These features, he suggests, are akin to the Automatic Driver Assist Systems now found on vehicles, which are designed to intercede in certain events (like when drivers fail to notice a stopped vehicle, for instance). Those systems have grown intelligent enough to distinguish specific objects. In security, he says, that might mean being able to spot firearms.
“I’ve not seen that yet in real life,” Henderson adds. “But I think that if there’s anything we can do to make our administrators and school personnel focus on their jobs, versus focusing on security, that would be awesome.” As you know, he says, “With technology, just wait a couple of months and it might be here.”
While security will remain at the forefront of design, school districts have a tall task of properly preparing students for the future. Our role as educational architects is designing solutions that are responsive to those needs while creating safe learning environments that support and welcome children.
For more information about Moseley Architects’ educational projects, click here.