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A Student-Centered Approach to School Security

by: Andy Miller, AIA, CPTED, Project Executive at Fanning Howey
Branding creates a sense of belonging at Columbia City High School, Columbia City, Indiana.
Branding creates a sense of belonging at Columbia City High School, Columbia City, Indiana.
Glass enhances visual control at West Point Elementary School.
Glass enhances visual control at West Point Elementary School.
A secure entry vestibule controls visitor access at Nathanial Jones Early Learning Center.
A secure entry vestibule controls visitor access at Nathanial Jones Early Learning Center.
Andy Miller
Andy Miller
The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has once again brought the issue of school security into the national conversation. Each time a tragedy like this occurs, the dialogue inevitably turns to the idea of "hardening" our schools.

While active security strategies have their place, the Fanning Howey team passionately believes that we cannot turn our schools into prisons in the name of student safety. Instead, we must look for smarter solutions that focus on students’ welfare and seek to remedy some of the root causes of these horrific incidents.

Investing in Culture and Community
During the design of the new Columbia City High School in Columbia City, Indiana, our team at Fanning Howey was fortunate to collaborate with Michael Dorn, a school security expert. Dorn is the Executive Director of Safe Havens International and has overseen security assessments for more than 8,300 K-12 schools globally.

During the initial planning discussions for the project, Dorn shared that a healthy school climate and culture are most important in violence reduction and increased school security. While design strategies such as secure entry vestibules are essential, most security-related incidents involve in-school activities, such as bullying. Creating an atmosphere where every student feels valued and engaged will do more to curb security issues than any number of surveillance cameras.

As a result, the design of Columbia City High School focused on celebrating the school's rich history and culture. You cannot go anywhere in the building without seeing the school's logo or encountering a mural or interactive display sharing the history of the educational community. The building's many collaborative spaces also encourage students to connect and get to know one another. While the high school does contain many advanced security measures, it still looks and feels like a school.

Incorporating CPTED Principles
While school designs should focus on improving education, we must also help our clients prepare for the potential of an external security threat. In this area, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. At Fanning Howey, we employ the precepts of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). The foundation of CPTED is to discourage potential attacks by controlling access to the site and building and providing the ability to visually observe all occupied areas.

The concept of CPTED starts with concentric rings of access to the site, with vehicles designated to the outer zones while allowing people to access activity areas and the building itself. In the next ring, we design controlled access zones within the buildings for students, staff, and any approved visitors.

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Entrances to a school should be funneled to as few carefully monitored access points as possible, while leaving multiple emergency exits in the event of an incident. “One way in, many ways out” is the philosophy.

Active electronic systems provide further control to access points, such as security doors only opened by school staff members or security.

The innermost portions of the school are the most secure onsite, allowing students and teachers who can't flee outside to shelter in place, providing more time for first responders to apprehend the attacker.

Visual observation is the other key. Video cameras are deployed everywhere, with clear lines of sight to observe virtually everyone inside and outside the facility.

The school's exterior also plays a role in the design. For example, omitting large structures and only low-lying vegetation permitted next to the exterior walls and properly placed and secured windows makes it harder for a trespasser to approach in stealth.

Balancing Active and Passive Security
A school's design should incorporate a marriage between passive and active security strategies. Passive design refers to strategies built into the school, such as limited entrances and building zoning, while active design implements technologies such as security doors, distress buttons that can initiate a lockdown sequence, video cameras, and specialized wireless networks that allow first responders to communicate unimpeded amongst themselves and with onsite staff during a lockdown.
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It is impossible to understate the need for a safe and secure environment for students and educators. Schools should be a safe haven for learning and nurturing growth. To avoid a bunker mentality, discussion of safety and security strategies must happen as early as possible during the design of a new school or the renovation of an existing one.

With the right security measures, operational protocol, and specialized design, we can retain the joy of learning that should be at the center of every school while providing strong protection against those who seek to harm our most precious commodity.

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