Design Plays Limited Role in Improving School Safety

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, some states are pumping money into school safety improvements. But there are few options for change.
by | January 14, 2013

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, there has been an insatiable desire to do something. Vice President Joe Biden has led a task force to strengthen the nation’s gun control policies. Governors across the country have pledged to reform their mental health care systems. And now policymakers are calling for school safety improvements, the last line of defense, so that if a mentally unstable person obtains a firearm and comes to a school with deadly intentions, perhaps the school’s design and protocols can limit the damage and maybe prevent 20 young children from being murdered by a madman.

There are obvious steps to take. Locate schools in place where it’s easy for staff to survey the surrounding area, so they can assess a potential threat before the person ever reaches the school building itself. Limit access points, so that all visitors are funneled through one door to come inside the building. Insulate the students by positioning administrative offices and a safety desk near that access point, increasing the likelihood that, if a shooter does get inside the building, the teachers and students deeper within can be warned and barricade their classrooms before the assailant reaches them.

All are worthy steps toward protecting children’s safety. But the uncomfortable truth is that many of these precautions had been taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School before and on Dec. 14. According to reconstructions of the shootings published in the media, Adam Lanza had to shoot his way through the locked school doors after being denied entry. He first encountered the administrative offices, and the school’s principal and psychologist were among his first victims. But he still found his way to the classrooms further inside and gunned down 26 teachers and students before authorities arrived to stop the bloodshed.

One top education policymaker, who asked not to be named to discuss a sensitive subject candidly, tells Governing that uniform school safety or design policy changes are unlikely, even after Newtown. The fact of the matter is, the person said, Sandy Hook had good lockdown procedures. That didn’t stop the events of last month.

“If somebody wants to do this, they will,” the policymaker said. “It’s our culture that’s going to have to change.”

Another complication is that some of the best safety protocols -- limiting access points and buffering between entries and the student population -- are already well known, says Mary Filardo, executive director at 21st Century Schools, an advocacy group. One new idea that might be floated is controlling access not just to the school building, but the school grounds, either through fencing or increased surveillance. But options are limited, Filardo says, plus: “You don’t want to design a school for these kinds of events. That’s bad practice.” Between 1989 and 2009, there were 41 school shootings and 75 deaths, according to a federal report on school design and safety. That's an average of two incidents a year across a country with nearly 100,000 public schools.

“It's a natural thing to try to figure out how to re-engineer and redesign in response to horrendous tragedies,” she says. “The thing that's tricky is it's hard to have an economical response to something that's so random and unpredictable. You’re building for such a rare event.”

But that doesn’t mean that efforts can’t be made. State officials in Maryland and Wisconsin have already promised to pump more money into school safety improvements as the 2013 state legislative sessions get underway.

In Wisconsin, State Sen. John Lehman has proposed reinstating a budget mechanism that allows schools to raise revenue to pay for school safety improvements. The provision allowed Wisconsin schools to increase local property taxes to raise up to $100 per student (or $40,000, whichever was greater) to pay for improvements like security officers, video cameras, fencing or new door locks. But Gov. Scott Walker and the legislature decided last year to eliminate the policy, which cost state taxpayers $86 million in 2009.

The proposal has already garnered some bipartisan support, says Lehman, a Democrat, which it would need to pass a Republican legislature and be signed by a Republican governor. Wisconsin schools are already required to draft a safety plan, he adds, and the shootings in Connecticut last month might be enough of a catalyst to muster the political will for a bill that would technically increase taxes.

“You have to remember that the folks who pulled this out are still in control,” Lehman says. "But I'm hopeful about it. I would hope that we can get a reexamination of this issue.”

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced this week that he would set aside $25 million for school safety improvements in his proposed budget. That money could pay for schools to upgrade their locks as well as their digital safety infrastructure, O’Malley’s press secretary, Takirra Winfield, tells Governing. At Maryland schools, guests have to sign in at the front office and present their driver’s license, which is then swiped by the school’s staff and scanned for any red flags.

The legislation will be formally introduced on Friday. The governor’s office expects healthy support for the proposal, particularly in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.

"There is definitely a new urgency after not just Newtown, but Colorado and all the tragedies that we've had,” Winfield says. “The governor has a longstanding commitment to public safety. It's always been a No. 1 priority for him. This is something that we'd already started talking about, but now there is a mindset of: ‘Okay, let's get this done.’”

As state officials debate whether to put money toward school safety improvements, there is a growing consensus on best practices. The examples at the beginning of this story were taken from a report issued in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a primer to design safe schools in the event of a terrorist attack or mass shooting.

One problem, though, is that schools are typically built to be used for decades upon decades. Over the years, the standard design of schools has changed: from the one-story schoolhouses of the early 1900’s to the multi-story classic school buildings of the 1950’s to the multi-building campuses of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Each presents its own safety challenges, but the underlying issue remains the same: most school buildings in use in the United States have already been built. So the kinds of improvements to be made are limited, though the security measures that could be funded by the Maryland and Wisconsin proposals are considered worthwhile steps.

And to complicate matters further, some design techniques that might encourage safety could inhibit learning. For example, fewer windows would presumably limit a shooter’s ability to access a school, but research strongly suggests that students learn better when they have more natural light and the ability to see outside.

“A bunker is a really safe place to be,” says 21st Century Schools’ Filardo. “Is a bunker a great place to go to school? No. It's a terrible place to go to school.”

In the end, the DHS officials came to the same conclusion as the education policymaker quoted above: “It is a painful, but nonetheless true fact, that once an attacker has entered a targeted school building with the intention of shooting someone, there is practically nothing, or very little, that can be done to avert the attack.”

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