American Schools Used to Be Gorgeous Public Buildings. Don't Turn Them Into Prisons.

CC BY 2.0. Wikipedia/ Grosse Pointe South High School, Michigan: too many trees, get rid of those shrubs

The NRA has some ideas to make schools safer. They are horrible.

School design is always a compromise between the functional and the aspirational; that's why for years, high schools were designed more like Ivy League university buildings, to enlighten and inspire. However, in recent years, other more functional priorites have taken over. After the most recent school shooting, the President said that “we have to harden our sites”; Mother Jones points to the National Rifle Association's study on how to harden schools, the Report of the National School Shield Task Force. It was developed after the Sandy Hook tragedy, as an answer to the question "What more can we do as a nation to improve the safety of our children at school?" Unfortunately, schools designed like this will not enlighten or inspire.

Report cover

© Report of the National School Shield Task Force

The posing of this question led to the assembly of a team of recognized experts in homeland security, law-enforcement training and school safety to conduct a survey of selected schools and their current security standards. This review has been conducted without any preconceived conclusions or mandate from the NRA except to determine what is needed to save young lives.

Abraham Maslow once said that "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" and the results of this study shouldn't surprise anyone, given that none of the members of the task force are teachers, educators, parents, doctors or parents; they are all from the military, secret service, police and the like. This review will only look at the architectural aspects of the report, the physical security measures. It's illustrated with examples of what not to do, selected from Architectural Design's article The Most Beautiful Public High School in Every State in America.

New Jersey: Columbia High School, Maplewood

Wikimedia/ New Jersey: Columbia High School, Maplewood: too close to road, impossible to fence, trees and shrubs/CC BY 2.0

Physical measures should by no means be the sole contributor to a school’s security system nor can any reasonable physical security measure in a school environment absolutely prevent an individual intent on violence from doing harm. However, the construction and design, add-ons, and other physical tools can significantly enhance a school’s security posture by both deterring potential offenders from taking action in the first place and, if they do take action, detect their presence and movement, delay their progress, limit their access, more quickly trigger a law enforcement response, and defend against their violent behavior

Virginia: John Handley High School, Winchester

Wikimedia/ Virginia: John Handley High School, Winchester: too many columns, arches and places to hide/CC BY 2.0

There are three main points that the report addresses:
Territoriality – expressing ownership and defining clear borders through the use and maintenance of buildings, fences, pavement, signs, and landscaping;
Natural surveillance – the physical ability to see what’s going on in and around your school, which can be either enhanced or obstructed depending on placement of physical features like walls, shrubs, vehicles, signs, locations of certain activities, and gatherings of people;
Access control - the ability to decide who gets in and out of your school, often through the judicial placement of entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping, and lighting.

To define territoriality, they want big honking fences that establish a secure perimeter.

schoolyard fence

final report/via

  • Install fencing that denies climbing holds as well as opportunities to bypass underneath;
  • Carefully choose materials for fences and landscaping that provide opportunities for natural surveillance and access control;
  • Use fencing material that clearly demonstrates territorial ownership;
  • Fencing should be free of any vegetation. Bushes, trees, containers, tanks, or any object that might provide a hiding place should be removed from the proximity of the fence. Eliminating places to hide can discourage a person from crawling under, climbing over, or cutting through the fence.

They suggest that in high risk schools, there may be the need for a guarded entrance to the fenced area. No playing after school in this yard!

Indiana: Shortridge High School, Indianapolis

Wikimedia/Indiana: Shortridge High School, Indianapolis: landscaping's gotta go/CC BY 2.0

Landscaping is also a problem.

  • Tall features of landscaping, such as trees, should be kept at sufficient distance from buildings so as to prevent roof and upper-level window access to school property;
  • Avoid dense vegetation close to buildings, as it may screen various forms of illicit activity;
  • Trim trees to permit cross-campus visibility;
  • Use landscaping elements to control access and define public, semipublic, semiprivate, and private areas;
  • Use landscape elements to protect sensitive operations, gathering areas, and other activities from surveillance without creating concealment for covert activity;
  • Use thorn-bearing and sharp-leaved plant species to create natural physical barriers to deter aggressors, keeping in mind they may also impede emergency egress.

Inside the school, there should be "a layered approach to security" with double doors and full supervision, essentially an entrapment area like you see at high-end jewelry stores.

To control access and limit intrusion, visitors should be guided to a single control point and required to pass directly through to administration reception areas when entering or leaving the school. The combination of a main entry with a carefully located and constantly staffed administrative area can enhance the supervision of school entries, stairs, and hallways without the need for an additional assigned monitor.
school entry

Report of the National School Shield Task Force/via

  • Position a primary control point in the lobby between the main entry and all other areas of school;
  • Direct visitors through this single control point at main entry;
  • Locate a staffed administration area or desk adjacent to main entry and connected to the lobby;
  • Design lobby areas that can be easily secured;
  • Utilize extensive interior glazing and windows in lobby area to encourage natural surveillance;
  • Provide an escape route from staffed administration reception area for emergency egress out of lobby area.
  • Colorado: East High School, Denver

    Wikimedia/ Colorado: East High School, Denver: Too many windows!/CC BY 2.0

    Windows are also a problem. They have to be protected and bulletproof, which is expensive, but they also have to be able to be used as a means exit. They have to be located "strategically to provide natural light and natural surveillance." However they shouldn't be too big; “Design windows, framing, and anchoring systems to minimize the effects of explosive blasts, gunfire, and forced entry."

    Several goals should be kept in mind when considering the topic of exterior windows in school design. Windows should be as resistant as possible to an assailant like an active shooter, and allow students and staff to monitor events outside the building as well as communicate with outside responders in an emergency situation. At the same time students and staff might need to use them as secondary escape routes in the case of an emergency like a fire.
    Tennessee: Montgomery Central High School, Cunningham

    Wikimedia/ Tennessee: Montgomery Central High School, Cunningham: Where do you put the cameras?/CC BY 2.0

    Of course, there have to be security cameras everywhere, locks on classroom doors and elaborate alarm systems. All of which costs a lot of money, which as Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones notes, schools are seriously short of these days. She also notes "outfitting an average school with ballistic glass, at $100 per square foot, would cost at least $1 million."

    Perhaps I am a romantic, but one thing I liked at school was going out into the yard and meeting friends in the shade of the big trees. I liked looking out the big windows when I was bored. It felt like a place of learning, an institution to be proud of and part of. It's sad that the NRA proposes turning them into what feel like prisons; surely there is an alternative.