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Designing Schools as a Deterrent for Mass Shooters

March 5, 2018

Since the massacre at Columbine in 1999, Americans have asked what can be done about school shootings. Julie McFadden, AIA, associate principal at Svigals+Partners who designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Sean Ahrens, security expert with Affiliated Engineering Incorporated, provide simple ways in which interior designers can create safer spaces.

It’s an unfortunate reality that those who design public spaces—particularly schools—have to take into consideration the possibility of a violent attack. The recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting which claimed the lives of 17 people on February 14, 2018, once again reminded the nation of the terrifying reality that mass murders on school grounds continue.

The good news is that studies show that schools as a whole are safer than they were two decades ago. However, this doesn’t mean that designers in the education sectors nor school administration should consider mass shootings as something that could never happen where they work or live. Sean Ahrens, security market group leader for Affiliated Engineering Incorporated (AEI), said, “Regrettably, in this day and age, [those who don’t think it could happen to them] are the weakest neighbors. When you think of an aggressor, [they think in] the path of least resistance. Are they going to go to the most hardened facility, or are they going to go to the facility that’s easiest to get into?”

Interior designers are often well versed in the ways in which the spaces they create are not only aesthetically appealing but also operationally beneficial to the end user. Whether designing a school from scratch or redesigning an existing facility, what can interior designers and architects do to create safer environments that are equipped for the unimaginable?

i+s interviewed both Ahrens and Julia McFadden, AIA—associate principal at Svigals + Partners who recently designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.—to get their advice on how to use design and technology to create safer schools.

Designing Secure Schools

For the purpose of this article, it should be noted that the aggressor is an individual whose objective it is to kill as many people as possible with disregard to whom the victims are rather than someone who goes to the school with an intended victim in mind. While both are certainly possible—the latter more so than the former—and some tips can be useful for any sort of aggression, there are many different sociological and behavioral aspects to consider when discussing the two types of school shootings.

Bring in an expert early in the process.

It’s not always possible or in the budget, but both Ahrens and McFadden suggest bringing in a security consultant before planning gets underway. Security experts can help the team to evaluate how to distribute assets and budgets to create a safer environment from the get-go rather than try to fill in any shortcomings after the fact. Ahrens explained that oftentimes when he gets involved, the design is already completed, leading to less cost-efficient safety solutions.

McFadden explained, “Working with [security] experts can help architects and interior designers plan for cost-effective and creative solutions that not only make schools safer but also create a nurturing, inspirational school environment. That’s always the main goal for K-12 and university settings.”

Think like the bad guy.

It’s uncomfortable, but thinking like a school shooter can help determine areas that need more security, Ahrens said. “Put yourself in the mind of an aggressor and identify how you would circumvent the architectural program that you’ve put in place.”

Consider if you were anxious with adrenaline while trying to get to as many people at once as you could. What path would you take? Are there things in the way that would slow you down, like a planter or an obvious door-lock system? Are there easily accessible secondary entrances that would be easier to approach than the front door?

The easiest way to stop school shooters isn’t necessarily adding metal detectors and visible video cameras. Putting yourself into a shooter’s shoes can help determine where slight tweaks and details, like a handrail, can be installed without students realizing it’s a safety mechanism.

Create a welcoming vestibule to deter shooters.

“You want to have layers between someone who may be coming to the school with ill intent and the vulnerable population,” McFadden said. “The more opportunities or barriers gives you more time to react and determine there is ill intent before they reach the target.”

Both McFadden and Ahrens suggest doing this by adding a welcome vestibule where a majority of the school traffic enters and exits. One main area where visitors and students can be easily assessed not only makes it easier to ascertain any suspects but also deters violence in the first place,as shooters are more likely to give up if they think they won’t be successful. “Any level of delay is going to be a deterrent factor,” Ahrens added.

Be aware of the sight lines.

McFadden noted that while this is difficult for urban schools, those in neighborhoods that are more rural are able to create sightlines from the moment someone enters the property.

By clearing any obstructions that may hinder sightlines and elongating the driveway to the parking lot, then planning the parking lot a distance from the entrance, more time is available to have several people watch someone who is approaching.

At the new Sandy Hook Elementary, there are various steps that have to be taken prior to gaining access to the building, including cars having to be buzzed in from the front office. The main goal is to increase the layers and space between when someone arrives and enters the building to give security and administration more time to ascertain if there’s a threat.

Once on the grounds, however, it’s still important for sightlines to be reviewed: both to ensure that the suspect can be seen by others and to provide spaces in which the shooter is unable to see their intended victims.

Ahrens noted that when in a frenzied state, the shooter will be looking for simple targets, meaning they are less likely to try to get into a classroom if they think it is empty. “If nobody is in there, it’s taking away valuable time, so he’s going to go where he can see people,” he explained. “He may look into windows. Make sure that when you design these rooms there are areas that are obscured, like where all of the kids could huddle in a corner, and they would be outside the sightline of the aggressor.”

If it isn’t possible to redesign where windows are located, products like movable whiteboards and tables can provide shields for people to hide behind.

Reinforce walls with everyday items.

One of the simplest methods of designing classrooms for safety is something teachers have likely been doing for decades: adding to the perimeter. “The walls of schools today are just drywall,” Ahrens noted. “They offer zero protection. With K-12, I’ve submitted to designers, ‘I know you can’t rework the room, but let’s put all the shoe and cubby holes over here. Let’s put some really heavy wood planking behind [the bookshelf]. It’s not necessarily a ballistic-rated wall, but adding materials can basically reduce the ability for the round to make ingress into the room.” This works for white and blackboards along walls as well, Ahrens said. 

Embrace emerging technologies.

it’s a well-known fact that design technologies have been advancing quickly and that goes for school safety products as well, which can often be installed without students even realizing they’re there. “Retrofit situations may call for applied window films or improved glazing,” McFadden said. “Interior partitions and some furnishing may also improve the school’s readiness in emergency situations.”

There are also minor upgrades to doors and hardware that can deter a school shooter. These additions should be discussed with a security consultant and/or the door manufacturer.

Of course, there’s technology like video cameras, intercoms, and doors that can be locked by a secure location. However, these are all devices that help contain the situation rather than the safety plan in and of themselves.

The subject of designing schools to be safer in case of a mass shooter is a heavy one—one that is uncomfortable to discuss and even more uncomfortable to truly prepare for. But it’s important that designers and school officials seek out ways to create safer environments for children, educators, and support staff.

McFadden concluded, “It’s very challenging for schools to marshal the resources for a major upgrade, so we need more creativity in ways to protect children while also creating a nurturing, inspirational school environment. There is no Band-Aid product that will create safer spaces. It is true that designers and schools do not have the ability to assess the security shortcomings and it is, therefore, imperative to get a security consultant involved. Many upgrades are not cost-prohibitive but simply need to be discussed and coordinated.”

More to Read:

On the Horizon: Sandy Hook Elementary

About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.

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