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After Sandy Hook, Must Our Schools Look Like Stockades?

A year after the Newtown school massacre, architects assure us that safe schools don't have to look and feel like bunkers. But they also note that facilities can only go so far in providing security in a violent world.
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Police arrive in front of Sandy Hook after the shooting. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Police arrive in front of Sandy Hook after the shooting. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Last year on December 14, I felt compelled to collect my daughter earlier than usual from her kindergarten here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I encountered a number of other distraught parents driven by a similar impulse. Earlier that day and 1,800 miles away, an armed intruder gunned down 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut—the deadliest K-12 school shooting in U.S. history.

Because the intruder used a gun to shoot through tempered glass at the school entrance to gain access, many school districts and facility designers instantly began focusing their attention on using stronger glass or supplementing existing windows. Meanwhile, the Newtown school board quickly requested police officers at all of its elementary schools. Since that terrible morning, more than 450 legislative bills related to school safety have been filed across the country, including proposals to arm teachers—an appalling thought for the majority of Americans.

No doubt, school environments will be changing, and how safety concerns manifest themselves raises a disturbing question: Are our children’s schools destined to look and feel increasingly like correctional facilities?

According to Peter Calthorpe, a Berkeley, California-based architect and founding member of the Congress for New Urbanism, the answer is no. He assured me that “good design can make schools safer without compromising the aesthetics of a pleasant learning atmosphere for kids.”

The original building at New York's Somers High School had been expanded several times and lacked an identifiable, secure front entrance. New additions included a highly visible entry corridor and main office suite. (PHOTO: DAVID LAMB PHOTOGRAPHY)


For Calthorpe, the primary concern related to safety begins with building type. “It’s not as if there weren’t always bad guys and that public safety is a new concern,” he said. “But with the advent of modernist architecture, buildings started to lose capacity to define public space. As a result, inferior solutions for securing a place, like fencing, emerge after the fact. Traditional courtyard buildings, on the other hand, such as those popular in most traditional cities, make a clear distinction between the street and the shared private space within.”

He is putting his ideas into practice with the relocation and expansion of Vincent Academy, a charter school that currently serves 135 elementary school students from kindergarten through third grade in a small building in West Oakland. The violence-prone area is vastly different from the affluent bedroom community of Newtown, Connecticut. In fact, with the Vincent Academy project, the architect’s surveyors were mugged while examining the new site for the school. The school’s move will enable it to expand to serve some 350 students through fifth grade as well as to partner with BRIDGE Housing in combining quality education, affordable housing, and support services for both residents and families of students. The project, Calthorpe hopes, will create an anchor for revitalization.

Among other safety aspects, the future Vincent Academy, expected to be open for the 2015-16 school year, will feature two buildings with controlled access to the campus between them; a reception area at the main entrance overlooking much of the play yard; landscaping with low bushes and shrubs that won’t furnish enough cover as a place to hide; and an eight-foot fence made of open pickets and solid panels that will allow some privacy yet still enable emergency responders to view the site.

If students from Vincent Academy go on to enter the public school system, they will not be expected to pass through metal detectors each morning; the Oakland Unified School District does not use them.

“The use of metal detectors, ‘wanding,’ and random bag checks in public schools is justifiably contested for the messages they send students,” said Paul Timm of RETA Security, an independent firm based outside of Chicago that has been consulting schools on safety matters for decades. “While it is true there’s more violence on a regular basis in urban areas simply because of the sheer population density, violent crimes mostly take place off of school grounds. Other school safety measures, like electronic access systems, are more universally efficient at creating a safer school environment. But their value is determined by the people operating them.”

Regardless of building type, or demographics, a number of universal changes can be expected in school design and operation. “Schools are being designed with more perimeter control, where there’s only one way in and one way out, often with personnel there or a locked vestibule to enable the school to ensure that the person there is supposed to be there,” said Russell Davidson, president of Mount Kisco, New York-based KG&D Architects, which has been specializing in educational facility design for more than 70 years. Davidson noted a number of other important safety features likely to become more common in schools: security cameras, fencing around courtyards, classroom doors that can be locked from the inside, two-way communication systems in classes, and corridors that can be locked down in sections.

City planner Oscar Newman’s 1972 classic Defensible Space outlines a design theory for the creation of safer neighborhoods. Among other factors, Newman posited that a place’s security is closely linked to its inhabitants’ ability to see what’s going on around them.

Four decades later, the premise was called into question immediately following Sandy Hook. “After Newtown, a lot of talk centered around the glass on classroom doors, that perhaps the windows should be covered so intruders can’t see in at all,” said Davidson. “But that notion was quickly reconsidered given the value of being able to see what’s going on from within. Visibility is closely tied to security; if people can be seen, they tend to behave better. Though, it’s still very important to have a significant ‘blind space’ for students in classrooms to be able to obscure themselves when necessary.”

The Post Road Elementary School in White Plains, New York, incorporates security systems for access control and visitor management that built upon visibility, monitoring, and communications. (PHOTO: DAVID LAMB PHOTOGRAPHY)


Perimeter control, however, should be a first priority in thwarting the unthinkable, said Davidson. And with new construction, he added, “campus-style schools, with separate buildings for different departments, are likely to become less common, since it’s easier to maintain perimeter control with a single building.”

Jim Graham, principal architect at Schenectady, New York-based Synthesis LLP, agreed. “Modern schools are inherently sprawling and require many access points, which are often the cause of well-intentioned individuals roaming the school property looking for the right way in,” he said. “Ultimately, this results in a culture of ambivalence toward individuals walking the site. Who hasn’t been let into a building by the kind staff person or student when knocking at a side door?”

Graham’s firm, which has been practicing in the K-12 market for more than 15 years, is focused on creating more compact layouts that reduce perimeter areas and access points while promoting clear, efficient interior circulation. Especially when developed with traffic safety improvements, Graham said these elements can collectively produce a more controllable and defined main entry. Additionally, site layout and planned landscaping that optimizes visibility will help enhance passive security—an important tenet of Newman’s Defensible Space theory—so that individuals approaching the building anywhere other than through the main entry are more noticeable.

“But other steps must also be taken,” Griffin said. “Most schools have or are currently retrofitting entry vestibules with security cameras and access controls. These vary greatly, and their success is dependent in many ways on individual operators. A balance of passive security planning and implementation of local control components is necessary to establish the foundation of a secure campus or building.”

Complicating the issue, of course, is that security concerns must also address the prospective dangers associated with the very people who belong on campus. “Often these shootings are perpetrated by students, most often those who are marginalized, bullied, or falling through the cracks unnoticed,” said Alan Ford, a Colorado architect and president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Council of Educational Facility Planners. Architecture can only go so far in addressing these wider concerns.

Colorado, at least, has had the benefit of progressive legislation after the hard lessons learned in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and subsequent tragedies. After an incident in 2006, when an armed intruder entered Platte Canyon High School, held several girls hostage for hours, sexually assaulted them, and shot one to death before killing himself, Senator Tom Wiens introduced a bill that set the framework for state-wide enhanced school safety. That bill was followed by legislation addressing anti-bullying measures, emergency communication and education, and grant writing support for providing school resource officers.

School safety resources


American Clearinghouse on Educational Facilitie

s provides several safe building design resources, including an extensive checklist of potential vulnerabilities and hazards (

PDF here

) and an

evolving database of article on safe design


The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities offers a similar set of services, including an

online checklist



on topics ranging from

door-locking options


dealing with wildfires


The Federal Emergency Management Agency publishes detailed guidelines for designing safe school buildings, in cases of both

natural disasters


violent incidents


The organization

School Safety Partners

, while focused on finding funding for facilities, also aggregates current news on school security issues and creates its own material addressing the legislative, training, compliance, funding, and public awareness sides of the issue.

In 2010, Ford organized the International School Safety Convention, which brought together architects, facility planners, first responders, lawmakers, state education leaders, superintendents, grant writers, and others to address “next-generation” school safety concerns and priorities. Among them, he said “it’s important for schools to be more actively involved in the undercurrent of student culture. Some police districts are even training school resource officers to become more present at schools, not simply as armed security guards but as extra eyes to observe the nuances of student life.”

If that thought sounds slightly Orwellian, Ford offered a broader perspective to frame the issue in terms that preclude personnel considerations or even facility design: “There are so many complex aspects that must be examined: social, socio-economic, cultural, psychological. And then, there’s the school itself!”

As far as addressing safety at the school itself goes, experts like Ford all agree. “You just can’t completely plan around armed intrusions, so it’s important to implement measures that provide a coordinated response and that slow prospective intrusions,” Ford said.

Carl Thurnau, facilities director for the New York State Education Department, echoed Ford’s statement: “You can’t predict every scenario, but what you can do is buy time in the event of an emergency.”

To that end, Thurnau noted that New York boasts a generous building aid program for schools in the state. (This is on top of the 10 percent additional funding for electronic security and “door hardening” enhancements provided through the auspices of the NY SAFE Act, a gun control law that was passed a month after Sandy Hook. An active repeal effort now targets the act.) “There is room to work with,” he said. “So making it harder for an intruder to gain access to a classroom is really important. Doors can be made stronger; film can be adhered to windows to make the glass shatterproof and less penetrable.”

Like several architects and designers, Thurnau said that addressing safety concerns will likely come with some nominal inconvenience to students, staff, and parents. “Yes, it may take a little more time getting in and out of schools, but it’s not unlike what we all had to go through with airport security 10 years ago,” he said.

Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between the challenges of school safety and homeland security. But one of the singularly disconcerting things about school shootings like Sandy Hook, which make any parent shudder, is the notion that the enemy may be something of our own cultural making—and will require more than the many enhanced security measures that are to become standardized.

Last month, Sandy Hook Elementary School was demolished. A new school is expected to open on the same site in 2016.

In the meantime, Thurnau said he believes, as do Peter Calthorpe and the other architects I interviewed, that good design can create safer schools without making them into austere, prison-like environments. And he is uniquely qualified to know: Thurnau, who oversees building activity for hundreds of schools in the state of New York, began his career in the construction of correctional facilities. “We are making outstanding and beautiful facilities,” he said. “And I’ve always felt that if we build better schools, we won’t have to build as many prisons.”