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Why the most effective school designs go beyond safety and security

June 06, 2019

By Steve Jelinek

Educational facilities need more than a secure design—they need a productive and inspiring learning environment for all students

As an architect who specializes in education facilities, I was particularly interested in the Federal Commission on School Safety’s 2019 report detailing 93 best practices and policy recommendations for improving safety at schools across the country.  The report offers a holistic approach to improving school safety, ranging from supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of students to enhancing physical building security. It goes a long way to outline the overall strategies, but it left me wondering about the students’ perspective. How do students feel in their learning environments if safety/security is the No. 1 priority?

The report is organized into three categories: Prevent, Protect/Mitigate, and Respond/Recover. I agree with the findings that a comprehensive security plan must be a multipronged approach and is influenced by many factors. I can’t stress enough that it must also be started early. The report identifies a safety-planning process with the following steps:

  1. Identifying individuals to establish a strong security team (school leaders, teachers, parents, students, counselors, facilities management, public safety, and community leaders).
  2. Completing a security assessment.
  3. Developing and implementing appropriate plans for security and emergency operations.
How do students feel in their learning environments if safety/security is the No. 1 priority?

Key takeaways from the Commission’s report

A few of the key takeaways for me were:

  • Respecting the school mission: Schools are first and foremost places for learning. Safety and security must be integrated in a way to support that purpose. Is it possible to not only support but strengthen that mission with sophisticated design? For example, daylighting is critical for wellbeing and studies show that it positively affects learning. In our designs, we place windows so that they’re accessible from the interior for light and views from the learning spaces but relate to the exterior so that they don’t become weak points in the building envelope.
  • Layers of security: It’s important to implement a layered approach to security by reinforcing levels of policy, programs, and protective measures. Layering security measures does two things: 1) it prevents exploiting a single point of failure in a school’s security plan, and 2) it delays an attacker, providing more time for first responders. Consider aspects of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) that relate to students’ daily experience. Successfully planning layers of security from the perimeter of the campus to the interior of buildings has the potential to slow threats and provides for safe spaces at the interior.
  • Access controls: While technology has come a long way, we shouldn’t rely solely on active systems (such as cameras, door locks, and gates). Including technology to control exterior entry doors with electronic access system allows for automated, scheduled locked and unlocked times. In addition to active technologically driven systems, it’s also essential to prioritize a passive security design strategy that maintains visibility throughout the site and the building. Another design-driven, access-control tactic is to limit the number of entrances and provide heightened security measures at the main entry—personnel, a secure vestibule, etc. The combination of both passive and active strategies can deterdetect earlier, and delay

Secure vestibules have become the standard at main visitor entries. Incorporating more control and flexibility, the secure lobby takes that one step further.

While the report did provide high-level strategies related to respecting the school’s mission, layers of security, and access controls, it left me with several unanswered questions.

  • How do these safety recommendations strengthen an institution’s education mission?
  • How do the recommendations integrate with a student’s daily sense of wellbeing?
  • How might wellness and biophilia be integrated to better strengthen that sense of wellbeing?
  • Where is the student’s perspective in all of this?

As an architect focused on educational facility campus and building design, I believe it’s critical to understand how best to integrate these strategies into the design process. The conversation about safety and security should engage the appropriate stakeholders very early (and often) in the design process and be balanced with the overall school mission.

The importance of students’ perspective

Students should feel safe in their schools—where they spend a large percentage of their waking hours—to be able to focus on learning, socializing, and figuring out who they are. Heavy-handed security features can overwhelm an otherwise positive atmosphere, undermining a school’s effectiveness by imposing a sense of foreboding. Students can end up feeling like prisoners and become alienated.

Most of the violence that happens in a school is from peer-to-peer bullying. It’s important for staff to have the ability to monitor situations and trends over a week, month, semester, and year to better understand their students and the ones that may be troubled. This helps the school develop a better sense of community.

During the design process, we engage with user groups. When speaking with students, I’ve heard consistently that they don’t want to feel enclosed or trapped in their spaces. They want to be able to see what their peers are up to and how other grades and classrooms appear. The amount of serendipitous knowledge spread throughout an open environment is immeasurable, extremely valuable, and critical to a student’s sense of community. Let’s make sure that “target hardening” in schools doesn’t negatively affect this opportunity for community growth.

The Early Childhood Learning Laboratory at Grand Rapids Community College includes the latest trends in merging security and wellness.

Effective education design goes beyond security

Of course, each school is different. Not all communities are the same. Design can never be a prescriptive process. Balance is key to designing safe and secure places that are welcoming, enjoyable, and inspiring environments in which to learn.

School design needs to move beyond a heavy-handed focus on safety and security. Schools need to produce effective and inspiring learning environments. The principles of CPTED can help move design in this direction—going beyond a concentration solely on security to an embrace on effectiveness that includes natural surveillance, natural access control, territorial reinforcement, and maintenance.

The goal is to create spaces that strengthen teaching and learning. The more effective schools are at strengthening teaching, learning, and inspiring students, the less likely those students will feel alienated and lose interest, engage in antisocial activities, or become victims of crime. The most effective school designs understand their context and community and incorporate features that best meet their needs.

Why we need to think about incorporating health and wellness

Safety and security are critical to the success of a project, but so are spaces that support learning and the social aspects of student life.

How can wellness be integrated to help strengthen both security measure and the overall school mission? The WELL Building standard evaluates buildings according to seven concepts (air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind) that are considered vital to improving the health of the people who occupy them.

Inclusion of natural features and materials can positively impact people’s perceptions while also being incorporated into curriculum.

How can biophilia be integrated to improve individuals’ daily experiences? In the built environment, biophilia is a sustainable design strategy that reconnects people with the natural environment. Studies show that incorporating the natural environment into buildings positively impacts people’s psychological, physical, and social wellbeing.

Working through the design for the Early Childhood Learning Laboratory at Grand Rapids Community College introduced me to these overarching concepts of integrating safety and wellness. The program has a unique mix of young families who drop off their children for daily preschool and college students and instructors who use the preschool classrooms for their hands-on curriculum delivery.

The goals from the client at the outset of design were to provide a highly secure building and site while maintaining a maximum connection to the exterior environment. This combination affected every design decision that was made from planning separate zoned “houses” with their own dedicated outdoor learning spaces, to providing a variety of views through both the building and the site. Furthermore, a natural palette of materials was incorporated, both on the exterior and interior, to elevate those connections.

Planning for the Early Childhood Learning Laboratory at Grand Rapids Community College prioritized safety by creating secure zones (the North House and the South House) and the secure lobby to control the flow of families and college students.

Safety, security, and biophilic design are important aspects of every learning environment design we do. Through the thoughtful application of best design principles, a welcoming synergy of security and wellness is achievable in all learning and social environments.

In my next blog, I’m going to do a deeper dive into how safety/security and wellness/biophilia aren’t mutually exclusive but deeply synergistic. What are the design strategies? What are the tools to evaluate efficacy? What are the best practices for designing learning spaces that are safe, secure, and welcoming environments that elevate the human experience?

  • Steve Jelinek

    As a senior designer, Steve is part of our safety and security research and benchmarking task force. He studies resilient institutional design and develops best practices for blending awareness and security into design.

    Contact Steve
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