By Keith Fentress (President, Fentress, Inc.) and Mike Jones (President, Major Security Consulting and Design, LLC)
The country is still in shock after the recent school shootings in Santa Fe High School, TX (10 dead,13 injured) and Parkland High School, FL (17 dead, 14 injured). School shootings are becoming more commonplace as over 210,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the tragic Columbine shootings in 1999.
There have been many ideas tossed about by politicians and the media to help solve the problem. The range of ideas include placing more armed resource officers in schools, allowing teachers to carry guns, and promoting additional training on shooter events.
The range and variety of these ideas indicate the urgency that the public feels to find a solution, any solution, and find it quickly. However, the answers to these acts of violence require carefully thought-out solutions, especially since increasing security in the schoolhouse will have an impact on students, teachers, and staff. An example of good intentions gone awry are security solutions that involve physically blocking the classroom door from being opened – such solutions are in direct conflict with fire safety codes and could even impede first responders from gaining access to the classroom. These ideas are great concepts, but they need refinement.
We can debate the merits of the different proposals, but our position would be to start with the facilities themselves. As taxpayers, we fund security for every courthouse, but our public schools are still vulnerable. Why not design our schools like our courthouses, with security in mind?
Courthouse vs. Schoolhouse
According to the Center for Judicial and Executive Security, there were 199 incidents involving violence in state and local courthouses between 1970 and 2009. There were 197 incidences of school shootings during the same period (secondary schools plus colleges and universities).
Though the number of violent incidents is nearly the same over this 40-year span, safety and security have received much greater attention in courthouse design than in school design. The judicial community responded to the increase in violence by revising security standards for courthouses. Courthouse security features include limiting the number of entrances to the building (ideally, there is one main entrance), security screening in the lobby with magnetometers and x-ray scanning machines, proper spacing and organization in the lobby to give security personnel room to work, closed circuit television (CCTV) and duress alarms placed throughout the courthouse, and security personnel stationed as needed in the courthouse.
This mix of architectural security features, plus the combination of human and technology solutions – security technology assisted real-time human intervention (STARHI) - is critical in courthouses. So why not in our schools? Since schools now have a far too extensive list of mass shootings and other violent incidents, it is time to change the design of our schools to protect our students, teachers, and staff.
How to Improve the Schoolhouse
From a facility standpoint, it is important to strike a reasonable balance between a school being completely open and welcoming, and one that has adequate security. What we do not want is for our schools to become intimidating fortresses. We have frequently heard the same argument made about courthouses. The courthouse is supposed to be welcoming to the public while providing for the safety of its occupants. The unfortunate reality is that it often takes an increase in violence to prompt policymakers to fund security. When people feel that the risk is high, they are often more willing to invest in additional security while accepting less openness. For example, magnetometers and x-ray scanning machines were rare in courthouses 30 years ago. Today, it is standard practice in courthouses across the country for the public to successfully enter through security screening. Schools are currently undergoing the same type of transition in how security is viewed, as violence continues to draw attention to the need for additional security. Our view is that you can provide the needed security while focusing on educating our children, all in the same building.
Following is a list of guidelines that can improve security for schools. These guidelines focus on the buildings and include lessons learned from long-standing security measures in courthouses. We have worked on courthouse planning for over 30 years and have witnessed the transition to a safer and more secure courthouse while still being welcoming to the public as they promote the mission of justice. Below are lessons learned from this rich experience with courthouses, and how these lessons can be applied to the school setting.
Controlled Entry and Access
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Courthouses must be welcoming to the public and to all participants in the judicial process. Having controlled access focuses limited security resources more effectively on the main entrance to the courthouse. Even existing courthouses that have multiple public entrances are starting to close and secure all but the main entrance.
Application to Schools: Everyone entering a school should come in through a single main point of entry. Landscaping, fencing, and walkways should be planned to guide people to the main entrance. A secondary point of entry adjacent to staff parking areas can be used for teachers and school staff, but this entry should be controlled with a secure card reader, scramble pad, or similar access control technology. The main doors should be locked after school has started. At this point, visitors must request access to the school by using appropriate access control technology monitored by security personnel. This will provide security personnel with the ability to visually monitor who is requesting entry and why.
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Security screening at courthouse entrances has prevented a great deal of weapons from entering these facilities. Thirty years ago, there was the belief that such equipment would deter the public from coming into courthouses. This perception has now changed as it is recognized that equipment is needed to ensure the safety of all who enter the building. In addition, there is now an emerging trend to build security screening into the architecture of the courthouse so that it is less intimidating.
Application to Schools: Magnetometers and x-ray screening machines should be positioned so that everyone entering a school building must walk through a magnetometer and have their belongings scanned by an x-ray machine. This is a controversial notion, as many find this to be too intimidating. However, if the goal is to keep weapons and other contraband out of schools, this is one of the best deterrents. Even if someone does enter the school with a weapon, the situation can be dealt with at the entry control point by security so that weapons will be discovered before they reach the interior of the school where a greater number of people could be hurt.
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Sightlines are very important at the main entrance for court security personnel. More courthouses are being designed with the main entrance “bumped out” from the facility in a convex design to improve sightlines (an exterior entrance rotunda). When the “bump out” is walled with glass, security personnel can have a 180° view of what is happening outside the facility.
Application to Schools: It is important that security personnel working in the school lobby are able to see who is approaching the building. Windows with unobstructed views can achieve this goal. Also, windows on entrance doors and at the front of the school building should be treated with ballistic glazing so that they cannot be shattered by gunfire. An entry vestibule can also be used to improve security. A vestibule is a double set of doors – one set opening to the outside of the building and another set opening into the lobby. Finally, having steel doors that can be automatically locked and a system to prevent multiple people from entering a door at one time (used only during non-peak times to avoid unnecessary delays) can greatly enhance safety by controlling who can get inside the school.
Lobby Size and Organization
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Newly designed courthouse lobbies are increasing in size. Larger lobbies provide sufficient space to organize a security queue line, enable the proper arrangement of security equipment, increase the space between potential victims of violence, and enable security personnel to work while keeping a watchful eye on people that enter the courthouse.
Application to Schools: A lobby should be sized for the volume of people entering the school during peak hours. During these busier times, there will be a queue to proceed through security screening, so it is important that the lobby is organized in such a way that people can quickly gain an understanding of the progression from the building’s entry door to the security screening area. Overcrowding the lobby increases the security risk as it is harder for security personnel to keep an eye on people in a crowded situation. An overcrowded lobby with people packed closely together also provides a target for a shooter. Adequate lobby sizing is critical in reducing risk.
Cameras and Duress Alarms
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Securely designed courthouses have a CCTV network to cover public spaces in the courthouse, including the courtrooms, hallways, lobby areas, etc. The cameras can track the movement of people through the public spaces in the facility. Some of the CCTV systems are designed to alert security personnel that are monitoring the cameras if noise levels increase, which could indicate escalating tempers or potential conflict. Duress alarms are also placed throughout the courthouse, including courtrooms, judges’ chambers, and staff offices.
Application to Schools: CCTV cameras should be mounted on the exterior of the school to observe entrances, as well as in the interior, especially the lobby and hallways. It is important that the cameras be aligned to track the movement of people into and throughout the building. Duress alarms can be fixed or portable and placed in the administration offices, community areas (such as the library, cafeteria and auditorium), staff areas, and in classrooms for use by the teachers.
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Having bulletproof doors is one area where schools will have different requirements from courthouses. The doors in courthouses do not need to be bulletproof by commonly practiced design standards. With the goal of controlling who enters the courthouse and security screening at the main entrance, the hope would be that weapons would not find their way into the courthouse interior.
There are secured areas in a courthouse where prisoners circulate that should be separate from the public and staff circulation pathways. When the space is not available to provide prisoners with secure pathways, they are moved through public circulation areas. In such instances, automatic door locking systems are used along public hallways. Through this technology, all the doors entering into the hallway automatically lock while prisoners are in the hallway.
Application to Schools: Doors to the classrooms should be made of material that bullets cannot penetrate. Cost is a concern, as school systems are likely not able to afford a mass replacement of the hundreds of doors that are in existing buildings. An emerging solution is cladding wooden doors with bulletproof material such as Amulet. In addition, the school doors should be able to automatically lock when closed and to be systematically locked by security personnel from a central control point. Controlling access to the classroom is a vital part of school security.
Hardening of Walls and Windows
Courthouse Lesson Learned: Not all of the windows and walls in a courthouse are hardened or have ballistic glazing. Some jurisdictions have a requirement that when judges’ chambers are located on the ground floor, the windows must have ballistic glazing. Similarly, the front of the judge’s bench in the courtroom must be hardened with bulletproof material. Transaction windows in staff offices often have hardened walls below and beside the transaction window. The lesson is that every window and wall does not have to be bulletproof but the spaces that are more prone to attack should be hardened to protect the occupants.
Application to Schools: Classroom walls adjacent to hallways should be resistant to ballistics so that bullets cannot penetrate the walls into the classroom. Similar hardening can be placed on the exterior of the building, especially near the entrance. Windows in classroom doors and windows near the entrance doors should have ballistic glazing. Whether to place ballistic glazing on all school windows is still very controversial. While it would prevent an outside shooter from shooting into a classroom, it also prevents students and staff from breaking windows to escape to the outside during a crisis. There are many considerations that must go into making this decision, as broken glass can often cause more problems, and the cost of ballistic glazing is very high. Other considerations include the height of the windows, the distance of the windows from the ground, and the type of surface on the ground if someone were to jump or fall.
There are many other emerging technologies and facility features in response to the public outcry to improve school security. Here is a sample of some of the more innovative solutions that could be applied in schools:
- Containment – drop-down gates in school hallways to isolate shooters.
- Disorientation – harmless smoke and strobe lighting to prevent shooters from clearly seeing what they are shooting at.
- Protection – ballistic-proof pods in classrooms or “safe rooms” spread throughout the school where students can huddle in times of emergency. Ballistic-proof panels to place in students’ backpacks and ballistic-proof clipboards that can be used by students to cover vital areas during an active shooting event.
- Self-defense – fire extinguishers, wasp spray, and pepper spray are examples of non-lethal ways to distract a shooter.
In our opinion, violence in schools is a growing trend that will likely continue. Making schools more secure must be the top priority. It is our belief that the current design community is starting to understand the problem and we hope our efforts will contribute to developing useful solutions. We also hope that policymakers will embrace security changes to our schoolhouses to protect our most precious investment in the future – our children.