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The Role of CPTED in a School’s Security Plan

by Morgan Sears / December 30, 2022

My job as a security assessor has given me many opportunities to observe and critique safety and security measures that are being put in place in many different settings. With violent crime continuing to rise throughout the country, safety and security measures remain at the forefront of our minds. Throughout the last year, I have further enhanced my assessment skills by studying to become a licensed CPTED, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, practitioner. CPTED is a multi-disciplinary approach that uses urban and architectural design and the management of built and natural environments for crime prevention.

One setting where I have applied my CPTED assessment expertise is school security. In my previous law enforcement position, I served as a school resource officer where I assisted crime prevention specialists in applying CPTED principles to all assigned schools. I became adept at spotting objects around the building that were out of place or that could be used as a weapon or for climbing. In my current position, I have conducted top-down assessments of safety and security measures in several school districts. There’s no doubt school security is a discipline I am passionate about, both professionally as an assessor and personally as a mother. And now that school districts throughout the country are adopting CPTED standards, I am able to apply the most innovative and cutting-edge concepts to my school security assessments.

So let’s talk about CPTED and how it relates to school security. The five key CPTED principles that can be applied to any facility type are territorial reinforcement, natural access control, wayfinding, natural surveillance, and maintenance. Each of these works together with the goal of preventing crime from happening in the first place. Below, I am going to provide examples of each CPTED principle and how it can be applied towards a school’s security plan.

Territorial Reinforcement

Territorial reinforcement is the intentional use of physical attributes to clearly show that a property is owned and actively used and cared for. This gives a would-be offender the sense that people are present to observe criminal activity and to contact law enforcement as needed. Here are some pointers for schools:

  • Make sure clear boundaries exist to define school property. If there is fencing around the school's property, make sure it is secure with limited access at select entry points. Fencing should also be well maintained to ensure there is no damage that could contribute to trespassing. Boundaries should clearly delineate public space (property surrounding the school), semi-public or semi-private areas (sidewalks leading up to the school), and private space (school property and building areas limited to authorized users).

  • Ensure that fencing does not provide footholds. Anti-climb or chain-link fencing with slats can be used, but the fencing should maintain a visual connection to the outside space.

  • Limit the number of controlled entry points. Vehicle traffic flow should be in one direction and should be monitored during periods of heavy movement (e.g., student arrival and dismissal).

  • Close parking lots when the school building is closed. This reinforces the idea that access and parking are for school business only. School parking lots are a common location for incidents and criminal activity, and should only be accessible when the building is in use.

  • If hard landscaping is preferred, consider the use of small granite rocks in areas around the school. These rocks make a sound when walked on, which helps prevent individuals from sneaking into an area, and they are small enough so as not to be used as a weapon in most cases.

Natural Access Control

Natural access control relates to how people enter and leave a space through the placement of entrances, exits, fences, landscaping, and lighting. 

  • Place speed limit and directional signs along the roadways that lead to the school. Make sure they are clearly visible and unblocked by any landscaping, such as bushes or tree branches. Place traffic calming devices, such as speed bumps or raised crosswalks, near areas where students and visitors cross to reach the main entrance.

     

    Students crossing in a raised crosswalk

  • Make sure the main entrance is clearly visible to visitors as they approach the building. The doors should be locked, and all initially cleared visitors should be granted access into a vestibule in the school entryway. The doors should be tamper-resistant and self-closing to prevent a potential offender from prying the door open or piggybacking in behind another visitor.

  • Install access control, such as key card entry for employees, and video surveillance at all entrances. All exterior doors should remain locked throughout the school day. The doors must comply with fire code release (such as a push bar) for exiting, but any kind of entrance hardware should be removed from the exterior of the door. Ensure that all door hinges are non-removable to prevent forced entry.

  • If the school has a courtyard design, make sure all entries into the building from the courtyard are secure. The main entry of the courtyard should be adjacent to the faculty office, which provides more sets of eyes on who's entering and exiting the courtyard. Design the courtyard to eliminate unauthorized after-hours access, and ensure there are windows with views into the courtyard.

Wayfinding

Wayfinding involves the use of architectural and landscaping features to clearly direct people throughout the property and within the building. 

  • Provide clear signage and post rules regarding who is allowed to use parking facilities and when they are allowed to do so. Signage should be visible before visitors enter the parking lot.

  • Use signage to direct visitors to the main entrance and to discourage entry from any other location. Signage plays an important role in guiding visitors towards the front of the school, where there should be clear sightlines from office windows, along with video surveillance.

  • Once a visitor enters the vestibule, there should be clear signage that directs them to the main office. Signs within the office should clearly indicate what is expected of the visitor, such as signing in and out, displaying a visitor badge, and presenting an ID. The font on signs should be large enough to be read from standard distances and should be offset against the background to ensure clear visibility.

  • Regularly maintain all signage, including exit signs, both inside and outside the school. Exit signs should stay clearly illuminated and visible to everyone inside the building. All school classrooms and hallways should have clear directional signs depicting the layout and nearest exit for leaving the building in an emergency.

Natural Surveillance

Natural surveillance guides the placement of physical features such as windows, lighting, and landscaping. These features affect how much can be seen by building occupants and passersby.

  • Design classroom doors with view panels so the hallways can be seen. The panels should also be able to be covered in the event of a lockdown. Ensure that the classrooms themselves can also be locked down quickly by staff during an emergency.

  • Place windows in classrooms and faculty offices so as to enhance surveillance of the school campus. Windows should provide unobstructed views, promoting natural surveillance of activity occurring outside.

  • Keep landscaping, such as bushes and tree canopies, cut back so that sightlines are not obstructed from the interior or from outside seating areas.

  • Take care to reduce or eliminate hiding places and blind corners in hallways. Place lockers in central, heavily used locations within the school or in the classrooms. Any lockers located in hallways should be recessed, or set into the wall that surrounds it, to prevent individuals from using the lockers as a hiding place.

Maintenance

Regularly scheduled maintenance helps ensure that the property has a sense of territoriality and natural surveillance. 

  • Make sure landscaping elements are a priority in the maintenance plan. Keep trees trimmed back so they do not provide access to the rooftop and to minimize hiding places and shadowy areas. Landscaping should be maintained to follow the two foot/six foot rule—no bushes taller than two feet, and no tree canopies lower than six feet. Well-maintained prickly vegetation is a good option below first floor windows. This helps prevent close access to the building. Bougainvillea and holly bushes can also be visually pleasing vegetation that provide a sense of ownership of the space.

  • Perform routine cleaning and repairs to keep the space looking cared for and to encourage use of the space for its intended purpose. Proper maintenance is not only visually pleasing but allows for more eyes on the sidewalks, in the parking lots, or towards the main entryway.

  • Remove damaged property, trash, or graffiti within 24 hours. Any unkempt part of the campus sends a message that no one is particularly concerned about or possessive of that part of the school. If the area is neglected, it will seem like an ideal location for misbehavior. Maintaining a well-kept campus will help eliminate the “broken window theory” by promoting ownership and pride in the property.

These CPTED principles provide invaluable guidance for school assessments. And many of these security measures can be implemented at little cost with maximum impact. I hope these examples provide an understanding of how the natural environment can provide a safe and secure learning environment in our schools.

Tags: School Security

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Morgan Sears

Morgan Sears

Morgan is a planner and data analyst with Fentress, Inc. She has a Master’s Degree in Sociology with a concentration in Criminal Justice. She enjoys baseball, running and spending time with her husband and son.