Continuing Education

December 14 was the fourth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the most lethal in America’s sad history of mass shootings of schoolchildren. That history is now unfolding at an average of about two shootings at K–12 schools per month: more rare than death by lightning, but still too frequent. More commonplace threats are fights and bullying. And even on an ordinary day, with no immediate or looming danger, the fundamental challenge of being a school kid navigating the ups and downs of life in a sea of other school kids can feel more fraught than it needs to be.

Design can’t solve all that, but it can make a difference. Here we look at three schools—an elementary school and two high schools—that address multiple aspects of safety and security, and illustrate how architects can improve the chances that children do not become victims at school.

No matter how intense the concern for security, a bunker is not the answer. This was the message that emerged from a community consultation process that informed the design for the new Sandy Hook Elementary School by New Haven, Connecticut–based Svigals + Partners (RECORD, September 2016). The school, now in its first year of operation, replaces the one demolished following the 2012 shooting tragedy in which 20 children and 6 staff members died. “The priority is making a nurturing environment for the future generations of this town. You can’t let it all be colored by this horrific, terrible incident,” says Jay Brotman, managing partner at Svigals. “We didn’t have to say that; the community said it.”

The new 87,000-square-foot, $50 million school translates the town’s priorities of vitality, community, and connection to nature into a building that feels bright, open, and playful. A curving plan extends a seeming embrace as students approach. Gables emerge from behind the facade’s undulating roofline: this is intended to recall views of the town, in which buildings and spires extend above the trees. A daylit, art-filled interior provides a cheerful, engaging environment, and ample windows look out to an adjacent forest.

The security strategies are incorporated so unobtrusively that visitors touring the school have commented that they don’t see them. “That’s high praise, when in fact security has been designed into almost every aspect,” says Brian Coulombe, a principal with Hamden, Connecticut–based security consultant DVS, a division of Ross & Baruzzini. The key, he says, is establishing security as a design priority from the outset. “When we’re brought in late in the game, the tools left in our toolbox dwindle” and projects have to resort to more add-on electronic devices, staffing, and physical barriers to compensate, he says. 

In achieving its inconspicuous security, Sandy Hook’s designers drew on the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a multidisciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior. CPTED builds on the work of 20th-century thinkers such as Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, and C. Ray Jeffery, and relies on architectural design, landscape planning, security systems, and visual surveillance. CPTED’s main principles include “natural surveillance,” which gives legitimate users opportunities in the course of their ordinary activities to keep an eye on the place and the people around them; “natural access control,” which directs users to enter through observable areas and prevents access to unobservable areas; and “territorial reinforcement,” which encompasses a variety of strategies for signaling that a place is occupied and cared for. Together, CPTED strategies generate psychological and physical deterrents.

The Sandy Hook design team’s first step in providing for natural surveillance was to set the building toward the rear of its site, so that anyone approaching the school can be observed from a distance. Windows, which in a fortress mentality would be considered a vulnerability, become an asset. Inside, a twostory glazed entrance lobby provides views into one of three semi-enclosed courtyards where children play and learn outdoors. Inverting the concept of natural surveillance in order to deprive an intruder of an advantage, classroom windows and doors are located so that occupants can shelter unseen by someone in the corridor.

The siting of the school was also the first step in natural access control. Wetlands and forest provide physical barriers to the sides and rear of the building, and anyone approaching from these directions draws suspicion. The main route brings all users toward the front, where staff, visitors, parent drivers, and school buses are funneled to dedicated approaches. Along the main facade, a rain garden reinforces natural access control: in addition to managing stormwater runoff and providing a teaching opportunity, it serves as a modern-day moat, directing people to enter by one of three pedestrian bridges and making it difficult to approach the building’s windows unobserved. Supplementing the site’s natural barriers are territorial-reinforcement devices including fencing and security gates.

Once the passive design for security is maximized, says Brotman, “you look to technology to reinforce or fill in the gaps.” So Sandy Hook’s entry vestibule complies with the State of Connecticut’s new school-security guidelines’ requirement for bullet-resistant glass, while other strategic locations throughout the school, such as corridor walls, have been hardened against attack. Cameras enhance the control of the courtyards, classroom doors have automatic locks, and an alert sounds if an exit stair door is left ajar. Most security incidents are over in less than five minutes, “so the real issue is to delay a perpetrator until the first responder arrives,” says Brotman.

Security is more than an absence of violence. In Joplin, Missouri, pre-design consultations for a new high school to replace one destroyed in a 2011 tornado made it clear that, although the disaster struck outside school hours, the devastation had left the students shaken. “They wanted to have a psychological sense that they were safe,” says Kevin Greischar, a principal at the Kansas City office of DLR Group, who designed the new school with local firm CGA Architects. As at Sandy Hook, security for the Joplin students didn’t mean a bunker. They wanted daylight, views, connections to the outdoors, and a school they felt proud to belong to.

The new 500,000-square-feet, 3,000-student high school maximizes light and transparency with generously sized windows, interior glazing, open spaces, and overlooks. In addition to the sense of uplift and security the light and openness provide, wood accents throughout the building contribute a sense of dignity, tactility, and warmth. Two iconic elements salvaged from the old school—stones from a rose garden and a bas relief brick eagle from the gym wall— provide a comforting continuity with the school’s pre-disaster days. As for future tornadoes, the $120 million school’s ground floor is bermed into the slope of the site, and program elements requiring solidity—such as a broadcasting studio, choral space, and counseling area—are designated to double as emergency shelters.

More common than the threat of either intruders or tornadoes, however, is conflict among students themselves. Children can be unkind to one another at any age, but by adolescence the hormone soup coursing through their veins, combined with high schools’ larger number of students and reduced levels of supervision, means that the most common source of security incidents is the kids themselves. A 2015 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on violence in high schools in the previous 12 months found that 8 percent of students had been in a fight at school, 6 percent had been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, and 20 percent had been bullied.

As evidence of the difference design can make, disciplinary incidents among students at Joplin’s new school, which opened in September 2014, dropped by more than 50 percent in its first year of operation, dropout rates fell by 25 percent, and the four-year graduation rate rose from 74 to 84 percent, as compared to the old school.

It was while the school was being accommodated in a temporary, post-tornado facility, also designed by DLR and CGA, that disciplinary incidents first began to drop. Staff realized that the old school’s attempt to control students by concentrating them in just a couple of common areas, including lunch in a single big cafeteria, had actually exacerbated conflict.

And so they were open to a configuration at the new school that would distribute the students and reduce the apparent size of the school population in students’ day-to-day experience.

The new school is organized into four three-story wings (plus performance and athletics spaces) opening off a central circulation spine, with each wing corresponding to a career pathway: Technical Sciences, Human Services, Arts and Communication, and Health Sciences. Classroom clusters on the upper floor of each wing group the students into small integratedlearning communities, each with their own break-out areas and social spaces, where students are free to eat lunch if they choose.

A similar risk triad of natural disaster, stranger danger, and student conflict influenced the design for Snoqualmie, Washing- ton’s new Mount Si High School, located in a long, narrow river valley east of Seattle—except here the risk of tornadoes is replaced with that of earthquakes and floods.

The site for the 350,000-square-foot replacement school, scheduled to open in 2019, will undergo major remediation to reduce the chances of liquefaction of its alluvial soil in a quake. The school itself will sit on a platform elevated 3 feet above the 100-year-flood level. As well as making for a more resilient school building, the raised platform improves security more narrowly defined, forming the first of four complementary strategies to foster security at the school. In CPTED terms, the raised platform clearly demarcates territory, presenting a psychological deterrent to potential offenders, and provides a view from the administrative area of anyone approaching the school.

Designed to accommodate 2,300 students, with the capacity to expand to 2,800, Mount Si will be one of the largest high schools in Washington State. So the second strategy in the school’s design for security, as at Joplin, is to divide this population into smaller communities, including a separate building for first-year students. “They will know most, if not all, of the students inhabiting their home base,” says Boris Srdar—a principal in the Seattle office of NAC Architecture, designers of the school— “which automatically increases the perception of safety.” Breaking down the scale of the school into smaller, lockable buildings can also serve to delay a potential offender. And to alert staff and students to a security issue, a public address system with colored lights signaling different degrees of emergency enables communication with each classroom.

In the third strategy, large social spaces are also broken down and designed to invite gathering in smaller groups. The social spaces are configured as larger open areas complemented by a variety of smaller seating spaces along the perimeter, and this pattern is repeated on every floor in each of the academic buildings, to form an experiential fabric of large-, medium-, and small-scale spaces that weave the school together. “As students develop their own favorite places with their peers and friends,” says Srdar, “that contributes to their having a sense of choice and familiarity, and ultimately to feeling safer.”

For its fourth security strategy, the school’s design draws on biophilic principles, which account for humankind’s innate need for connection to nature. In particular, the design incorporates the biophilic patterns, or concepts, of prospect and refuge. The term prospect refers to the long views that humans instinctively enjoy and find reassuring, especially from an elevated position; while refuge refers to the sense of shelter or withdrawal, either from the elements or from action. Both patterns appeal to a basic instinct for what a safe place feels like, and multiple studies suggest they reduce stress. All of Mount Si’s social spaces enjoy views to the mountain for which the school is named, with a sense of refuge deriving from the cozy, protected character of the interior spaces.

At Mount Si, as at Sandy Hook and Joplin, the priorities for security and the values with which it needed to be integrated emerged from extensive community consultation and a careful consideration of the specifics of the site. Rather than handing security design over to security consultants, architects can play a pivotal role. “You have to translate these strict security requirements into a wonderful, nurturing environment for children to live and learn in,” says Brotman. “And if you keep everybody going back to the priorities, you’ll come to the best solution.”

Continuing Education
CEU symbol

To earn one AIA learning unit (LU), including one hour of health, safety, and welfare (HSW) credit, read “Safe Havens,” review the supplemental material listed below, and complete the online test. Upon passing the test, you will receive a certificate of completion, and your credit will be automatically reported to the AIA. Additional information regarding credit-reporting and continuing-education requirements can be found online at


Supplemental Material

Report of the School Safety Infrastructure Council, pages 9 through 14

Connecticut Department of Administrative Services


Learning Objectives

1 Outline the crime-deterrent principles of CPTED.

2 Explain how the designers of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School made its security features inconspicuous.

3 Discuss how schools can be designed to mitigate the impact of natural disasters, including tornadoes and floods.

4 Describe the role that biophilic design can play in making schools feel safer for students.


AIA/CES Course #K1701A


For CEU credit, read "Safe Havens" and take the quiz at, or use our architectural record continuing-education app, available in the itunes store.

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