Protect using designs that still look like schools
By JENINE KOTOB | Special to The Washington Post | Published: October 11, 2019
Mass shootings wreck our sense of safety, and in their wake, communities often move to fortify public spaces. Our gut reaction is often to harden public buildings by erecting fences as barriers and installing more video cameras and metal detectors. This human desire to protect our loved ones has spawned a $2.7 billion school security industry, and it drives calls for see-through backpacks and bulletproof vests and armed teachers.
The urge is understandable. As Yale sociologist Vida Bajc has explained, these acts of violence represent an invasion of our sense of home and undermine our collective ownership of our own neighborhoods. “It’s not just about loss of life,” she told the Trace. “Shootings also steal from people the sense that they inhabit a place, that it’s their space.” Too often, our response is reactionary: building up our schools as if they are bunkers.
As of May, there were 234 school shootings in the 20 years since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. These occurred nearly once a month, on average. More than 228,000 children have experienced these unspeakable acts of violence, according to a Washington Post database. No student should be forced to endure the trauma of a school shooting — I know, because I’ve lived through two.
The first occurred on April 16, 2007, when I was studying at Virginia Tech. Thirty-two people were killed that day, making it the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. I still recall the trauma as if it were yesterday: the hours of searching for my good friend Reema Samaha, only to find out that she had died; the sadness my entire faith community felt at the murder of our friend and classmate, Waleed Shaalan; the shock of losing my former teacher, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak.
The second took place in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, when officials locked down the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I attended graduate school. The bombers shot and killed Sean Collier, a campus police officer.
Both shootings still haunt me. They are why I’ve dedicated my career to implementing design solutions that can better protect our students.
During my time at MIT, I studied schools in conflict zones. I traveled to refugee camps operated by the United Nations in the Levant, seeing the buildings and speaking with students and teachers. These crammed, overpopulated camps had spatial constraints and limited financial resources; their school grounds featured tall concrete or metal walls intended to protect students from nearby bombings, stray bullets, or sights of military tanks passing by.
In the Am’ari Camp, I stood atop a school building designed like a fortress, with a principal who told me his students couldn’t envision their own future when they couldn’t see beyond the walls that surrounded them. It was no wonder that many of the students suffered from depression, high stress and feelings of isolation. Still, despite the daily hardships, students and teachers made the journey to school each day believing that an education was their path to a better life.
I took that spirit of resiliency home to the United States, where I’ve observed how the desire to protect children tends to manifest itself. One high school in Indiana, which NBC called the “safest school in America” and which the state’s sheriff’s association declared a “flagship,” invested in $400,000 worth of upgrades, including smoke cannons in the hallway and panic buttons for teachers. In 2018, elementary and middle schools across Oklahoma began installing bulletproof storm shelters, starting at $30,000 each, in their classrooms.
These measures are intended to shield students, should the unthinkable occur. But it’s hard to imagine that it makes them feel any safer as they go about their daily business of trying to learn.
School operations and maintenance budgets are sharply limited: In the United States, total spending on schools’ operations, maintenance, capital and new construction is underfunded by approximately $46 billion per year, according to a 2016 report drawing on federal data. As of the 2012-2013 school year, the average age of a school building was 44 years old. These decades-old facilities have become increasingly unhealthy places for students, due to problems ranging from mold and poor air and water quality to broken plumbing and rodents. We must invest our resources strategically to ensure that our schools promote well-being and allow children to flourish, while still providing security.
But designing a better school goes beyond installing metal detectors. A few basic yet effective design principles go a long way.
First, glass is not our enemy. Glass can be a powerful security tool: It provides sight lines that give adults the ability to quickly spot any danger outside of the classroom, as well as possible escape routes from the building. Some districts are investing in low-cost summer upgrades, applying opaque, tinted film to windows and glass to eliminate an intruder’s ability to see into these spaces. This results in a massive loss for the school, reducing natural light and views of the outdoors, which studies have shown can improve academic performance. Instead, clear glass could be integrated in strategic and controlled ways, so we can retain the benefits of transparency while creating hiding spaces, out of the sight of passersby.
Second, we should focus on access control. Having too many entry points can weaken a building. The more control we have over who is coming in and out of a building, the better. Safer schools should feature landscaping that creates natural barriers. Strategic placement of ornamental fencing, vegetation and lighting can help protect a building without constantly implying that students may be in danger. That aesthetic can be pleasant and nurturing, rather than starkly intimidating.
Ultimately, security features should be enveloped seamlessly and invisibly into the building. Projects such as the new Sandy Hook Elementary School integrate security measures into a building that also manages to be beautiful. To enter the facility, for example, you must walk across bridges over a rain garden wrapping the building. It’s essentially a modern-day moat, but it can also serve as an educational tool for students learning about the water cycle. Throughout the building, additional strategies have been implemented: classroom doors that lock automatically without a key, entire wings of the school that can lock down to isolate a threat, and certain windows and walls with bullet-resistant materials to harden against gunfire. While building design is not a panacea to school violence, the design process presents a one-time opportunity where stakeholders can voice their concerns, desires and vision that expresses their community’s ideals.
Students and teachers deserve to go to school without fearing for their safety, but we need to think more deeply about what that means. Design features can enhance learning or inhibit it. Most school buildings will outlast the debate over gun violence; we need to design them in a way that will ensure the success of students for generations to come.
Jenine Kotob is an architectural designer, youth advocate and community activist with over a decade of experience designing schools.