Balancing Act: Freedom, Transparency, Access and Safety in Schools

Security is an increasing concern among school administrators. On top of common issues like fights and bullying, school officials must prepare for an active shooter event, taking into consideration communication, drills, training and even classroom and facility design.

There’s no question that schools should be safe havens for students—safety is a prerequisite for education. But balancing school security with innovative, 21st century learning environments can be a challenge. As an architectural firm specializing in learning spaces, we want to resist the urge to shove students into concrete box classrooms in the name of safety, and instead focus on creating innovative spaces that are conducive to both safety and learning.

Trends in pedagogy and school design call for more flexibility and increased student choice in educational environments. Giving students the freedom to work in spaces that best fit their needs and creating environments that foster learning, collaboration and creativity creates new challenges and opportunities for administrators and architects to keep students safe.

Through significant research with first responders and our work with various school districts, we’ve outlined some best practices and design considerations for maximizing safety in 21st century learning environments:

  • Controlled access: Locked doors can control who comes in and out of the school, as well as where they enter and exit.
  • Locks: Privacy locksets allow anyone to lock the door, giving occupants the ability to hide inside a classroom. Staff members have keys to unlock the doors, and first responders are equipped to access locked doors even without keys.
  • Lights: All rooms should have light switches that can be turned off by anyone in the room (that means light switches that are lower to the ground in younger grades). In emergencies, any occupants could then switch off the light to create the appearance that the room is empty.
  • Glass: Glass—in doors, windows and interior corridors—is prevalent in schools and can play a major role in school security.

Locks, lights and controlled access are easy to incorporate into classrooms and don’t affect the school’s overall design. Glass, on the other hand, requires more strategic safety planning because it can tremendously impact design and security.

While glass walls and interior windows may pose a safety concern in the case of an armed intruder, the increased transparency improves everyday safety and supervision. School safety often brings to mind active shooter situations, which are a serious concern for school districts across the country, but these aren’t the only safety threat. Fights, bullying and other issues all fall under the school safety umbrella, and these events are far more prevalent in schools.

Adding interior windows and glass walls increases supervision in classrooms and across common spaces, allowing teachers to oversee students working in groups outside of the traditional classroom setting and heightening students’ awareness that their actions are visible to more people throughout the building. Good sight lines allow minimal supervision across a maximum amount of space. This “always on” approach to safety is called passive security, and it’s a foundational design parameter.

Increasing transparency has benefits other than safety as well. Glass walls allow daylight from classrooms to reach interior corridors, making those spaces more comfortable. Daylighting is known to have positive effects on building occupants and could potentially reduce as much as one-third of total building energy costs, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences.

There are also ways for schools with interior glass to increase security in the case of an active shooter. For example, fire extinguishers kept in every classroom can be used to fog interior windows so that intruders can’t see into classrooms. Some school districts may even elect to use bullet-resistant glass on entries and in classrooms.

The layout and design of the building can also impact safety, especially in a crisis. Having multiple routes to reach the same destination enhances first responder ability to control and isolate an intruder. But it also has the added benefit of helping students avoid conflicts during a regular school day; they can select a different route to get from their class to the cafeteria to avoid a bully or uncomfortable social situation.

For a more detailed look at the different options, best practices and design considerations for building secure schools, download SHP’s comprehensive whitepaper on school safety and security.