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Boston Society of Architects

Safe Feature

See me, teach me,
heal me

The delicate balance of designing a school after trauma

See Me Hero Sphere Pop 02

Sphere Pop, 2015, 3d-printed sculpture, 940 × 841 × 707 mm

Artwork: Eyal Gever

In September 2013, my colleagues and I were thrust into the forefront of the discourse on school safety when our firm was selected to design the new Sandy Hook Elementary School—site of the mass shooting of 20 first-grade children and six adults the previous December. At the time, the nation was still stunned by the implications of this tragedy, debating primarily the issues of gun control and mental health. Amid the difficulties of developing a national consensus around these ideologically charged topics, attention turned to the design of schools and the lack of standards for any level of threat, let alone an armed gunman.

As details of the shooting surfaced, severe counterterrorist tactics were espoused in coffee shops and PTAs across America. First was attention to the borders of the school grounds and the front entry: high, impenetrable fencing and heavy-duty, ballistic-level metal doors and locks, with no glass that would be vulnerable to being shot out—a prisonlike sally port entrance. Next came the realization that the front doors would not be the only way for a heavily armed gunman to gain entry into the school, so there were also calls to limit windows and to place them only up high. For child-development advocates and many educators and parents, these were frightening propositions that suddenly illuminated the inherent dichotomy between designing a facility that is secure from armed threat and creating a place of learning that promotes and nurtures children’s cognitive and social development.

This dichotomy centers around our notions of safety and freedom.

Throughout history, the acquisition of knowledge was afforded to those who had the freedom to participate. Advancing civilization from hunter-gatherers into the era of farming and husbandry gave early societies the freedom to spend part of their day in storytelling, passing down knowledge, skills, and values from one generation to the next.

The notion of a formal education arose when even greater freedom from work was attained. Indeed, the word school derives from the Greek schole, meaning “leisure” and “that in which leisure is employed.” Eventually, a pursuit that once was available only to men of privilege became available to all—the underpinning of America’s democratic ideals.

How then to reconcile educational freedom with physical safety? One definition of safe is “to restrict movement,” and limiting people’s movement in a public space or within a building certainly helps reduce the scope of work for security personnel who can’t be everywhere at all times. The days of an open school, where parents and visitors freely come and go all day long, are long gone. Limiting the freedom of children to go anywhere they want is widely accepted, and in fact these days, parents and caregivers are being pressured to monitor children at all times. It is a situation that has begun to reap unintended ramifications, with children lacking the prime opportunities to learn important life lessons, such as autonomy, self-reliance, and negotiation skills with others.

Heavy fortification at a school’s perimeter, in the form of a walled enclosure, is not only anathema to the openness and freedoms we associate with education, but it is—ironically, perhaps—a psychological indication that the situation is in fact unsafe. Such fortifications not only are prohibitively costly to build but also depend on vigilant monitoring to ensure that the enclosure is not breached. Although a single school facility might invest in a complete circumference of fencing, the prospect of doing so for a large independent school or university campus is a daunting prospect.

It is in this limitation of movement and managing borders where we find the crux of safety versus freedom in the design of an educational campus. One well-regarded set of security measures focuses on perimeter management. Codified with the mnemonic of the 4 D’s, these principles are typically handled in layers to deter, detect, and delay the approach of an assailant—and lastly to defend. These layers provide multiple opportunities to detect that something is amiss—triggering security personnel to take action, activate the school’s lockdown protocols, and alert police—as well as provide enough delay time for first responders to intervene before a tragedy unfolds.

The principles espoused by Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), a multidisciplinary approach to deterrence first developed in the 1970s, provide a design method-ology to secure our public buildings and spaces without radically fortifying them. Instead, along with the 4 D’s, the first line of defense is simply demarking the borders to denote ownership and make obvious to anyone that he or she is entering an area of surveillance. At Sandy Hook, this demarcation takes the form of decorative low stone walls at the entry drive, the enhancement of natural features that bound the property, and picket fencing that maintains visual observation while deterring approach. Additional layers were established to organize and manage vehicular approaches, with a decorative entrance gate and intercom, a restricted bus lane, and dedicated visitor parking in clear view from the main office.

At the building perimeter, a key CPTED principle is maintaining visual sightlines to allow for natural surveillance of anyone approaching the school. Furthermore, to keep both pedestrian and vehicular traffic at a distance from the school, a standoff zone was created in the form of a rain garden that runs along the entire front of the school, deterring access to the windows and allowing for daylight to enter while limiting views of the activities inside. This decorative moat additionally serves as a sustainability element that treats rainwater runoff while funneling visitors to only three entries accessed across small footbridges.

One of the bigger challenges in this reconciliation of safety and freedom is the desire for children to have access to the great outdoors. Sandy Hook had a strong history of curricular activities that brought children on nature walks to the local city park. With a beautiful site surrounded by trees and wetlands, we were primed to design a school that could leverage those resources for educational objectives and psychological well-being. Our approach was to create courtyards that felt open but were semi-enclosed. Three outdoor courtyards were created between the wings of the school with the fourth open side secured with locked picket fencing. Inside, connections to nature are reinforced with windows low enough to provide young children with views to their beautiful surroundings, yet safely ensconced behind glazing fortified with a new lamination technology that can withstand a forced entry. Nature themes prevail throughout the design of the school, with metal tree-trunk forms, an artist mobile of shimmering leaves animating the lobby, and tree-shaped bulletin boards lining the gently curving corridor. We kept our focus on the Japanese word for school, gakuen, which translates as “learning garden” or “garden of learning.”

In a democracy, design can be leveraged for the physical manifestation of our ideals of freedom and equity—a beacon in dark times. It can even, sometimes, redeem a place imbued with tragedy.