Building a Safer School

Building a Safer School

Combating Violence With Architecture

Could the little red schoolhouse — an American icon as wholesome and safe as grandma’s apple pie — soon become the little red fortress?

The recent school tragedies at Littleton, Colo., Conyers, Ga., Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., have added greater urgency to the national challenge of making schools safer. Educators and school administrators have been brainstorming with architects, security experts and even computer software developers to devise ways to make schools safer, literally from the ground up.

The idea is to build schools with infrastructures designed to keep students under the near-constant supervision of teachers and staff and, at the same time, to shut out intruders.

Cambridge Academies, a school development and management company in South Florida, is one firm at the forefront of this trend. Cambridge manages two Pembroke Pines, Fla. schools, the Pembroke Pines Charter Elementary Schools (East and West Campuses) and the Pembroke Pines Charter Middle School, all in operation since 1998.

These schools were designed and built by the Haskell Company of Jacksonville, Fla., which is building a complex of schools, the Pembroke Pines Academic Village, that will take students from pre-kindergarten through community college. The project is expected to be completed by August 2000, said Erin Jenkins Raczkowski, a spokeswoman for the company.

Self-sufficient classrooms

A design feature these schools have in common is that each classroom is practically an island unto itself, with its own television, VCR, telephone, emergency call button, water fountain, bathroom and sink. In between every two classrooms there is a basic library and media resource center with computers.

While all this may sound indulgent — indeed, charter schools receive state funds and have more leeway in what they can do with the money — there is thought behind every detail.

With facilities in every classroom, the teacher never has to stop teaching to orchestrate potty breaks for the little ones, and older children never need a bathroom pass and an excuse to roam the halls unsupervised. Students don’t have to wander off to do research at a central library because they can do it next door. And the teacher can see if the students are goofing off because a window keeps the mini-library in full view.

Octavio Visiedo, chief education officer and co-founder of Cambridge Academies, said, “If you walk into one of these schools before lunch, you’ll rarely see a child in a hallway. And if you do, the child is supervised on his or her way to an activity. We consciously created, especially in the elementary schools, self-contained classrooms. This prevents [pedophiles] from preying on kids. Pembroke Pines is [a] wonderful area, but crime and some other tragedies that have taken place in schools have no geographic barriers.”

Protection from predators

To further discourage predators, there are no exterior hallways (a common feature in Florida because of the hot weather), and recreational areas are built behind the schools so they are not viewable from the street. “In some schools with outside corridors, there were numerous incidents of strangers walking in off street and attacking students or teachers in outside corridors. That’s an unfortunate reality, and it’s why inside corridors are important,” said Visiedo, a former longtime superintendent of Dade County, Fla., schools.

Entrances for the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children are separate from the older students, and while there are multiple exits, there is only one entrance, and it is supervised. The glass-enclosed administrative area overlooks the main entrance.

“This gives us more control against anyone who may wander in off the street, and makes it harder for children to stray,” he said.

The schools also intend to protect the students from themselves. Hallway lockers are conspicuously absent — no lockers means no one can stash drugs or weapons. And instead of having to lug heavy books everywhere, each student is provided with two sets of books, one for home, one for school.

“When all is said and done, you can’t design a foolproof facility unless you do away with windows,” Visiedo said. “Some public schools tried that. They are fortresses, and that is an extreme. Especially in South Florida in the summer, if the power goes out and there’s no air conditioning, the kids have to be let out of the building because some would get ill due to the heat.”

Cost vs. amenities

Visiedo believes that excessive use of security personnel is one measure that does not work.

“You can have five or six security guards in a traditional middle school with 1,500 kids,” he said. “But if you have constant traffic in and out of building without supervision, you can’t question everybody. So it all starts with designing a facility where the concepts of self-sufficiency and controlling traffic are foremost. Only then do you remove the issues you once had.”

How much does it cost to build a “safe” school and will public schools with tight budgets and enormous student bodies ever be able to duplicate what Cambridge is doing with the charters? Visiedo claims that it costs less to build a safe school than a traditional one.

“In public schools, the cost is $11,000 per student station,” he claims. “We did it for $8,900 per student because our facilities are more cost-effective. But there are trade-offs.”

For safety’s sake, Cambridge forfeited such amenities as large art and music rooms with 15-foot ceilings and drawing areas.

“A public school could duplicate this model if they chose to,” he insists. ” A lot of parents would trade off art or music rooms in a minute for bathrooms in every class and the kind of internal security we have.”

Help from the federal government

Some schools are getting financial aid from the federal government. In the wake of last year’s shootings at Columbine High School and elsewhere, the National Institute of Justice, Office of Science and Technology, has awarded Safe Schools Technologies Grants to several school districts, law enforcement agencies and private companies who are developing ways to make schools safer.

The Racine Unified School District (RUSD) in Racine, Wis., is one grant recipient. Ann Laing, Superintendent of Student Services at RUSD, said, “The incident at Columbine told us to wake up and know this can happen in your school district, too. But we’ve always known that. We had been working on a crisis response plan and safety planning in our buildings prior to that.”

In a large district such as Racine with traditional school buildings, Laing said, it is difficult if not impossible to monitor and know every person entering a building. Racine has commissioned a computer technologies firm to create state-of-the-art software and develop a system that will put the task of monitoring in electronic hands. Each student would have a plastic ID card, similar to a credit card, carrying an electronic code. Scanners at entrances would automatically read the code on the cards.

Racine also is working on magnetic locking systems for school doors. The existing doors have the required “panic bars” — long bars that can easily be pushed out for immediate egress. These doors can be locked, but students can still allow someone in. With a magnetic lock, no student could let in an unauthorized person, such as someone carrying drugs or weapons. In the event of an emergency, however, the magnetic system is programmed to open automatically.

Teachers play a role

Teachers can play an important role in promoting overall safety as well, said Alan Olkes, chief school operations officer of Cambridge Academies and also a former Dade County school superintendent.

“We’ve treated schools too much like factories,” he said. “We’ve got to train teachers to talk with children individually, so that when a kid is being bullied, they’re comfortable telling the teacher about it. Teachers need to say ‘These are my students,’ not ‘This is my class.’”

While such a personalized approach may work at a small charter or private school, where the teacher-to-student ratio is low, it is less feasible at a large public school. Still, there are other ways to bridge gaps.

At Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., a school spokesman said more emphasis is being placed on interpersonal relationships rather than on technology.

Creating a feeling of ‘welcomeness’

“We haven’t done any major overhaul of the building design for security purposes,” said Christian Anderson, a research analyst for Jefferson County schools, of which Columbine is one.

“What’s more important is bolstering the feeling of feeling safe within the building, and the ‘welcomeness’ of it,” Anderson said. “Before, the kids would go to lunch and sit with their friends. Now the kids go out of their way to involve other kids they may not have sat with before. They try to be open and want to make sure everyone feels valued.”

There’s also a new awareness of the damage people can do, and of each person’s responsibility to help prevent tragedies from happening.

“There are a lot of little things every person can do to make a school safer, which includes reporting things if you don’t feel comfortable,” Anderson said. “There has to be a willingness of the students to say, ‘Gosh, Jimmy’s talking about doing this. I don’t know if he’ll do it, but he scares me.’”

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