Securing the Suburban High School

These days, when towns approve funding for new high schools they demand trendy architects, high-end sports complexes and security. Lots and lots of security.

school security challenges at a suburban high school in Massachusetts

About four years ago, in a New England suburb, voters agreed to raise their taxes in order to build a new, $64 million high school. The old school was a hundred years old and, if you blocked out the spiritless addition tacked on in the '60s, it was magnificent to look at. But the place was crumbling. It strained to support modern educational basics like computer labs and lacrosse practices.

It's important to note here that in the early 21st century, one no longer builds a high school. One builds a campus. The trend in public school design comes from realty, "curb appeal," and with the trend comes the attendant jargon. Auditoriums have become performing arts centers, cafeterias are dining commons and the gym is part of an athletic complex. Parents, home buyers, even prospective teachers increasingly (perhaps erroneously) judge a town's quality of education by the quality of its buildings. Schools have become civic marketing. They must attract the best educators, increase property values and even generate revenue.

5 Elements of a School Security Plan

Often people think of a security plan as just crisis response: what you do when something bad happens. In fact, that's just the fifth element of a comprehensive plan. Here are the elements you should think about when creating a facilities security plan.

  • Deterrence. Training, awareness, lighting, signage, perimeters, visible cameras, human interaction, CPTED design
  • Detection. Surveillance, patrol, motion detection, alarms, anonymous tip lines
  • Delay. Locks, lockdown doors, lockdown procedures, vestibules and mantraps, glazing
  • Communication. PA with battery backup, two-way radios, cell phone policies and procedures, e-mail and texting capabilities, PR response plan
  • Response. Security team procedures, law enforcement, fire and civic liaisons, lockdown procedures

Source: Paul Timm, Reta Security Inc.

And they must be modern marvels of safety and security. Security is, in fact, a major element in contemporary school design, and it is as much or more a part of curb appeal as FieldTurf.

Security earned this status in 1999, after the shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Despite the fact that a student's odds of being murdered at school today are less than one in two million—a risk two and a half times less likely than drowning in a bath tub—parents and teachers have internalized the vanishingly rare but ubiquitously publicized events like the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech. These events are used to justify extreme levels of security that, if you haven't gone to high school in the past decade, you may find difficult to comprehend.

As elements of a school's curb appeal go, security is probably the most complicated. You can't just rename something or lay it down like plastic grass and protect it against all risks equally. So before construction at this school started, the architect, Mary (all names in the story have been changed), brought the principal stakeholders to city hall. Around the table sat the principal; representatives from the police, fire and the building committee; Brad, the district's head of facilities; and Mary herself. Sometimes the mayor sat in. Essentially, this committee operated as both the CSO and the business stakeholders the CSO reported to. Their job was to satisfy as best they could all the stakeholders' agendas while still effectively reducing risk, and then defend their decisions with each other and with the community, with parents especially, who Brad says, "happen to have the most to lose and the least understanding of risk."

It was as difficult as it sounds and it required difficult conversations. Everyone agreed, for example, that the school should have smart doors that have magnetic locks and can be controlled by computer. But the police rep rather intensely demanded that the architects' design allow for complete lockdown of all doors. Lockdown can keep a gunman out, or at least slow him down. Reduce the number of people shot dead.

The fire department rep protested with vehemence. He mandated that doors stay open on each of the school's four floors at all times. He was imagining the crush of students and teachers trapped in a locked down building during a fire.

So they tried to compromise by allowing for a few doors to stay open plus adding a fire alarm override of lockdowns. But then, what if the gunman is smart enough to pull a fire alarm? Brad, the district's head of facilities, remembers the meeting as a wrenching exploration of risk. He remembers thinking, "We're basically talking about which is more likely to happen, a fire killing a lot of students or a gunman killing a lot of students, and how many students each would kill."

What about accidental explosions? What if we find weapons in a locker? Bomb threats? What about a violent spouse in a nasty custody battle showing up? The more risks they discussed, the more they conjured up. Brad says that a teacher had been killed in her home in this city in recent years, as had a student's mother in a separate incident, a visceral reminder of what was at stake.

suburban high school entrance

"This is the hard part," says Mary, who insisted that these meetings take place and described them as cordial and professional but also exhausting. "There are code constraints and safety constraints and design constraints and they don't always work hand in hand. Sometimes you have to choose one over the other. Those are hard conversations."

Ultimately, it took six meetings to come up with a security design that everyone could agree on. Brad pushed hard for some features; Mary pushed back. The principal was adamant about other elements. The police wanted lots of access and got some of it. The city invested more than $500,000 on security in the building phase alone. "Credit to Mary," says Brad, "it's a beautiful school. But from a security perspective it was a difficult process to get here."

School security: An in-depth report

What follows is an exploration of that design, how it worked in its first year in operation and what the various stakeholders have learned—and are still learning—about securing the suburban high school.

The Security You Notice

The new school is described by the architect as "modern, in the New England vernacular," but a student pulling into the lot for the first time probably wouldn't think of that. She'd think that the school looks really long. Using a dramatic horizontal profile, Mary fitted a four-floor, 340,000-square-foot building onto a 120,000-square-foot footprint, preventing that massiveness from feeling as imposing as it otherwise might.

The student would notice plenty of security throughout her day, though. In the parking lot, she would pass under surveillance cameras fixed on posts higher than the flagpoles. Approaching the front door, she'd cross a stately row of lampposts that hang in a style mimicked by more cameras bolted to the front of the building. This is no accident. Architects want the cameras to blend in so that they don't disturb the overall look of the place, and the administration wants the cameras to blend in such that they appear neither covert nor hostile. In this case the aesthetic and the security are in perfect harmony.

In the bright, open lobby, windows to the left look in on the school offices, and the student won't miss the four flat-panel screens broadcasting feeds from the surveillance cameras. They're the first thing that catches her eye when she enters the lobby, and that's the point. But the message to her isn't meant to be "We're watching you" but rather "We're protecting you and we have nothing to hide." The fact that the feeds are in high-resolution color, not grainy black-and-white, and that John, the facility manager who operates them, chooses to put only one feed on each screen, rather than a windowpane of 15 feeds, makes them seem less menacing, less omniscient.

As the student drops her books in her locker, she notices the cameras' tinted domes punctuating the hallway ceilings, just like the ones at stores in the mall. She's heard from friends that some cameras, she's not sure which ones, can pan, tilt and zoom all around.

Later, when the student's staring out the window during trig class, she sees exterior cameras that lord over one of two courtyards. She can't miss the cameras watching her eat Tater Tots in the cafeteria.

She won't count, but there are about 60 cameras total. She might not know that John will, as part of his nothing-to-hide philosophy, let her see and operate the cameras, and show her the stack of DVRs that capture all the video. He's done this for several students already. He shows them how every time a teacher uses the wireless fob to open a door, the event is logged, and that the event can be matched up to video of the event. He shows how if someone pushes on a locked door, the event is logged, and if someone leaves a door open too long, the event is logged and it triggers an alarm on his computer. He shows how he can lock the entire building down with one click and preset the time doors unlock and lights turn on. He might mention that the police have secure access to the camera views. "Usually, their jaws drop," says John.

Many corporate CSOs would love to have John's system. But while its capabilities would surprise the student at first, both Brad and John say she wouldn't be particularly fazed by it. It's a generational thing. Kids just don't care; they live their lives under surveillance. And besides, both men say, the student's probably savvier than you think. She almost certainly already knows that there are no cameras in the stairwells at each end of the building and, if she smokes, that's where she'll light up.

Nor, they say, is she fazed by perhaps the most visible security measure of all, the onsite uniformed police officer. She and her friends trade text messages during the day to let each other know where the cop is stationed. She knows that the school is locked during class and if she leaves, she can't get back in without buzzing the front desk and having to explain herself. She knows that teachers carry small wireless fobs that open the locked doors.

Before soccer practice one afternoon, one student confirms all of this and she adds: "The cameras are dumb. I had my cell phone stolen and the camera wasn't pointed in the right direction to catch the kid." Indeed, students have come to think of the cameras as an asset—they ask John to review tape to see if they could catch whoever stole their cell phone or bike. "We encourage that," says John. "We want the kids to think of this as a resource, not just surveillance. We don't want it to feel like a prison, because it isn't."

The Security You Don't Notice

It's no accident that the school doesn't feel like a prison. Design elements that reduce security's burdensome presence—light, open space, bright colors, an unimposing profile—will reduce anxiety and create a more positive atmosphere, which in turn reduces the likelihood of someone choosing to act out. This idea is part of CPTED, criminal prevention through environmental design. CPTED has been evolving for more than 30 years, but the basic idea is constant—that you can design more defensible space that discourages bad behavior. It is equal parts design and psychology. But CPTED principles do not dictate the high school's design; they inform it.

Our student arriving in the parking lot wouldn't notice this part of the school's security throughout her day.

From the parking lot, the student sees a long building, but a CPTED adherent sees a building that is not intimidating or institutional. If it feels like a prison, students will feel like prisoners and treat the building that way.

As the student passes the stately lampposts, she wouldn't notice how few protected-from-view niches exist. She wouldn't notice the fact that there are no bushes or other landscaping along the perimeter of the building. The design discourages hiding by limiting hiding spaces.

In the lobby, while she's looking at the flat screens, she wouldn't notice how open the space is or the fact that the windows of the office allow a full view of the entire lobby. She doesn't notice that the second floor corridor opens up to become a visible bridge when it crosses the lobby. You can see the entire lobby from up there and vice versa. Public space.

At her locker, she doesn't notice that the corridors meet at hubs, from which one teacher can see the entire length of the building and down one of three wings. Because of this design, as few as 12 teachers, three per floor, can monitor every hallway in the building. The bathrooms and some benches are located in these hubs, where a teacher would be standing. It's a tacit way to encourage the student and her friends to gather there, close to the teachers, which in turn discourages misbehavior. "Teachers," says Mary, "love the long lines of sight, the broad hallways."

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