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.

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In trig class she doesn't notice that the door to the classroom has a large window so that teachers can see out and others can see in. Transparency. She doesn't notice as she looks outside that the courtyard is surrounded by classroom windows. It is another announcement to anyone in that space there that it is public space and you are not hidden from view. That same announcement is made silently in the cafeteria, where the faculty lunchroom sits above the cafeteria with windows that look down on all the students eating their Tater Tots. Lines of sight! Everywhere, it seems, is visible from somewhere else and all one has to do is go to an old school to understand the effect of this.

Mary has tried to create a space that allows CPTED concepts to exist naturally, and she has largely succeeded. "If anyone tells you as an architect that they'll let security override design, they're not telling the truth," says Mary. "But it has to be part of the process. It's hard not to think of Virginia Tech or Columbine. You have kids of your own and you're designing a school, it's unavoidable. But you can't let it dictate the design."

The First Year

Four days after the new high school opened, there was a brawl. The principal got tangled in it. It was caught on camera and now lawyers are involved. Then, across town at a bus stop, someone found an unspecific threat against the school; quietly, the administration intensified its daily lockdown procedures, and those procedures remain in place. Recently, the onsite officer apprehended a person who was loitering, someone the kids might call a "sketchy perv." The security seems to be working.

If you ask Brad or Mary or others which element of the new school's security has proved most valuable, which has performed best during this busy first year, they would tell you that it was John.

"Really, without John, all of this great security would go to waste," says Brad, the district facilities manager. John was hired because of his experience with computer-based facilities control at a high-profile college in the area. He knows his stuff.

But more than just technical savvy, he knows that policy is more important than gadgets. He knows, for example, the laws around surveillance in public places. He knows what procedure to follow if a parent demands to see some video because of something that she claims a teacher did to her son—a scenario that hasn't played out yet but John has no doubt eventually will.

"You don't have someone like John in many places; he's not your everyday guy," says Mary. "In a lot of new schools, you have great design specs for security, lots of toys, no one who can manage them and it becomes useless. It just sits there unused."

Mary thinks this might be because school districts hesitate to invest the money it requires to have someone skilled with this kind of infrastructure. "I think some schools think they can just promote a custodian and teach them this stuff, but this is advanced computing."

John has spent the first year learning. He says that event logging is great, but it can become a burden. The smart doors, for example, logged 8,553 pages of events in the building's first year of operations. He's been sorting out what policy to put around this, how long and where to keep this data. He also wants to ingrain standard operating procedures on staff. Too often, he says, someone with clearance to manipulate a camera will do so and forget to reset it. Thus the student whose cell phone was stolen was out of luck because the camera was pointed the wrong way, as it was when another student's bike was stolen. "We'll get it worked out," says John. "It's still new."

Brad, meanwhile, has no complaints, but he's thinking big picture. "I made sure up front that they all knew that these doors are great but that doors have a life expectancy. I'm going to need money down the line to maintain them." Other people, Brad says, see a door that can do lots of things. He sees a door that has lots of parts that can fail. "I see $1,200 repair jobs. So you worry that they get the technology but then don't give you the money to maintain it."

He points to the dark slate bricks that run halfway up the corridor walls. "For Mary, this is a design element. For me, it's anti-graffiti. I wanted these bricks all the way to the ceiling. Mary said that would make the space dark and institutional. She's probably right. I compromised on that one. I won some; I lost some."

Brad also thinks about teacher turnover. "Sometimes we forget when new teachers come in that maybe they don't understand all of the security elements. We need to formalize and standardize training."

Still, these are relatively minor issues. Both Brad and John acknowledge that, from a security perspective, they're quite fortunate. "I'm amazed all new schools don't do this," says John. "We're at the cutting edge a little bit. We could have done more, but this does the job."

In fact, one could argue the amount of security here is overkill. Even Mary, the architect of this suburban New England school, says, "That school's security is probably more than it needs to be, but when you spend that much on a new school, parents expect it. They demand it."

It's good for the campus's curb appeal.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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