By Becky Brady, AIA, CDT, LEED AP BD+C

K-12 schools exist to engage students in active learning, providing them with the skills and knowledge for successful futures. Unquestionably, these environments should also be safe and welcoming. Today’s students grapple with concerns including bullying, fights, the risk of school shootings, natural disasters, and mental health of students and teachers, leading to the need for innovative solutions to make learning spaces open and inclusive while also secure.

Designers can work to achieve this balance by considering a number of “invisible hardening” tactics, which go unnoticed by the general public, in addition to rethinking spaces to naturally minimize potential threats:

Streamline Entrances

A critical design element in school safety is addressing the building entry. By funneling visitors to a single point of entry and creating a vestibule within that entry where they can be greeted and identified, the school can better control access and safety. 

Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), whose goal is to design a physical environment that positively influences human behavior, stresses the importance of natural surveillance to maximize visibility. This means that the single point of entry and other key monitoring areas should have visuals to specific outdoor areas including the parent drop off zone, bus loop, and parking areas. This enables staff to rapidly identify any unusual behavior. 

An open cafeteria in the school setting with everyone seated if eating.

Photo: Mark Herboth

Access management is another environmental design component stressed by CPTED. Loading docks and service yards should be located away from the main entry with their own specific entries, enabling service and deliveries to take place smoothly and safely.  

Open Design Establishes Clear Sight Lines

Bullying is by far the most prevalent safety concern in schools, and the majority of bullying happens not in classrooms, but in corridors or enclosed places where teacher supervision is a challenge. By providing clear sight lines and eliminating areas that could become hiding places, teachers and staff can easily observe students and recognize if something is out of the ordinary. This early and rapid identification of potential conflicts enables them to be dealt with more effectively. 

Achieving an open design is the result of developing a simple overall building layout. Limiting the number of corridors, corners, and necessary points of visual surveillance enables teachers and staff to supervise students’ movement more easily throughout the school. Widening corridors, opening stairs and providing ample natural light can also aid in ease of supervision while making these spaces more welcoming and inviting.

A hallway full of windows with lots of natural light as students walk through.

Photo: Mark Herboth

Create Neutral Learning Commons

Learning commons are a key element in 21st century education. In addition to being a place for groups of students to work together, the learning commons acts as an area for students to go that is comfortable, safe, supervised, and relaxed. It is inherently different from a classroom with softer furniture and can be thought of as the living room of the school. The value of this space in the school safety discussion is its role as a place for students to cool down if tensions get high and to provide a space to relax at school in a way that not all students may be able to at home.

A learning common space that is full of life, movement and human interaction.

Photo: Mark Herboth

Make Schools Community-Centric

In a world where schools are growing larger due to economies of scale, it is critically important to foster small communities within the larger school community. Inherently, there is a greater possibility of a security issue arising in a larger school, so the creation of smaller communities provides layers of belonging and stronger interpersonal relationships among students.

Beyond their own walls, schools are recognizable in any community, often nestled within a neighborhood. If neighbors, surrounding businesses, and passersby all take pride and ownership in the school, it will benefit from continuous monitoring. Integrating community spaces and feedback is central to designing schools that are viewed as the heart of a community.

Connect to the Outdoors

Extensive research indicates the value of connectivity with the outdoors as beneficial to mental health as well as emotional and behavioral skills. Schools with natural daylighting, views, and outdoor space demonstrate higher student engagement and test scores, and fewer violent incidents. One study shows that being outdoors for classes can help more active or assertive students better control their emotions, while another indicated more open communication with teachers, notably from children with more closed personalities. Time outdoors where students have the opportunity to be in a less structured environment leads to enhanced social skills and appropriate social interactions. 

A picture containing indoor, floor, ceiling, building with kid working and a teacher

Photo: Mark Herboth

An outdoor courtyard of students at play in the school yard.

Photo: Mark Herboth

Consider Site Design Carefully

The design of a school site sets the tone for the school building and provides an opportunity to address safety concerns related to the clear separation of vehicular, bus, and foot traffic, as well as access. Common site considerations include plantings, covered waiting areas, site lighting, fencing, and safe pathways for students who walk or bike to school. 

While plantings and similar site elements help define the site and provide shading, these can also present a risk and be utilized as hiding places if visual monitoring is not considered during the design process. Site elements can be safely incorporated with visibility as the priority. 

Visual monitoring is particularly important for playground and field areas. These considerations include proximity to the school building for younger children, while outdoor areas for older students may be located near sports or multipurpose fields. 

A picture containing grass, sky, building, outdoor with kids running around the school.

Photo: Mark Herboth

In Summary: School Should Feel – and Look – Like School

The message that a building sends to a student is as important as the building itself. School is a place to engage, grow, learn to think critically, and understand complex concepts. The visual message of energetic welcome does not need to be lost in exchange for security – design methods exist to create safe and welcoming environments. In addition to design, technology, policies, procedures, adult-student interaction, and resources all play a role in school safety. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, and being part of the evolving discussion and research regarding school design is key to ensuring our schools are both safe and welcoming learning environments.