Designing Safer Schools: Considerations for Increasing School Security
- By Devin Bowman
- May 15, 2023
School design is a complicated discipline, especially as more schools opt for increased protections against threats to life safety. Similar to sports arenas, shopping venues, theatres, hotels, and more, schools need to balance being accessible to the general public and providing occupant security.
Adding layers of security can help address this challenge in educational settings. While this, of course, varies by district, school, and existing security measures, two common approaches are the outside-in approach (hardening exteriors) and the inside-out approach (creating safe havens). Both methods have their benefits and drawbacks. The limitations of each method can be mitigated when both approaches are used in conjunction. However, given there is not yet a standardized code for building security, designers may not understand how to plan multiple layers of protection to provide an optimal level of security.
To contextualize these approaches and establish the value of a multi-tiered approach, it is important to look at what preparations schools have taken since the tragic events of Columbine and examine their effectiveness for on-campus violence. After this, building professionals and school administrators can more clearly understand how designs with multiple layers of protection can be used to best meet their particular needs.
How Have Schools Prepared for On-Campus Threats?
The 2017 report “Preventing School Shootings: The Effectiveness of Safety Measures” “describe[s] and assess[es] various measures often implemented as a direct response to a well-publicized school shooting,” such as hiring officers to patrol campuses and installing metal detectors to prevent guns and other weapons from entering schools. While other measures have been taken since 2017, including securing entrances and utilizing monitored access control, those mentioned in the report allow some understanding of the complexity of school security.
In terms of effectiveness, both having officers on school grounds and the use of metal detectors present a complicated picture. The effectiveness of officers relies on their ability to build a rapport with students, making them an integral but singular piece to the security puzzle. Metal detectors, which have been traditionally limited to “urban, inter-city schools,” also have their own limitations. While this equipment can positively impact school safety, at least seven studies from the past 30 years observe some students will not be deterred by metal detectors. In addition, metal detectors can also contribute to a “prisonlike environment” that works against student retention and success.
Both approaches to school security have helped keep students safe. However, they can be enhanced through changes to school building design, specifically when it includes layering several safety and security systems together.
Safeguarding from the Outside-In
In addition to the aforementioned measures, design-based approaches are becoming an integral part of building safer schools. They help reimagine how schools can be built (or renovated) to provide optimum security.
At its most fundamental level, the outside-in approach attempts to prevent access to a school by hardening a building’s exterior with locks and by monitoring points of access like entry vestibules, exterior stairwells, and emergency exits. It also attempts to prevent break-ins by using forced-entry and bullet-resistant materials. When used in entry vestibules and windows, this material is often transparent both to contribute to daylighting goals and to provide a way for occupants to see those approaching the school, providing valuable time to barricade rooms and contact authorities.
A benefit of hardening an exterior is that it typically requires fewer resources to improve security compared to inside-out approaches or hiring security guards, making it ideal as a first step in enhancing building security. However, hardened exteriors may not prevent all instances of violence on campuses. Improperly specified systems, which can happen as there is no current codified standard, may not provide the level of security a project needs. But even properly specified systems can be compromised whether by human error or situationally—for instance, if an intruder has a connection to the school and can easily bypass monitors. In these instances, multiple layers of protection can augment the security offered through perimeter hardening to enhance the overall security a building offers.
Additionally, entries and exits may be required to be fire-rated to establish safe paths of egress during a fire. This presents a couple difficulties, especially given the lack of security standards in current building codes. Because many forced-entry- and bullet-resistant-rated products are petroleum-based, they can burn more quickly and intensely than other materials, creating situations that greatly exceed fire rating testing parameters. This can diminish the duration and level of protection provided by fire-rated materials. Secondly, for retrofits, schools may opt for forced-entry-resistant films. While these products may, in theory, protect occupants, they do not cover frames or portions of glass within the frame—creating a weak point in an assembly that intruders can cause to fail. For these applications, multifunctional, fire-rated systems can ensure one form of protection is not compromised by another.
An Interior Layer: The Inside-Out Approach
The other approach prefers starting with a building’s interior and working outward. The inside-out approach creates safe havens within a building to protect occupants until authorities have detained the active shooter. The definition of a safe haven can range from complete wings that can be made inaccessible to areas within a room that are not observable from the outside—the latter being specific to K–12 applications. At their core, safe havens are places that provide temporary protection until first responders arrive.
The inside-out approach can augment exterior hardening and other security measures to help schools reach higher tiers of building security. Further, it provides protection when evacuation is either not possible or unsafe.
However, like all singular steps to building security, safe havens have their limitations that range from human error to the potential cost-prohibitive nature of incorporating forced-entry and bullet-resistant materials throughout a building’s interior. Moreover, safe havens may be located in areas that are not required to have fire-rated materials, which can be dangerous if occupants are required to evacuate due to a fire (or a false alarm, as was the case in the 1999 shooting at Westside Middle School). The concern in these areas is to ensure one threat to life safety does not override another, that occupants do not need to choose between sheltering-in-place in an area unprotected against fire or evacuating into a potentially unsafe situation.
These limitations can be significantly reduced by specifying multifunctional, fire-rated glazing systems within the built environment. Since these assemblies are tested to be compatible, they ensure one threat does not supersede or compound another. Additionally, updating building codes to include standardized best practices can also reduce limitations by creating a baseline level of protection, addressing areas where fire safety and building security may intersect, and establishing best practices for designing assemblies meant for these areas.
Creating Safer Schools: More Complex than an Either/Or Approach
The complicated nature of protecting students requires a complex approach. The ineffectiveness of security measures taken in the past—as well as the shortcomings of adopting either the outside-in or the inside-out approach—seems to indicate that safer school designs may need to adopt multiple layers of protection to achieve their security goals. However, understanding exactly how to layer multiple protections may be difficult without a model building security code to reference.
As school design professionals weigh the pros and cons of outside-in vs. inside-out tactics (as well as how they can be paired) to bolster school security, many in the building industry are also actively working together to advance building codes for the 2026 cycle to provide guidance on building security, sidelining complications, unintended compromises in protection, and keeping teachers and students safe.
This article originally appeared in the May / June 2023 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.