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Special report: Can design prevent another Sandy Hook?

Special report: Can design prevent another Sandy Hook?

Our experts say no, but it could save lives. In this report, they offer recommendations on security design you can bring to your K-12 clients to prevent, or at least mitigate, a Sandy Hook on their turf.

By Robert Cassidy, Editorial Director | January 9, 2014
Illustration: Tom Rybarczyk
Illustration: Tom Rybarczyk

(Editor's Note: This article is the first in BD+C's five-part special report on security design for K-12 school projects. Read the full report.)



What can Building Teams do to prevent another tragedy like the one that befell Newtown, Conn., on December 14, 2012, when 20 first-graders and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Some would say nothing—that it’s impossible to stop an armed madman who is hell-bent on killing and willing to die.

“It’s a raw fact that if someone wants to hurt kids in a school, the likelihood is that they’ll have success,” says Pat Lamb, Director of Security & Operations, Irving (Texas) Independent School District, who oversees security for 35,000 students and 4,500 staff in 38 buildings. “You have to have the processes, infrastructure, and people in place to thwart the aggressor and mitigate the damage.”

With more than 20 shooting incidents in schools since Sandy Hook, security is a high priority for school administrators and boards. “They don’t want to be the one that says it could never happen here,” says Susan Smith, AIA, LEED AP, Vice President, Corgan Associates. 

Editor's note: This article is the first in a five-part special report on school security. The remaining articles will be posted in the coming week. 

Based on consultations with 17 experts in school security, the editors of Building Design+Construction offer this Special Report to provide you with reasonable design considerations you can bring to your K-12 clients to prevent, or at least mitigate, a Sandy Hook on their turf.



Making schools safe starts with a process of rigorous planning by a broad base of stakeholders—at the very least, school administrators, AEC professionals, security consultants, first responders, parents, and community leaders. It calls for a detailed assessment by the school district of the realities of the threats to children and staff, followed by clear goal-setting and budgeting. Sound painful? It is. But helping your K-12 clients through such a process can afford them the highest level of security possible for the available public funds—not the ill-conceived and often wasteful “solutions” that follow a headline-grabbing incident like Sandy Hook.

Applying CPTED principles to schools


CPTED puts “eyes on the street.” Here, a teacher who happens to be glancing out the window notices a man who has parked his vehicle illegally and is carrying a bag that could contain a weapon. Her next step: notify the office right away. Illustration: Tom Rybarczyk


Crime prevention through environmental design, or CPTED, owes its origins to the 1971 book of that title by criminologist C. Ray Jeffery. A year later came Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design.

CPTED has since been adapted to meet the security needs of schools. The National Institute of Crime Prevention offers 24- and 40-hour courses on CPTED for Schools (www.cptedtraining.net), with such segments as “CPTED Strategies,” “Lighting for Safety,” and “CPTED, Schools, and Terrorism.”

CPTED rests on four basic tenets: 1) access control, 2) surveillance (both “natural” and “formal”), 3) territoriality, and 4) hardening the target. 

Access control refers to the use of a single, clearly identifiable entry point to which visitors to a school are diverted, in a kind of funnel effect. Visitors should be stopped at a secure door, surveilled by video camera, asked to identify themselves, and buzzed in to a secure vestibule, where further identification and badging should take place.

Formal surveillance involves the use of video cameras and other electronic equipment to monitor entrances, parking lots, interior hallways, courtyards, and play areas for suspicious activity.

Natural surveillance uses “eyes on the street” to detect unusual activity that might call for a security response; for example, an exit door propped open with a stick. “Everyone on staff, even housekeeping, has to be vigilant,” says Heery International’s David Waggoner.

Territoriality refers to the delineation of space to allow for greater control by legitimate users, chiefly by providing clearly marked (and securable) zones of separation between classroom areas and spaces open to the community, such as meeting rooms. Security signage (“All Visitors Must Report to the Front Office”), proper building maintenance, and orderly landscaping contribute to territoriality.

Hardening the target works by making it harder for an intruder to take action. It can buy precious seconds. Commercial-grade doors, locks on the inside of classroom doors, lockable sidelites in classroom entries, a bulletproof door between the security vestibule and the hallway into the main building—these are examples of ways that schools can be “hardened” without turning them into prisons or fortresses.

“The rule is, Do everything you can, knowing you can’t do everything,” says Ronald Stephens, PhD, Executive Director, National School Safety Center. School districts are loath to devote limited capital resources to security improvements. It’s your job to give them the most protection you can for the available dollars.

In the following report, we offer a plan of action, based on input from numerous experts, to guide you in making new and existing schools safer, particularly in the case of an armed intruder. Part I (see below) focuses largely on planning and building design for school security. Part II (to be posted later this week) looks at technological solutions to this threat. Part III (to be posted later this week) presents the results of our exclusive survey of BD+C subscribers. Parts III and IV offer additional commentary on the subject.

Before we go on, however, several points need to be emphasized:

1. Early planning and collaboration with all stakeholders in the school district is the key to success. Skip this step and you may as well pack your iPad and go back to the office.

2. Thoughtful design of schools through the employment of “the three Ds” of security—deter, detect, delay—could save lives when seconds count.

3. Technology can help, but technology alone cannot make schools 100% safe. Training and preparedness, plus good design, are also required.

4. School boards’ chief priority is educating children, but they must also take into consideration that school buildings are community resources and must be open to the public at certain times. School officials and AEC professionals are strongly united in the belief that schools must not be turned into walled fortresses in the name of security.



What are the likely threats to security in the schools you serve? “The chances of a Newtown-type incident are low, but something is going to happen at your school,” says Kenneth M. Glantz, Executive Director, National Domestic Preparedness Coalition. It could be a ninth-grader who’s been bullied and now keeps a weapon in his locker. Or an angry parent who’s in a custody battle. Or a suspicious backpack hidden in a stairwell.

Scenarios like these are hardly far-fetched. “Over the years, we’ve had a lot of stuff with students, parents upset with teachers, custody issues,” says Larry D. Johnson, Assistant Superintendent and Executive Director for Public Safety/School Security, Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Schools. “We’ve stopped a lot of incidents.”

You can help initiate this assessment for your school district client by involving local police, other first responders, school resource officers (“SROs”), and facility staff in the assessment. You should advocate for the school board to hire a professional consultant with experience in school security. (See box, page 25.) Our exclusive survey shows that about 10% of AEC firms have security expertise on staff, and that many more firms use security consultants. 

Then make a site tour with the security team and school administrators. “We start as far away from the school as possible—in the neighborhood, on the path to school, at the entry into the building, and right into the classroom,” says Ed Schmidt, AIA, NOMA, CEFP, Principal/Executive Director, Fanning Howey.

Here’s a list of things to check outside the building:
• Is the property securely fenced? Can the fence be climbed easily?
• In old buildings, are there fire escapes?
• Is everyone who approaches the school directed to controlled entry points?
• Are trash containers (good places to stash weapons or explosives) locked?
• Are electrical vaults fenced and locked in the on position, so that an intruder can’t turn off the power to security cameras and notification systems?
• Are propane tanks set away from the building, fenced off, and padlocked?
• Are there cobwebs on the UPS generator? Then it hasn’t been tested recently or properly maintained.
• Is the surrounding terrain hilly, thereby affording a shooter a line of fire into the building?

Landscaping should be carefully scoped out. Well-maintained grounds send a message that people care about the school, which can act as a deterrent, according to security experts. But greenery can also raise security concerns. Check to see if bushes are trimmed to three feet high so that an intruder can’t lurk behind them. Tree branches should be cut to a height of 10 feet to make it difficult for an intruder to get up into a tree and hide.

Adds Alan Brockbank, President, B-Secure Consulting, “Make sure trees near the school building don’t provide access to the roof or block the security cameras or lighting systems.”


Floor plan shows “funneled” visitor flow from the exterior through a visually screened entryway secured by commercial-grade doors into a security vestibule, where further identification and badging can be conducted. At right, the path from the security vestibule to classrooms at Blairstown (N.J.) Elementary School is guarded by doors rated to UL Level 8 ballistic protection. PHOTO: UNITED STATES BULLET PROOFING, INC.


Deliveries are another security concern. Watch how, when, and where deliveries are made, particularly food trucks servicing the cafeteria. “Loading docks are a problem, because the driver props open the back door to deliver his load, but nobody checks when that truck leaves, so the door stays open for hours,” says Brockbank. If possible, fuel and other dangerous cargoes should be delivered when class is not in session, says Glantz. 

A rule of thumb on deliveries: “Make sure you know who’s coming, and make them check in at the office first,” says Glantz.

Vehicle flow and parking can also pose problems. Bus drop-offs should be separated from car drop-offs, not only for safety reasons but also to alert staff to any activity that looks out of place. Staff, visitor, and student parking should be assigned distinct areas. Visitor parking should be set back from the front of the building and clearly marked with signage to direct people to the front entrance: “You don’t want to make visitors walk around the whole building to find the front door,” says Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CEFP, Partner, PBK Architects.

Visitors should be visible from the front office, so that staff can take appropriate action if anything looks suspicious. “You want to be able to see anyone who has a shift in behavior, such as parking in a delivery area,” says Rebecca Baibak, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Integrus Architecture. (The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary parked his car next to a No Parking zone.) Parking areas should have signs stating “All vehicles subject to search.”

Once the security team has made the rounds of the exterior, it’s time to enter the building. 



Here’s a list of things to check inside the building:
• Is there any front-door security to speak of? Did anyone greet you at the door?
• How hard is it to get past the reception area and into the classroom corridors?
• Are classrooms locked from the inside?
• Are classroom areas separated from community spaces?
• Are all security cameras working? Do they have the optimal line of sight?
• Is the roof hatch unlocked?
• How good are sight lines down corridors?
• Any out-of-the-way restrooms or storage areas where someone could hide?
• Are any exterior doors propped open? Are these doors fitted with alarms?
• Is anything—or anyone—hidden in the stairwells?
• Do all visitors have ID badges? Are they allowed to stroll unaccompanied through the halls?
• What kind of keying system is in place? Keyless entry via swipe cards? Or actual keys? If the latter, are all keys accounted for? Manual keys should not be able to be duplicated or used without authorization.

Lighting must be checked both during the day and at night. “I usually find dozens of lights out, and when I ask the facilities people when they were last checked, I get ‘Oh, a couple of years ago,’” says Brockbank. 

A word of advice: Don’t let school officials push you into performing the assessment on a weekend or over the summer. “You have to do the threat assessment while school is in session, so you can evaluate the day-to-day security operations,” says Fanning Howey’s Schmidt. 

Ultimately, it is the job of the school board—acting, it is hoped, on advice from you—to make the final determination of the security threats.



Exterior conditions that should be checked in the process of conducting a threat analysis for an existing school (clockwise from upper left): Electrical vaults should be locked in the on position and screened; tree branches should be trimmed to 10 feet for visual monitoring and to prevent an intruder from hiding in the tree; bushes should be trimmed to three feet for the same reasons; and trash receptacles should be locked to prevent an intruder from using them to store weapons or explosives. ILLUSTRATION: TOM RYBARCZYK


Threat conditions vary widely, of course. A city school beset by gangs will have a much different agenda from that of a school district in a leafy suburb. A rural school district in the Southwest may have tornado planning at the top of its list, but visitors carrying legally concealed weapons may be a worry as well. High schools are usually bigger and more chaotic than middle or elementary schools. Some districts mix multiple buildings in a large-scale campus, making it more difficult to manage the flow of students and visitors.

Finally, the threat assessment must also take into account the resources that would be available in the event of an incident. How quickly can police and EMTs get to the school? What level of emergency care is available at the nearest hospital? In a crisis, says PBK’s Nigaglioni, “You may be dealing with a situation where seconds count.” 

At this point, the school board must establish priorities for security improvements via the budgeting process. The security budget should have three basic components: 

1) capital improvements to new and existing buildings, 2) systems improvements and technology, and 3) training of staff, teachers, and students. All three have to be in place and carefully balanced for the overall plan to be effective. “It’s a mistake to think that the building itself will provide the level of safety that everybody’s looking for,” says David M. Waggoner, AIA, CEFP, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President, Heery International.

A word about training: There is a sense of skepticism among security specialists about the rigor level of training in many school districts. “If you were to poll school districts, they would tell you they have their security plans, but if you talk to the school principals, they’ll say, yes, there may be a plan, but the security measures in place are low and so is the amount of practice,” says Glantz, a former captain in the Orlando (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department.


Mark classroom windows with large numerals so first responders can quickly find a room where an intruder is reported to be hiding. For the same reason, mark classroom doors with numerals at least three inches high. ILLUSTRATION: TOM RYBARCZYK


The 18,000-student Grand Rapids, Mich., system, may be a model of how to do it right. All GRPS administrative staff must attend a full-day School Safety Leadership Academy, plus an eight-hour advanced course. All 40 security officers go through 120 hours of training every year, approved by the National Association of School Security and Law Enforcement Officials (NASSLEO). All architects and engineers who do work for the district must be certified in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

Training and preparedness must be an essential component of any school security program. “Smart superintendents, principals, and school boards recognize that security and preparedness efforts are a strong tool for strengthening school-community trust and confidence in their leadership,” says Kenneth S. Trump, MPA, President, National School Safety and Security Services.



Our experts agree that physical design for schools should be guided by CPTED principles. The single most important element, they concur, is the entry system. Once the bell rings and students are in their classrooms, all late students and visitors—the UPS driver, the mom bringing in her third-grader’s forgotten lunchbox—must be “funneled” into a single, secure entryway equipped with a commercial-grade door and one or more video surveillance cameras. After being identified by office staff, the visitor should be buzzed into a “security vestibule.” 

Share floor plans with first responders


In most jurisdictions, public schools are required to share their floor plans with their local police and fire departments for emergency planning. “When we complete a school, the first responders ask for the plans and put them into their systems,” says Rebecca Baibak, Principal, Integrus Architecture, Seattle. “They’re particular about the level of detail they want in their drawings, so that they have a very simple way of analyzing that building.”

Security consultant Ken Glantz advises AEC firms to get first responders on site with plans in hand so they can test how well the documents correspond to reality. “We had one school where there had been six additions, so you’d enter in the 600 wing and the next one might be 300—there was no logic,” say Glantz. “A good floor plan is critical for first responders to be able to do their jobs.”One problem that comes up at this point is the “piggybacker”—the unscreened visitor who “tailgates” in behind legitimate visitors as they’re buzzed in. This is usually the fault of poor camera placement, which prevents the staff person doing the surveillance from seeing everyone who’s near the door. The solution, according to Trump, is to add a second camera (preferably a pan-tilt-zoom, or PTZ, camera) to provide a wider view of the entire front door area. 

How to hire a school security consultant

We asked Alan Brockbank, CPP, CSC, President, B Secure Consulting, what you and your K-12 clients should look for in a security consultant. Here’s his advice:

1. Verify that the consultant has the right credentials. “Many so-called ‘security experts’ don’t have the proper experience and credentials,” he says. Such designations include the Certified Protection Professional (CPP) or the Physical Security Professional (PSP), both administered by the American Society for Industrial Security (www.asis.org), and the Certified Security Consultant (CSC) designation from the International Association of Professional Security Consultants (iapsc.org).

2. Verify that the person or firm has proven experience in school security matters and is not just a generalist.

3. Ask to review samples of their work product.

4. Don’t just ask for references—call them to see if you detect any hesitancy about recommend the consultant.

Why not just use the local police department? Brockbank’s response: “Law enforcement officials are best consulted for incident response planning. Security consultants are typically better at the preventive measures that should be considered to help deter, detect, delay, and deny these incidents.”

Once inside the vestibule, all visitors should be greeted personally. This creates a “security statement” right up front. “One of the tenets of security is, To be confronted reduces crime,” says Glantz. “The greeter at Walmart is there not just to say ‘Hi’ but because they want you to understand that someone knows you’re in the building.”

Inside the vestibule, the reception desk is one place where bullet-resistant or even bulletproof glass and strengthened framing are worth the considerable expense. Receptionists should be equipped with a fast-response lockdown system and a buzzer (also known as a panic button) that directly signals local police. “We’re putting in a lot of those buzzers,” says Nagaglioni. “If the receptionist has a problem, the safest thing is just to buzz. There may not be an issue, but it accelerates the process if there is one.” 

Visitors should be asked for their driver’s licenses. There are systems that can do a quick background check to determine if the person is a sex offender or other security risk. Visitors should be given badges (to be worn at all times) and buzzed or escorted through a second heavily secured door leading into the main part of the building. “Every teacher and staff member should be taught to look for that badge,” says Corgan’s Smith. “Anyone without a badge should immediately be escorted back to the front office.”

If your design—whether for new construction or retrofit—meets the above standard, you’re on your way to a much more secure building. But two common situations have to be addressed. The first is the I-need-to-use-the-toilet-real-bad problem. Since schools are public buildings, it’s hard to deny access for such a request. But what if it’s just an excuse to get into the school and cause havoc?

The solution, where feasible, is to have a restroom adjacent to the security vestibule but still short of the secure door to the main building. It’s not the perfect answer, but it’s better than letting visitors use restrooms in student areas.

The other problem is angry parents, especially those involved in custody disputes. “I get 10 or 12 of those a year,” says Collin County (Texas) Sheriff Deputy George White. “I get the noncustodial dad who says, ‘I’m coming to the school to get my kid,’ and the angry mom who doesn’t want her ex-husband’s girlfriend to pick up the child,” he says. Situations like these can boil up into potentially violent confrontations, says White, SRO for Anna (Texas) ISD.

The design solution is to program in a “counseling room” off the vestibule for use by the SRO to cool down an angry adult, or for the school counselor to hold sessions that could turn nasty. As with the restroom, this space should have restricted access to the main building.

It’s a lot easier to create a security vestibule with new construction than it is to adapt an existing building. In many older school buildings, the main office is located deep in the core of the building, so that visitors have to walk through the hallways to get screened—hardly an ideal scenario. 

The same goes for zoning the school to separate the classroom wings from any spaces where the public might have routine access—meeting rooms used by the community, for example. Once again, it’s easier to create separate zones when you’re working with a blank slate than it is in a retrofit. For older schools, Broadbank recommends separating the spaces with commercial-grade or even blastproof doors equipped with maglocks, so that the doors can be locked down in the event of a security intrusion.



Just as designers are wary of making schools look like prisons in the name of security, they’re also concerned about security trumping daylighting and views of the outdoors, which are believed to benefit student and teacher performance. “You can’t make every pane of glass bulletproof,” says Heery’s David Waggoner. “You want to do as much as you can within the finite resources.” One place where experts agree that bulletproof or ballistic-resistant glass is a must is the reception area in the security vestibule.

As for other measures, laminated film or glass won’t stop bullets but could slow down an intruder. Ballistic fabrics can be applied behind drywall. Blast curtains may be effective, but they block the sun when in use. And fire chiefs may be concerned that hardened windows may be difficult to break through in the event of a fire.


The security sidelite unit “hardens the target” by providing an operable hollow metal panel that can be closed over the glass portion of the sidelite in an emergency. It also serves as a visual cue that the area has extra protection. PHOTO: ASSA ABLOY 


This does not mean that designers should give up on using glass in schools. Applying CPTED principles, the argument can be made that glass provides improved lines of sight, so that an intruder can be spotted more quickly. “First responders want to be able to see into the building,” says JCJ Architecture’s Jim LaPosta. In a post–Sandy Hook world, though, Building Teams will have to plug a security factor into their energy and daylighting models for new and reconstructed schools. 

Laposta, who testified as an expert before the Governor’s Commission on the Newtown shootings, says the final report is unlikely to go so far as to recommend bulletproof glass in every Connecticut school building window.

“A lot comes down to general building layout, situational awareness—designing a building with good sight lines, so if something looks out of place, you’re aware of it as soon as possible,” he says. Response time in shooting incidents has been about three to eight minutes, he notes. “If you can buy three or four minutes you can reduce the harm by moving people out of way, locking them down, and creating a secure site.” 




The editors wish to thank these experts for their help in the production of this Special Report:

Rebecca Baibak, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Integrus Architecture
Alan Brockbank, CPP, CSC
B-Secure Consulting
David Esquith, Director
Office of Safe and Healthy Students
U.S. Department of Education
Kenneth M. Glantz
Executive Director
National Domestic Preparedness Coalition
Larry D. Johnson
Assistant Superintendent & Executive Director
Public Safety/School Security
Grand Rapids (Mich.) Public Schools
Pat Lamb, Director
School Safety & Operations
Irving (Texas) ISD
Ron Lander, CPP, CMAS, PSM
Ultrasafe Security Specialists
James LaPosta, FAIA, LEED AP
Principal, Chief Architectural Officer
JCJ Architecture
John Laney
Chief Operations Officer
North Texas Communications
Irene Nigaglioni, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, CEFP
PBK Architects
Ed Schmidt, AIA, NOMA, CEFPI
Principal and Executive Director
Fanning Howey
Susan Smith, AIA, LEED AP
Vice President
Corgan Associates Inc.
Ronald Stephens, PhD
Executive Director
National School Safety Center
Doug Titus, CFM
Business Development Manager–Education
Kenneth S. Trump, MPA
National School Safety and Security Services
David Waggoner, AIA, CEFP, LEED AP BD+C
Vice President
Heery International
Collin County Sheriff Deputy George White
Anna (Texas) ISD



Electronic Security Association, “Electronic Security Guidelines for Schools,” June 1, 2013, at: www.esaweb.org/resource/resmgr/ESA-Resources/Guidelines_-_School_Security.pdf.
American Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities
ASIS School Safety & Security Committee https://www.asisonline.org/Membership/
Council of Educational Facilities Planners International, “Safe Schools: A Best Practices Guide,” Spring 2013, at: http://media.cefpi.org/SafeSchoolsGuide.pdf
National Association of School Security and Law Enforcement Officials
National Institute of Crime Prevention
North Carolina Division of School Support – School Planning, “Public Schools of North Carolina: Facilities Guidelines,” May 2013, at: http://www.schoolclearinghouse.org/pubs/FacilityGuidelines2013.pdf, and “Design of Schools to Resist Violent Attack,” January 2008, at: http://www.schoolclearinghouse.org/pubs/DesignSafeSchools.pdf
Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center
Sandy Hook Advisory Commission Interim Report, March 18, 2013, at: http://www.governor.ct.gov/malloy/lib/malloy/SHAC_Interim_Report_2013.03.18.pdf
(Editor's Note: This article is the first in BD+C's five-part special report on security design for K-12 school projects. Read the full report.)

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