August 14, 2016
In December of 2012, the tragic slaying of 20 children and 6 teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT by a lone gunman plunged our nation into grief and ignited a fierce debate over school security measures. The events in Newtown highlight a disturbing trend of armed violence of schools: since Sandy Hook, there have been 190 shooting incidents in United States schools. Proposed solutions to school gun violence include a wide spectrum of responses, ranging from increased mental health screening to the arming of teachers.
As designers and engineers, this necessitates an important question: how can we address the need for school safety without negatively impacting the educational mission with overbearing or counterproductive security measures? Volumes have been written about school security in the last 4 years offering guidance. Much of this literature, however, focuses on what should happen once a security event is already in progress. The “run, hide, fight” mantra is one common refrain from security advocates. However, this doesn’t teach us how to make sure schools are designed to withstand attacks in the first place, and give police an opportunity to respond before a situation spirals out of control.
Making Sense of Tragedy
In early 2015, Sandy Hook Elementary School was demolished. After some deliberation, Newtown officials elected to construct a new, modern school on the existing grounds. A design team was assembled that included local architect Svigals + Partners and DVS as the security consultants and engineers. The new school promised to honor those who perished by providing a nurturing environment for generations of children to learn and flourish.
From its inception, the school design was the subject of much public curiosity. In order to help garner consensus on the direction of the design, the design team met regularly with a group of local stakeholders, including educators, town officials, board of education members, and parents of local students. These meetings helped to move the design forward by incorporating the thoughts and ideas of those who would eventually use the school, as well as the voices of those in Newtown who were still healing from the tragedy. The process instilled a sense of communal ownership and involvement, and would eventually become regarded as one of the key elements of the project’s success.
Every phase of the project design prompted meaningful dialogue on the role of security in schools. As part of the design process, DVS convened a subcommittee consisting of town officials, first responders, and school security staff in order to evaluate all aspects of the security design as they evolved. The focus of the group was to develop solutions that focused on preventing security events from occurring, rather than how to deal with events in progress. These solutions ultimately influenced a wide range of design parameters, including the campus layout, school layout, construction materials, communications, and electronic security systems. The overall goal of these features was to introduce two key security elements: detection of a potential security condition before it occurred, and delay of that condition from escalating into a full-scale security event. We only needed to buy minutes of delay, the necessary window of time for on-site staff to react and law enforcement to arrive.
At each layer of the school grounds we thought about how to introduce detection and delay. At the campus perimeter, at the school perimeter, in general areas of the school, and at the classrooms themselves. We worked with manufacturers to test and validate new architectural materials and electronic products, incorporating some of these elements into the school design. Each of these decisions were thoroughly vetted and approved through the committee before being incorporated.
The end result of the committee’s work was a school that was secure but did not appear imposing or restrictive. Most of the final security design elements are incorporated into the architecture of the school and are not easily visible. The school appears bright and open, with natural views and large windows into surrounding nature. As many have commented, the building is a far cry from the dark and stuffy schools of their childhood.
School Security Standardization Through Legislation
In the wake of the Sandy Hook incident, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy created the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission to review current state policies and make recommendations for public safety. The Commission had three areas of focus: school safety, mental health, and gun violence protection. DVS was selected to provide input on security measures and how they can most effectively be applied in a school environment.
One key outcome of the Commission and its subsequent working committees was a report by the School Safety Infrastructure Council (SSIC), which effectively legislates minimum requirements for security for all school projects which apply for government funding. While not intended to supplant a formal security design process, the report provides a baseline for some elements of school security design, which can be incorporated as one aspect of a school’s security program. The development of the report occurred in parallel with the design of Sandy Hook School, which allowed a mutual exchange of ideas between the committee and the design team. Upon completion of the school’s design, DVS helped develop a technical companion guide to the report, which advises architects and engineers on how to practically incorporate its requirements into design documents.
Responses to the SSIC report have varied, but generally reflect an acknowledgement of the report as an important step forward in standardizing school security. By creating standards and tying them to state funding, it will help ensure that over time, all schools in Connecticut are brought up to a minimum level of security that is independent of size, grades served, and local demographic.
Brian P. Coulombe, PE, Principal, Director of Operations
DVS, a division of Ross & Baruzzini