The Newtown, Conn., shootings have generated an understandable surge of interest in improving school security, and while hiring professional consultants to look over your site is a fine option, many schools lack funds for that purpose. With that in mind, it may be useful to point out some free alternatives, including the entire library of support materials now archived at the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, ranging from a very brief overview of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) for schools to a somewhat daunting, comprehensive (70 pages long) do-it-yourself inspection checklist (http://www.ncef.org/checklist/index.cfm).
That being said, the survey tool below falls somewhere between the two. It builds on basic CPTED concepts of natural surveillance, (the ability to see what’s going on,) natural access control (the ability to control who gets in and out) and territoriality, (the ability to project authority over a site), as well as touching on the advanced CPTED emphasis on connectivity. It should suffice in highlighting vulnerabilities.
Before You Start, Review Your Institution’s History
First interview staff and students, and research documents to identify any history of problems that might influence decisions about what is needed. This might include a history of violence at the schools, the degree of gang presence, the frequency with which weapons are involved, ongoing group or individual problems, the number of behavioral referrals or other red flags.
It’s worth noting whether a problem is site-wide, indicating an overall anti-social school or community culture worth addressing, or whether it involves only a small number of individuals, in which case a different type of intervention might be warranted. In addition, determine any fears for the future, whether or not the school has a history of problems. In many schools, for example, petty vandalism may be a top concern based on the school’s history, and one student may stand out based on recent threatening statements, but a future school shooting may be of greater immediate concern due to recent events covered in the media.
A time of day for incidents could be worth considering. For example, if behavior deteriorates before lunch time, can you determine how many students might have come to school without eating breakfast? A free breakfast program could be a reasonable solution. All such concerns should be taken into account when prioritizing recommended improvements.
Once the context has been established, begin a physical inspection. One way to do so is to build a rounded picture around the following eight-point framework:
1. What risks and opportunities do students encounter between home and school? These often include vehicle-pedestrian conflicts, but can also include exposure to pedophiles, pollutants, crime, bullies or other factors that compromise both student safety and their ability to succeed in school once they do arrive. Gang graffiti, broken bottles or needles in the gutters are examples of clues regarding risks to be gathered during an inspection. Opportunities might include natural areas, businesses or museums that could serve to enrich the school experience through field trips or internships.
2. What risks and opportunities are posed in areas directly adjoining school property?
- Are there unsavory businesses or activities close by?
- Is there evidence of a sex trade that could target students?
- Are there commercial messages on billboards that are counterproductive?
- Where are the closest hidden areas? These are likely spots for illicit behavior, ranging from cigarette smoking to other drug use, fights, bullying or prostitution. Make note of these for attention from school guardians.
- Is there clear border definition or access-control fencing at the school property’s edge, or is it wide open?
- Conversely, does fencing force students into a higher-risk path when walking to school?
3. Can office staff observe approaching visitors before they reach the school entry? Office staff are often the most available employees when it comes to keeping an eye on who or what’s approaching. With that in mind, what factors undermine their natural surveillance, and how could you fix that? For example:
- Is the office located at the main entry? This is the best position from which to observe people approaching.
- If it is at the main entry, are workers normally positioned to see people approaching, or do they have their backs turned? Rearranging the furniture may solve this problem.
- To what degree do windows allow direct natural surveillance?
- To what degree is surveillance blocked by solid walls, posters or other objects?
- Beyond the office, are there landscaping or geographic features that block the view?
- Are there solid fences that could be replaced with wrought iron to improve the view without compromising access control?
- Is outdoor lighting adequate for exposing activity?
- If the office rates poorly on these measures, options include moving the office to a new location, or using surveillance cameras and wall-mounted monitors to create a virtual window on the front entry.