Architects Must Participate in School Safety and Security Audits

In the wake of the numerous tragic incidents involving severe weather and violence in schools across the nation over the past two years, it has become increasingly apparent for the need to reassess not only school safety and security procedures but also the design features of educational facilities.

It is impossible, through design and engineering alone, to eliminate all threats to the safety of students and staff in school buildings. However, safety and security considerations must be integrated into the design of new facilities to the greatest extent possible if schools are to operate with an acceptable level of risk. Installing high numbers of surveillance cameras is not the solution.

It is essential to recognize that school design must look beyond the mechanics of traffic flow when considering the manner in which students typically circulate about campus, or how and where they gather. The places where students store their belongings, where and how they enter and leave buildings and school grounds, where they park their cars, and where they board school buses are additional considerations that have important design implications.

School districts can partner with architects to determine what design features contribute the most to school safety and security simply by taking an outside-in look at how a campus operates on a daily basis. A comprehensive school safety and security audit is an excellent way they can assess the design strength and vulnerabilities of any educational facility.

Assessment Participation Develops a Better Understanding of Challenges

By participating in these audits, an architect can gain a first hand appreciation for the challenging and often chilling realities administrators and teacher regularly face. He can learn a great deal by seeing school facilities as students see them.

Participation in an audit will also lead the architect to recognize that the school day typically begins at 5:30 a.m., when custodial personnel unlock gates, check mechanical systems, conduct vandalism sweeps, and open the buildings, readying for the students and staff arrival. He will also realize that the day does not typically conclude until approximately 11:00 p.m. when the alarms are set, doors are locked, security lighting is turned on, and the campus is secured at the perimeter. He will come to appreciate the need to consider school safety and security 24 hours per day, seven days per week in architectural design.

From the time students are dismissed in the afternoon until well into the evening, demands are made on a wide variety of school facilities to support an extensive array of student programs and activities. Band and chorus rooms, the stage and auditorium, the gymnasium, locker rooms, athletic fields, the media center, computer labs, multi-purpose rooms and the school cafeteria all receive intense utilization throughout the school year. The challenge confronting architects is to design a building in such a fashion that students and the public can simultaneously use it safely, and custodial personnel can clean, maintain and secure vacant parts of the campus.

It is because of these challenges that WK & Associates recommends assessments be conducted annually on the campus of every school in America and that school design architects participate with safety and security experts, administrators, and other appropriate persons in the conduct of such audits.

Districts Shouldn’t Just Leave It All Up to the Principals

Every architect today uses safety and security as their No.1 priority when presenting their design to school board members. The problem is that they design it, build it and walk away. School administrators then are confronted with the poor traffic flow for parents and school buses, as well as a lack of parking spaces for school staff, visitors and students where applicable.

Architects and engineers engaged in building new schools or renovating old ones must provide administrators with the locations in their design of the safest areas to evacuate students and staff in the event of severe weather/tornados or even in the event of a shelter-in-place event. We cannot place this awesome responsibility solely on a school principal.

Remember, school and workplace safety is everyone’s responsibility!

Wolfgang Halbig is currently the director of risk management for the Lake County (Fla.) Public Schools. He was formerly the executive director and national school safety consultant for the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety. He can be reached at wolfgangh@cfl.rr.com.

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