CPTED in Schools: Has Your Campus Applied These 3 Tactics to Prevent Crime?

A security veteran who has conducted countless site assessments shares successes and cautionary tales in CPTED and offers sage advice for schools.

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Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) refers to the integration of architectural design, landscaping, lighting, and other environmental factors to reduce criminal activity. When CPTED strategies are properly implemented, it increases an individual’s visibility and therefore increases the chances of being caught if committing a crime.

Crime prevention can be difficult to track because how can we keep track of crimes that didn’t happen? However, this should not deter campuses from implementing CPTED principles that are recognized globally as leading practices. The good news is a lot of the tactics used in CPTED aren’t difficult or expensive — they are simply intentional and based on the individual needs and physical arrangements of each campus.

Many strategies can be used to deter crime but perhaps the three most common, effective, and practical ones are:

  1. Natural surveillance and visibility (00:01)
  2. Lighting (04:53)
  3. Wayfinding (09:22)

Paul Timm, Allegion’s Director of Education Safety, spoke to Campus Safety about the fundamentals of these three CPTED principles and how they can and should be applied on school campuses.

Timm has conducted countless site assessments over the years and, in this interview, shares CPTED successes and failures he’s encountered as both a security professional and a parent.

“For a lot of the assessments I conduct, I ask if they want me to try to sneak into the building. And what I’ll generally do is follow a staff member in a side entrance, catch the door before it closes and latches, and then walk through the building,” Timm described. “And I’ve found myself, Amy, this is not an exaggeration, dozens of times I’ve been in the building for maybe as long as five or 10 minutes and I still have no idea where I am or how to get to the main office. That’s a lack of wayfinding. If I’m in the side or back of the building, there should always be directional signs to let me know how to get to the main office, the gym, whatever it might be.”

He also discussed:

  • Where schools that are looking to improve CPTED should start (14:56)
  • Best practices for CPTED during after-school events, particularly at night (16:23)
  • Advice on accessing grant funding to improve CPTED (19:02)

The full interview transcript is below and includes subhead descriptions to help break up the discussion into easily digestible parts.

Watch the full interview here or listen on-the-go on Apple or Spotify.


CPTED Tactic #1: Natural Surveillance and Visibility

Amy Rock (00:01): I want to break down the three major aspects of CPTED, which a lot of our readers know, but [stands for] Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Natural surveillance and visibility, lighting, and wayfinding are kind of the three main topics. Let’s start with natural surveillance. What is that? Why is it so important and can you give examples of ways this is implemented on campuses?

Paul Timm (00:26): Well, sure, we want to be able to see what’s in front of us and we want to be able to see people who are approaching or situations that are right there as in not very far from where we are. And natural surveillance will take place in things like vegetation. We want to make sure that our vegetation is trimmed and we have clear lines of sight. And so for example, shrubbery should never be more than three feet tall, otherwise somebody could be concealed by it, and tree limbs should be cleared at least eight feet high. Again, we are promoting good sight lines and that is natural surveillance.

So I want you to imagine yourself walking out to a parking lot where there’s dense vegetation all over the place and your vehicle is maybe parked up against that. You wouldn’t know if somebody were concealed by that until they were upon you. Whereas once we trim, and those are the areas that we want to really think about trimming — parking lots, walkways, and entrances — and then what we’re coming out of a door and there are no surprises. We can see what’s before us. We’re walking along a sidewalk, no surprises. We’re in a parking lot, no surprises. We may not be able to remove all of trim effectively, all of the vegetation on our property, but in those three places we want to give priority.

Amy Rock (01:56): I feel like there’s so many incidents you’ve heard about even just the school year, in parking lots, there’s a lot of activity that goes on in there, potential for threats, so that’s really important. I think a lot of people might instinctually think you want tall bushes so you can’t see inside of a school. So people, but it’s the opposite. You want it to look nice, but you need to be able to — especially for law enforcement — to be able to see into a building.

Paul Timm (02:22): Yes, and I know we’ve kind of broken out lighting as its own thing, but it’s really a component of natural surveillance as well. Same thing. Some schools, years ago and maybe even today, but years ago especially, we’d say we’re going to do the dark skies so that we’re not going to have loitering on our campus. But law enforcement never wanted to respond to an incident that was called in from a dark campus. They want to see what they’re walking into. Our video surveillance cameras need lighting to be able to pick things up, and so natural surveillance from a lighting standpoint becomes I think very, very important as well. And in those same three areas, Amy, we want to think about our parking lots being bright. We want to think about walkways being bright and entrances. So it’s really a close parallel with the trimming of vegetation from a natural surveillance standpoint.

Amy Rock (03:21): Yeah, this week, Campus Safety covers healthcare as you know, and that’s huge in healthcare too, especially parking lots where people are 24/7 coming in and out. So same concept there as well.

And we’ll jump back to lighting, but related to natural surveillance, and I guess you said they tie together, so it might be related to lighting, but in your work, are there common mistakes made by campuses trying to improve or they have all the best intentions and try and do the right thing, but they end up falling short or making a mistake, or maybe people misinterpret a best practice or something like that?

Paul Timm (03:56): Definitely. There’s a movement in landscape architecture toward these natural grasses. Sometimes it’s tiger grass or I won’t know the names of all of them, and it starts really cute and it looks very natural and all of a sudden over the course of years that grass is coming up higher and higher, and once it exceeds the three feet, we are right back to as if we had planted vegetation. So what I generally tell people is when we’re planting, we want plantings that have the word miniature in front of them — miniature arborvitaes and miniature yews and we could go right down, in general, as shrubbery that’s not going to grow more than three feet tall. With the grasses that are natural, some of those are going to grow just as tall as shrubbery would so that is an issue.

CPTED Tactic #2: Lighting

Amy Rock (04:53): And hopping back to lighting, why is this so important? Obviously you need visibility, but can you also give examples of ways this is implemented maybe aside from just a street light that people envision when they think of parking lot lighting, for example?

Paul Timm (05:10): Yes. Let me say first of all, that LED has really been the game changer because it’s just so much brighter and more efficient as well. I do know that some schools used to say, “We’re not going to run our lights at night purely because of a cost,” not because they believed the dark skies was going to keep people from loitering. So we’ve moved to LED, we’re rated better at night anyway, let’s leave ’em on at night because we’re going to have the band concert that finishes or maybe there’s a play practice that went later than everybody thought it would because it’s just before the opening curtain nights. And so kids are getting out late and adults are coming out late.

I remember one night my son was in contest play, and we just knew that because of driving curfew, he had to be home before 11 o’clock or whatever time it was. And so I was waiting as the parents sometimes do, and the chair not far from the door watching TV, and it’s past 11 o’clock and I’m thinking, “Where is my son?” Sometimes we can’t just put it on a timer and say we’re good until 10:00 PM or 11:00 PM then we cut off the lights. We always say, let’s leave them on the entire night. And we just don’t know what’s going to happen in that parking lot. But if something malevolent is taking place, now anybody who passes by can see, and this is an issue that a lot of retail places had. They would do the planting upfront off of the street and not have good lighting, and then people who were passing by never could see if there was a robbery or a crime taking place at all. Let’s remove all of that and have good lighting so everyone can be part of making an investment in the safety of that location.

Amy Rock (07:21): Now admittedly, there’s a term that I had seen that I had never heard of. Foot candle requirements, what is that?

Paul Timm (07:29): The Army Corps of Engineers and then a number of other entities have come up with a certain number of foot candles that should be a minimum, that if you are at an entrance, that if you’re in a parking lot, that you’re on a walkway and those differ just a little bit — entrance is going to be a higher amount required. But I will tell you, I had a colleague who was doing a light meter testing in a parking lot at night, and he called me and I was not expecting a call late at night, but he called and he said, “I’m looking at the light meter and it’s dark enough in the parking lot that I can’t see what the reading is.” And I said, that’s zero. If you can’t see the light meter that you’re holding in your hand and a reading on its display, it’s a zero. If there was any decent lighting at all, any, even just a small amount of foot candle measurement, you would be able to see what it is on that light meter. So it’s always amusing to me to think about that.

But yes, there are standards and you can find books that ASIS International puts out, that the security industry puts out, that gives exactly what those foot candle amounts are. And then when you get one of these light meter readers, it’s very easy to go in those places and just make sure. And what you’ll find, Amy, is sometimes we have light standards in the parking lot, but in that area, because the light comes off as a cone in that one area in the middle, you do not have adequate lighting. And this is a good lesson for anyone who’s a listener to make sure that we’re parking in good lighting. They greatly vary in terms of what kind of lighting they provide. So walk a few extra steps to make sure you’re in a place that can be seen.

CPTED Tactic #3: Wayfinding

Amy Rock (09:22): Skipping to wayfinding, which I feel like when people think about it, they think it must be pretty straightforward. But I also do think sometimes when there’s a security director that’s making these decisions to implement wayfinding, they’re on campus all the time, so it might not be as obvious to them. They know where they’re going, you know what I mean? They might not think you need a sign somewhere. They’re doing it every day. Why is wayfinding so important and can you give examples of ways it can be implemented?

Paul Timm (09:49): Sure. And wayfinding would probably come under the heading of territorial reinforcement, maybe even natural access control or designed access control. But I want to say this: the pandemic gave us a couple silver linings, and one of them is we needed people to get their belongings and we needed people to come to facilities that might’ve housed a couple thousand students and faculty, 50 even more, 60 even more. And we had to get them back in ways that would not cause people to be in close quarters. And so wayfinding helped us. I would go to pick up the belongings and know, here’s the place that I enter, and it’s then pointing me to door number eight. And when I got inside of door number eight, remember we would’ve six foot distances if we were standing behind somebody, but then it would point you to go to egress through door number nine, so you weren’t crossing paths with someone else who was coming in door number eight.

Wayfinding, I will also tell you just anecdotally, when my kids were involved in everything from speech team to track to football, I would go to the opposing school that I maybe had not visited before. I would drive onto the campus, my maps could get me there, and then it’s just catch as catch can is to where you go after that. And there were other activities going on. Lacrosse was happening and tennis, and I’d be sometimes asking a student who is walking by and maybe they didn’t even go to that school — how do I know – “Where do I go to find the fieldhouse?” Wayfinding helps us with that sandwich board signs, and you’ve seen many of those and signs that can be moved and some signs are permanent. We’re used to a one way out or a do not enter, and all of those wave finding things become very helpful to us, not just when we’re outside the building, but when we’re in the building too.

And for a lot of the assessments I conduct, I ask if I should try, if they want me to try to sneak in the building. And what I’ll generally do is follow a staff member in a side entrance, catch the door before it closes and latches, and then walk through the building. And I’ve found myself, Amy, this is not an exaggeration, dozens of times I’ve been in the building for maybe as long as five or 10 minutes and I still have no idea where I am or how to get to the main office. That’s a lack of wayfinding. If I’m in the side or back of the building, there should always be directional signs to let me know how to get to the main office, the gym, whatever it might be.

Amy Rock (12:31): In your assessments, are there common mistakes that people make with wayfinding? I know I feel like sometimes it varies on if they think you should number a room or put a teacher’s name on the room or something like that. Do you have any common mistakes that you see made?

Paul Timm (12:46): Well, it’s not strictly wayfinding, but I will tell you this. Occasionally schools will have renovations and it’ll change the classroom numbering scheme. And so you’ll see the correct number at the door but sometimes on the door they’ve left the old sign. Or here’s another thing, their exterior doors are definitely numbered. They’re numbered on the outside, but they should be numbered on the inside. If somebody had a seizure in that hallway, I shouldn’t have to wonder what door I’m standing near. I should just be able to look down the hall and see that’s door number 10, so that when I call in that I have an emergency, people know where I am. But yes, but I would say the biggest mistake I see in schools is a lack of wayfinding. The building’s been in use for 50 years, all the occupants know where to go. It’s only the visitors who are left to guess.

Amy Rock (13:42): And those are the people you don’t want wandering.

Paul Timm (13:45): Right. And it becomes a liability.

Amy Rock (13:49): I’ve seen a lot of schools too will put, this is for first responders, I believe a number on the outside of a window. Do you see that? The classroom number from the outside of the building?

Paul Timm (14:00): Yeah, more and more that’s happening so that we can identify what the classroom number is. And the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) actually has in their guidelines, they said the classroom number should be in the top right of that window. And it’s interesting you bring that up. I was recently doing an assessment and sometimes there’s two windows in a classroom and they had it in the lower window. And what they hadn’t thought about was that in the warmer months, they had screens on those windows, so you couldn’t see the number clearly behind the screen. But if they had put it in the top and especially on the right and had a scheme to it all, and of course that’s one of the recommendations that we gave in the report.

Amy Rock (14:45): Or if their natural surveillance bushes get too high, then that can block that too. So put it up.

Paul Timm (14:51): Absolutely. You’re thinking right on the right track.

Where to Start to Improve CPTED in Schools

Amy Rock (14:56): And now a lot of schools have limited budget, so let’s say school has a small budget, but they want to improve their CPTED. I’m sure this can vary campus to campus, but typically, what are the first few things you recommend they can do to improve it?

Paul Timm (15:12): Well, the first thing I would do is go right to our local responders, and what you’ll find is the National Association of School Resource Officers, NASRO, actually teaches CPTED courses to that school resource officer, and then that person can come back and already have an idea of how to get this done. In many cases, you’ll find that it’s a low cost type item, but I want that expertise of somebody who’s local and invested and trained. So I always go to my local responders first. Sometimes even they’ll have a program that makes it a collaborative type cost.

If not, we can find funds in other places. Sometimes there are public school grants that we can find some monies in or foundation grants. And I will tell you more and more we’re going to see foundation grants pop up because everybody understands the value of that community being safer and what’s at the center of that community is the school. So how can we help them? And especially for low-cost items like this, how can we help that school begin to reduce their crime?

CPTED for After-Hours Campus Events

Amy Rock (16:23): There’s been so many incidences of violence at football games, for example. And we mentioned parking lot lighting obviously, but do you have any other CPTED tips for after-hours activities such as football games, especially those that are at night?

Paul Timm (16:36): Sure, and this is a territorial reinforcement again — fencing. What you’ll find is that perimeter fence or maybe the fence is around the athletic fields, you’ll find that it doesn’t take much for people to figure out ways to get in through some bent part of fencing or whatever it might be. We’ve got to be really careful to maintain and make sure that all of those things are working very well.

The other thing we want to do is make sure we have some kind of video surveillance on areas that we have found to be trouble areas. The only other thing I want to mention about after-school activities is the presence of safety always helps. So a sign that might say, see something, say something, and this is how you report, or here’s an anonymous tip line. The presence of people who are monitoring those games being marked with an orange safety vest and equipped with a two-way radio and a whistle and a fanny pack with first aid supplies. All of these things begin to help the event be safer. As soon as I come in, and this is a big CPTED principle, as soon as I come in, I want to see that it’s a safe activity. And we do that by making sure that our staff, our monitors, our volunteers, are all part of what makes things look safe.

Amy Rock (18:01): I wonder if this would be a big ask, but do you think it’s realistic to have an employee at the school who after a football game, for example, does a walkthrough of the facility just to check for any vulnerabilities that might’ve been created during the game, whether a fence got pushed and someone went in that way?

Paul Timm (18:20): Yeah. It’s not necessarily a big ask because our facilities personnel have quietly, and maybe thanklessly, been doing this for a while, but if I were a security director, I would enlist as many people as I could in a collaborative effort. So I would have volunteers who maybe are grandparents or parents who want it to be safe, could you take a lap around? Facilities personnel, of course, security personnel. But absolutely, we should be doing this. And there are pre-game initiatives like you’re talking about. There are post-game initiatives, and of course, then there are the things we do during the activity as well.

Grants and Funding for CPTED in Schools

Amy Rock (19:02): Okay. And now you mentioned grants and funding. Do you know if, are there any grants out there specific to CPTED, and if not, any grant or funding that you’re seeing being commonly used for CPTED initiatives?

Paul Timm (19:17): If you’re going to find a grant or monies that are CPTED specific, generally it’s going to be a community-type event, a community-type initiative. Once we get to more of the federal grants and the foundation grants, some foundation grants may specify CPTED, but I will tell you this, it’s almost impossible to keep up with everything that’s coming up. And then things speculating about what’s on the horizon. But I will say schoolsafety.gov is a website that is the federal repository for school security and emergency preparedness resources. They have a whole portion of their website that is geared toward grant funding and foundation funding. So I shouldn’t even have used the word grant. That’s part of it but funding in general is something that you’ll find there.

And the other thing that we can do in a world where we’re as connected as we are and social media can be a help with this, so many other things as well, is we just want to be asking, what do you know about, is there anything you know about? Sometimes what we’ll even find, Amy, is there’s a local business and they have an investment in the community and they’d like to make a donation that is practical and they can actually then see implemented. So that’s what I would do, I would start at schoolsafety.gov, and then I would, locally, I would network as much as possible.

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About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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