by arslan_ahmed | September 1, 2023 12:30 pm
By Jason Millard
In recent years, the safety of students in schools has emerged as a paramount concern for districts across the United States. A growing commitment
to student safety has ignited a wave of innovations and initiatives aimed at creating secure learning environments. Schools are increasingly adopting security protocols to strengthen their campuses and safeguard their students.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 90 percent of public schools in the country have developed a specific action plan; 70 percent of schools now run active-shooter drills with their students.
However, preparedness goes beyond school officials and administrators. For architects and designers specializing in institutional design, keeping children safe is an increasingly difficult task which can weigh heavy on one’s heart and mind.
By balancing design and safety, along with incorporating better access controls, such as advanced rolling closures, architects can help prevent and defend against shooting situations. The architecture and design industry has a responsibility to create intelligently designed schools that mitigate shooters and prevent mass casualties, and there are a few ways to do so.
Balancing aesthetics and protection
For architects working on K-12 schools, safety and security planning starts long before the first brick is laid. Strategic thinking about how to keep students safe is now baked into the design process of every school and institutional project. And, while safety and security are paramount, specifiers must prevent their design from looking or feeling dark, unappealing, and enclosed—which can impact the students’ and administrators’ mental state.
More than 352,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine massacre in 1999.1 Millions more go to school worried they will be next, and entering a prison-like atmosphere with windowless rooms and metal detectors does not help. So, how do architects and designers increase protection without breaking the budget or exacerbating the already enormous psychological toll placed on students?
Beyond crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), one concept that has come up repeatedly is “hardening” schools by incorporating walls and barriers. This concept originates in the security industry and refers to a greater level of impenetrability of physical elements, such as walls and doors.
By specifying ballistic-rated glass, designers can reinforce windows and glass doors without reducing natural daylight. This helps students connect with nature and brings light into the classroom, while reducing energy costs. Walls can also be hardened with materials, such as blast-resistant sheetrock, masonry, or reinforced concrete, making them more difficult to physically break through or penetrate.
The challenge with hardened materials, however, is finding the right balance across all building materials and products. If one specifies an expensive ballistic-rated entry door and uses a standard drywall opening, then the assailant can shoot right through the drywall; or worse, break through the wall and enter a classroom or office.
Further, while these reinforced glass, door, and wall products work, they can be incredibly expensive, placing them out of reach for many public-school district budgets. Therefore, many architects and designers place increased focus on reducing the overall points of entry and emphasize the use of high security materials on the school’s vestibule. Since ballistic-rated glass and hardened building materials are not feasible throughout an entire school or campus building, securing the main point of entry for staff, students, and visitors is a sound investment.
Simply installing a double-door system can greatly enhance security layering and screening. The ability to electronically lock down the outer set of doors also greatly improves response times during an active shooter situation.
These “fishbowl” rooms consist of a small entry point in a fortified location, and the visitor must gain access through the receptionist who may sit behind a thick glass window and use a pass tray system for ID verification. If there is an emergency, the receptionist can hit a panic button triggering counter shutters to come down at the face of the reception window, protecting the office.
Further, if a shooter or assailant tries to move past the lobby or entryway, a high security rolling door can be automatically deployed with the push of a button or automatic alarm. These nearly impenetrable doors may look like a standard rolling door from the outside, but the robust steel curtain features interlocking slats that compress when in the closed position to create a smooth surface reducing potential pry points.
If the attacker tries to pry open the door, the interlocking slats engage further to prevent separation and make the door even more durable. These products also feature reinforced bottom bars and a discreet locking system that thwarts the ability to lift the door. While the attacker is distracted by the door, exterior vestibule doors can be locked—effectively trapping the assailant in the lobby until the authorities arrive.
If an attacker does breach the double doors, as they have in previous tragedies, there should be second-level security that combines both active and passive measures. Public-facing staff in the entry lobby should be protected with bullet-proof or ballistic-resistant glass—an active measure. Building products such as walls, should be reinforced with blast-resistant sheetrock, masonry, or reinforced concrete—another active measure. Cameras, sensors, and scanners are passive measures which should be installed to contribute to the overall security of a school.
Secretary and administrator desks should also be equipped with emergency communication technology, including duress alarms. These systems allow school staff to rapidly, and sometimes discreetly, summon emergency assistance by pressing a button. While panic buttons are reactionary, they make it easier for school staff to notify police and call 911.
Beyond these hardened materials in the entryway or lobby, designers have created concept schools that incorporate curved hallways, serpentine corridors, and natural barriers to prevent an active shooter from firing in a straight line. Within safe spaces, adding hiding spaces and cubbies, and meticulously spaced classrooms that lock on demand, are additional design tactics to combat would-be attackers.
Compartmentalize to neutralize
One of the biggest design considerations architects typically must address are the dual issues of egress and fire safety. Fortunately, there are multiple and varied code requirements that designate the “rules of the road” for architects to keep occupants safe. The challenge for designing specifically for school shootings is twofold.
First, there is an absence of code-driven guidance specifically to design for hostile events within schools. Second, common sense tactics that can protect students can conflict with existing code requirements. For example, one popular tactic to protect students is compartmentalization, or shutting down hallways and sections of schools to minimize the ability of a threat to move freely throughout the building, or even escape.
The challenge is compartmentalization must not interfere with egress requirements which stipulate that any occupant must be able to exit the building
in an emergency. However, this does not mean compartmentalization is not achievable while meeting existing building codes.
For example, if students within a pod of classrooms have an alternate means of egress, and there is an assailant in a nearby hallway, an administrator using security cameras can remotely close doors to cut off a section of hallway once they have confirmed no students remain in the area. The key is to balance the need to mitigate risk from a threat and the need to enable students to escape, which can be a challenging line to walk.
Operational advances in rolling doors and grilles used for compartmentalization are changing the calculus for architects. Customizable movement capabilities have been developed that provide an added level of flexibility. Such doors allow an operator to switch between alarm inputs to mitigate specific threats in real-time. Rather than simply closing, the next generation products can close to create lockdown zones within a building when a hostile even alarm is triggered, as well as open to allow freedom of movement and emergency egress.
Unfortunately, as each tragedy occurs, more is learned about the varied security needs for school districts across the country. It is thought this knowledge will soon turn into specific guidance and even code requirements for schools in the future that identify the type of security schools should consider, as well as how to effectively design for safety while maintaining adherence to existing building codes.
Trust an expert
Before specifying high security rolling doors or other closure products, it is important to talk to an expert. Rolling door manufacturers have spent years developing solutions to combat threats such as school shooters and assailants. Some have even applied the same technology and materials that meet the Department of State standards for forced entry and protect American embassies around the world to their school safety product offerings. These advanced building products, along with finding the right balance of design and safety, may mean the difference between life and death.
1 Review www.washingtonpost.com/education/interactive/school-shootings-database
Jason Millard is the product manager for fire and life safety at Clopay, Cornell, and Cookson. He has been with the company for 25 years, working primarily with the architectural community on correct product specification for various applications. Millard can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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