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School Safety – Problem or Goal?

Prakash Nair RA, REFP

There are two primary institutions in society where those entering the premises give up most of their individual rights to those who administer the facility – jails and schools. Little surprise then that safety planning in schools starts with the following assumptions:

  1. The inmates will act in a manner that jeopardizes the safety of the establishment if they are not controlled.
  2. There is a clear hierarchy that separates those in charge from those being taken care of. Like wardens in prisons and their jailers, Principals and staff are in charge of the safety of their staff and also for protecting students from each other and the staff from students.

Like prisons, schools are also built like fortresses to prevent outsiders from gaining unwarranted entry and students from leaving without adult consent.

Security patrols and rooftop lighting, smart cards for entry, metal detectors, alarm systems and video surveillance equipment have all become part of the standard safety jargon for schools. This, on top of passive design features like straight double-loaded corridors for easy monitoring and the elimination of any nooks and crannies where potential troublemakers could hide undetected.

Let us move from this depressing view of schools toward one where safety of the occupants becomes a goal that is shared by everyone. To visualize the difference, imagine the design of a well-run office building. Here, also, the occupants are protected from unsavory outsiders. Perhaps workers have to go through metal detectors and display special identification cards. All this has become even more routine ion the wake of September 11th 2001. There is, however, one important difference. Rarely are the security systems in commercial buildings designed to protect occupants from each other. We take the culture of mutual trust and responsibility that exists in a corporate setting for granted. In this setting, safety becomes a goal that all the occupants embrace freely. The objective is to enhance one’s feelings of security, to improve morale and productivity.

Do the safety measures adopted by schools improve feelings of security, enhance morale and improve productivity? Sadly, I believe the answer is no. This being the case, are there some inherent characteristics of schools which require them to follow the prison model and not the corporate model? The answer to this question is well evident in the research but hardly visible in the way that the majority of schools are designed today. Research about student behavior is very compelling about the fact that students in small learning settings with caring adult presence rarely act out like their counterparts in larger, institutional settings. These findings are true even when the building itself remains largely unchanged, but only the administering of it is changed. When Julia Richman High School in New York City, a large, unsafe and dysfunctional institution was closed and reopened with seven new and specialized programs, the safety problems disappeared almost magically even as graduation rates jumped from 25% to over 90%. This scenario is repeating itself in school after school throughout the country. In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Tom Vander Ark of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noted that “large comprehensive high schools have two fatal flaws – they are large and they are comprehensive.”1 The Gates Foundation has joined with The Department of Education, the Carnegie Corporation and others to grant tens of millions of dollars for the express purpose of breaking up larger schools.

In their book, Smaller, Safer, Saner Schools, Joe Nathan and Karen Febey provide numerous examples to demonstrate that small schools are not only safer, but also improve student achievement, graduation and a host of other educational outcomes.2

Creating smaller schools is definitely a step in the right direction, but why stop there? Measures that make for good educational practice are equally effective from a safety and security standpoint. For example, instead of long, impersonal double loaded corridors, what about opening a group of classrooms into a multi-purpose space to serve as an amphitheater/meeting place/public-speaking arena? Or, if a corridor is unavoidable, why not make it into an exciting learning street? These are the kinds of ideas on display at the Awards 2001 pages of the Designshare website.3

Bored and disengaged students who are in school against their will fit the profile of students most likely to act out. Designs that provide ample opportunities for
individualized learning – from the design of classrooms that permit multiple learning configurations to the creation of project rooms where students can work on long term projects and the creative use of the so-called nooks and crannies to encourage reading and socializing are just some ways in which schools can be more safe. Continuing this line of thinking, there is no reason why schools (at least middle and high schools) cannot look and feel like business entities. High Tech High in San Diego and the Met School in Rhode Island follow this model where hands-on learning and outside internships have largely replaced traditional classroom instruction.

When schools cease to be the anonymous, impersonal places they have been for so long, safety in schools will become a goal to pursue rather than a problem to solve.

Writer’s Background Information
Prakash Nair is an internationally recognized professional in the areas of innovative school facilities and educational technology. He is the Director of Educational Facilities Planning for Vitetta and President of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century. Before that, Prakash served as the Director of Operations for a multi-billion dollar school construction program in New York City. His many articles on designing school facilities that will endure well into the 21st century have been internationally published in print and on the Internet and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed him recently on the subject.

Prakash has conducted numerous seminars and workshops at the invitation of professional organizations and governments in five countries on four continents including the Netherlands and Australia. Prakash can be reached at:

Prakash Nair, RA, REFP
Fielding Nair International
4422 Carrollwood Village Drive
Tampa, FL 33618
Tel: 718.520.7318
Fax: 813.961.4815
Mobile: 917.406.3120

1 5.22.2001. Testimony for the House Appropriations Committee
Tom Vander Ark, Executive Director, Education, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

2 Smaller, Safer Saner Schools by Joe Nathan and Karen Febey is available for free download or purchase at

3 School Construction News and Design Share Awards 2001. Results of international school design competition posted at

July 16th, 2006

DesignShare publications are submitted by designers, university professors, architects, planning consultants, educators, technologists, futurists, and ecologists. Publications include podcasts, detailed case studies, conference proceedings, interviews, original research, editorials, thesis projects, and practical design guidelines.


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