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:
- The inmates will act in a manner that jeopardizes the safety of the establishment if
they are not controlled.
- 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
Director, Educational Facilities Planning, VITETTA
856-321-2000 ext. 212 NJ Office
718-459-0342 NY Office
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
3 School Construction News and Design
Share Awards 2001. Results of international school design competition posted at
© Design Share, Inc. & Prakash Nair, November 2001 | Design Share