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Security now plays bigger role in school design in wake of tragedies

Visitors who approach Rolling Knolls Elementary School in Annapolis are scrutinized by about 20 security cameras. Those and 60 more inside provide live feeds to the school office, centralized school security and Anne Arundel County police and fire officials.

Each outside door to the school is locked and controlled remotely. At the school entrance, visitors are asked to stand in front of a camera and speak into an intercom. Office staff are trained to ask their names and their reasons for visiting. Staff may then unlock a door to a vestibule, where the visitors encounter more locked doors, to the office and to the school.

In the office, staff ask visitors for identification, to be checked against databases. Classroom doors have locks, and the hallways are designed to be clear of obstructions, so administrators can stand at an intersection and see clearly in several directions.

Rolling Knolls, which opened in 2014, follows a security model that Anne Arundel County is replicating in all of its schools.

“We want to make our investments on the front end to preclude you from ever even getting into the building, or getting past the main front office,” said Alex Szachnowicz, the school system’s chief operating officer. “Every parent that sends a child to school deserves and should be assured that we’re going to deliver that child back home each and every day.”

As schools districts across Maryland commit $5.7 billion to ambitious construction projects over the next six years, with plans to renovate or build 77 schools, they’re making security central to the design.

School architects and security specialists have been working together on ways to harden schools since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. But each new attack — from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month to Great Mills High School in Southern Maryland on Tuesday — brings fresh challenges for officials trying to fortify buildings while still promoting a supportive environment for learning.

“Security in schools is an evolving thing,” said Robert A. Gorrell, executive director of Maryland’s Interagency Committee on School Construction. “We don’t want schools to be like prisons, so they’ve always been designed to be open and friendly. Trying to find that balance is what every school district is trying to do.”

School shootings in the United States have varied widely, and no single answer has emerged to stop them. Some attacks, such as the shootings that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook, are launched by outsiders. But many have been the work of a member of the school community — as in the student who St. Mary’s County officials say shot and wounded two schoolmates at Great Mills on Tuesday before he was himself killed.

One of his victims, 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey, died Thursday night after being taken off life support.

Design elements — video surveillance and layouts that offer visibility and make it easier for staff to supervise hallways, common areas and exteriors — can help deter attacks by such insiders, says Ken Trump, a school security consultant. But if they are to work, he says, training is essential.

“Any type of design, any type of security equipment, any type of hardware is helpful,” said Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. “But ultimately the challenge with school safety tends to be people issues. … The vast majority of [incidents] involve alleged failure of people and procedures, not failure of design, hardware or equipment. Any type of security hardware, technology or design is only as effective as the weakest human link behind it.”

School officials and security specialists say the design features that are now common — security cameras, locked doors, intercoms, enclosed vestibules — are just one element of a layered approach that also includes posting police officers in schools, directing services to help troubled students and scheduling drills against threats from intruders and active shooters, suspicious packages and hazardous materials.

Anne Arundel school officials encourage teachers and students to keep eyes and ears open in school and on social media and to report anything out of the ordinary, Szachnowicz said. He said district officials will be combing through investigations of the Great Mills shooting to determine if any additional preventive measures might be needed.

After the Parkland shootings, Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled a $125 million proposal to secure public schools with reinforced doors and panic buttons, $50 million annually for “school safety grants” that could pay for armed school resource officers, technology and counselors, and a 10-fold increase in funding for the state’s Center for School Safety, including money to hire social media analysts to scour the internet for threats.

“Classrooms should never be a place of fear for our children,” he said last month. “Government at all levels is grappling with what more can be done to keep our kids safe.”

The Republican governor, who has an A-minus rating from the National Rifle Association, also urged lawmakers to back two gun-control measures: a “red flag” law that would allow judges to order gun owners to surrender firearms temporarily if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, and legislation to ensure that gun owners who are convicted of domestic violence give up their weapons.

School shootings are not new to Maryland. On the first day of the 2012-13 school year, a 15-year-old student took a shotgun to Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County in his backpack. He assembled the weapon, entered the school cafeteria and fired it, critically wounding a 17-year-old schoolmate, before a school guidance counselor subdued him.

“That was a catalyst for us to make sure we put all the preventive measures we possibly can,” said Pete Dixit, executive director for facilities management for Baltimore County Public Schools.

The county has spent about $9.8 million to upgrade its camera and door buzzer technology. Workers began installing the upgrades in elementary schools two years ago, in middle schools last year and now in high schools.

“Back in the old days, school security was not that big an issue because we never had any incidents and the students were in a secure environment,” Dixit said. “But after several incidents here and throughout the country … where we can incorporate changes to design to make it difficult for the intruder to get in the building, we do that.”

When Newtown built a new school to replace Sandy Hook, the community made a conscious effort not to create a bunker.


Jay Brotman is managing partner at Svigals + Partners Architects, the Connecticut firm that designed the new school.

“After a tragedy as extreme as Sandy Hook, we pull up our bridges and we try to barricade ourselves into a protective zone,” he said. “Which is exactly the opposite of what you want for a community facility like a school … that needs to be open, inviting and inspire learning.”

“You have to start with the holistic big picture. You don’t start with ‘How do I make a front door that’s bulletproof?’ Or ‘How do I provide shelter in the classroom?’ ”

The conversation dates to the Columbine massacre, Trump said. But efforts to incorporate security often still fall short, he said, as schools try to meet academic and security needs within budget constraints.

“Safety and security have not been historically part of that equation,” Trump said. “I have walked into schools that are nearly Taj Mahals in terms of aesthetically pleasing and academic function, beautiful facilities that were built within budget, and you look and you say, ‘Where’s the conversation about fundamental basic security and practices?’

“Sometimes you just scratch your head. You walk in newer schools and before you get to the office, the cafeteria is right in front of you where kids are several hours a day eating lunch.”

Szachnowicz, the Arundel chief operating officer, said security is essential to education.

“You cannot have orderly instruction if you’re not in a safe and secure and conducive environment,” he said. “It’s really one of the fundamental elements that you have to ensure before you can get to the reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Trump said some of the better designs separate common areas that can be used by the public, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias and auditoriums, into wings that can be gated off from the rest of the school. They strategically place bus loops, parking and landscaping to make visitors visible, and lay out buildings to facilitate surveillance.

“Can I stand in one place as a principal and see down three hallways?” Trump said. “Is there a clear line of sight or nooks and crannies? Where do they place restrooms? Are they in areas where it is isolated so there is no adult supervision, or areas where it is easier to monitor?”

Trump also stressed the importance of staff training, drills and mental health support for students.

Baltimore is in the midst of a $1 billion, 10-year school construction program. As buildings are renovated or replaced under the 21st Century School Construction and Revitalization Program, they’ll get entrance doors with holding lobbies, classroom doors with internal locks, smart boards for digital notifications, clearer sightlines in hallways and from main offices, shatter-resistant glass, internal and external security cameras and fewer exit doors.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for the city school system, said those features will improve safety under normal circumstances as well as during a crisis.

The new Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore and the renovated Frederick Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore opened last fall under the program.

Another, Dorothy I. Height Elementary School in the Madison Park neighborhood, will reopen to students in April. The school seamlessly blends the new security features with an inviting design: large windows, collaborative classroom space and splashes of color.

In Harford County, officials follow the decades-old approach known as “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.” In schools, it means improving sightlines through the placement of the main office and windows, using security cameras, separating instructional areas from common areas, controlling access to buildings and directing people to main entrances through vestibules.

“The whole idea is to influence the actions of a would-be criminal by the design of whatever you are building,” said Joseph Licata, chief of administration for the Harford school district. “We use it for every school we build.”

A recent renovation at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston consolidated two buildings into one and did away with 1960s-era open classrooms by adding walls.

For the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, Brotman said, the community embraced Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

It starts with “setting up your perimeter so you know when people enter your sphere of influence,” he said. “If you follow the guidelines, you don’t need a lot of extra security-based apparatus to provide the level of protection that’s appropriate. … We utilized existing features to set up an approaching perimeter, not a 10-foot wall with wire, but a lovely landscaped space.”

The new Sandy Hook, which opened in 2016, weaves security features into a design that appears open and connected to nature. Two glass-enclosed wings and extensive windows in hallways and classrooms offer views outside. The building is surrounded by landscaping, parking and footbridges, not walls or fences, allowing visitors to be seen from a distance.

Less visible features include cameras, impact-resistant glass, reinforced door frames, heavy duty locks and interior doors that can lock automatically. The building makes extensive use of windows, but they’re set so people outside can’t see fully inside.

Brotman said the elements were designed specifically for Newtown, and might not be appropriate for all projects.

“You have to look at the entire ecosystem of the school in a holistic manner,” he said. “There’s not one magic element we’re going to find that we can employ in all schools.”

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