Designing Safer Schools

In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has been besieged by the question: How can architects design safer schools?

I think we can do so by creating smaller, neighborhood buildings that are airy, light, bright and clean, and that reflect the principles of “defensible space.”

Knowing Terms
First, let’s define terms. Do I believe that an architect can produce a school that, by its design and construction, can preclude disasters like Columbine? Probably not. After all, architects and corrections experts have been trying for years to design prisons that will prevent inmates from causing harm to other inmates, yet prisons are among the most violent places in the United States. Clearly, if a disturbed individual wants to kill or incur violence, no building design will prevent this.


On the other hand, can school designs encourage pride in the school, create an atmosphere in which students are less likely to feel isolated, and form spaces that are easier to supervise? I firmly believe that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Assorted Groupings

In the General Accounting Office’s 1995 report on the nation’s public school facilities, deteriorating buildings accounted for much of the $112 billion in needed improvements. When students have to learn in spaces with leaky roofs, poor lighting, dirty floors and walls, and plumbing that does not work, it is easy to see how many students can assume that society places little value in them and their education. In turn, they can become hostile to their environment and, eventually, to their classmates.

Schools with thousands of students can create fringe groupings of students of the sort that were responsible for the Columbine shootings. Few of us want to be just another face in the crowd. In large groups, we often try to develop an identity that stands out because we feel lost in large, anonymous groups.

Smaller, neighborhood schools can help eliminate the feeling of anonymity. Students grow up with and know their fellow students. In much the same way, teachers can achieve a closer, more personal relationship with each student.

Bright, clean, imaginatively designed spaces that are uplifting and can create a sense of pride and ownership among students will encourage them to respect the space and what goes on within it. Recent studies indicate that natural light improves student performances and student behavior. Additional studies support the idea that “architecturally well-defined behavior settings” and environmentally healthy schools contribute to longer student attention spans and decreased interruptions.