By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Clarksburg High School Principal James Koutsos has an expansive view from his front office: the parking lot, the front entrance and, with just a few steps, the hallway that funnels 960 students to class each day. The $52 million building, which opened in August, is energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing and designed with security in mind.
The placement of the office makes it difficult for visitors to slip into the building unnoticed. The open stairwell in the front hall, visible from the window of the security team leader's office, makes it easier to keep an eye on students.
It is a legacy of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which left 15 people dead and altered the idea of school as a safe place. In an increasing number of schools, security drives decisions about everything from where to place the principal's office to what kinds of locks and windows are selected.
"Twenty years ago, there just weren't these things to worry about," said Joel Sims, an architect who specializes in school design.
Though school shootings are relatively rare, a spate of violent incidents in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the past few months has renewed discussion about what is being done to keep children safe. Last month, President Bush convened a school safety summit in Chevy Chase, and the Maryland state legislature created a 19-member Task Force on School Safety.
In the post-Columbine era, schools have devoted resources to fostering a more welcoming environment for students: establishing anti-bullying programs, setting up anonymous tip lines and beefing up counseling staff as a means of reaching out to kids who might feel isolated or alienated from their peers. School safety experts agree that is a wise investment. Kids who feel a sense of belonging are less likely to act out, some say, and those who have good relationships with teachers and administrators are more likely to report a problem.
But educators have found that more must be done. In two of the three most recent school violence incidents, it was a stranger, not a student, doing the shooting.
In Colorado, Gov. Bill Owens (R) said security features added during the 2001 renovation of Platte Canyon High School allowed officials to quickly isolate the gunman who entered the school in September and prevent him from harming more students. Duane Morrison took six students hostage before killing one and committing suicide.
Architects who design schools say much can be done to improve security. There was a time when the principal's office would be located upstairs in the middle of a wing of classrooms. The idea was to make the administrator's office the "hub" of the school, said Paul Abramson, a school facilities consultant with Stanton, Leggett and Associates in New York.
"Today we would not do that,'' he said. "One of the things that has become a touchstone of all design is you now put the office right up front so you can't easily get through without going through there.''
Sims, the architect who specializes in school design, has created a smart schools design initiative that includes eliminating dead-end hallways, nooks and crannies. It also incorporates glass into the design to give a sense of openness and convey the message that people are watching.
"It's a huge challenge for architects to take security into account and to provide something that doesn't look like you're walking into a prison,'' said Kerry Leonard, chair of the American Institute of Architects committee on architecture and education. Advances in technology, however, make it easier for features such as metal detectors to be built directly into walls or to place surveillance cameras in ceilings, he said.
"There's no fail-safe, 100 percent method,'' said Wayde B. Byard, spokesman for the Loudoun County public school system. "But the human element is the biggest part. You have to keep your eyes open.''
Byard said it is not just Loudoun's new campuses that boast upgraded safety features. The system also has renovated some of its 1970s-era schools to improve previously blocked sightlines and to enclose walkways.
At Clarksburg High, visitors enter through a central entrance, which takes them by the main office. If they ignore the sign that asks them to check in, staff need only look through the bank of windows to monitor comings and goings.
"We're trying to balance friendliness with being safe,'' Principal Koutsos said.
If someone slips by the main office, there is a good chance he will be spotted by the security team leader, whose giant office window looks out in the main hallway. The school's long hallways are designed for smooth traffic flow but also so they can be easily monitored by staff posted in strategic locations. Doors around the rest of the building allow people to leave but not enter the school.
In Prince George's County, similar principles are used at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High, which opened in August. Visitors enter a lobby in front of the main office before they can approach any classrooms.
And at some Montgomery campuses, architects even have rethought bathroom design. At Great Seneca Creek Elementary, bathrooms have been built to make it easier for teachers to keep track of students. Boys and girls rooms are back-to-back, with sinks in a space outside the bathrooms. A teacher standing in the hallway can see into both restrooms without compromising students' privacy.
But attention spans are short, and architects say it is important that the conversation about school safety continues after headlines about the incidents in Pennsylvania and Colorado have faded.
"Part of my concern is that there's never enough,'' Sims said. "There are a lot of schools that should be commended, but a lot of existing schools need money to be put into them to make them right. It's not that complex.''