School Safety: TxA School Security and Safety Workgroup

If there is anything that we can all agree on, it is that our children are most important in our lives. They are our present and our future. They give us joy, hope, and purpose. They fill our lives with amazement, wonder, and true happiness. Therefore, it is beyond any parent’s comprehension that our children would have to be exposed to and live with violence and fear in their schools.

The School Security and Safety Workgroup

Less than a week following the devastating school shootings in Santa Fe ISD, the Governor held a series of roundtables with school superintendents, administrators, law enforcement officials, mental health practitioners, survivors of mass shootings, and members of communities impacted by gun violence to gain insight as to how we could prevent these types of tragedies from ever happening again. Common themes of the discussion were:

  1. Making schools safer places
  2. Identifying threats in advance and resolving them
  3. Improving mental health assessments and services

Architects Make Recommendations on Improving Design of Texas Schools to Reduce Security Threats

As part of the development of the Governor’s School and Firearm Safety Action Plan, representatives of the Texas Society of Architects (TxA) were called to testify and advise the Governor’s committee on how to improve the infrastructure and design of Texas schools to reduce security threats. The discussion gave rise to the creation of a TxA School Security and Safety Workgroup to provide insight and make recommendations that lead to safer schools. The Workgroup is composed of a dozen expert public education architects, whose practices reach all regions of the state, all sizes of school districts, and all socio-economic communities.

Dealing with Shooting Threats From Within the Campus

As a member of the Workgroup, never before had I witnessed such universal agreement or willingness to work together by a group of diverse practitioners than on the topic of creating safer environments for school children. Just as most Texans have done, the workgroup immediately went to how we could “harden” or reinforce school buildings to prevent outside intruders. We quickly realized that while some measure of hardening is important, most fatalities have occurred from within the schools by students who belong there. The real issue is how to deal with threats from within a campus–especially active shooters. 

Are Metal Detectors An Advantage for School Safety?

We explored the use of metal detectors, a hot topic of debate in the hearings, and were in agreement that they were fraught with lots of downstream issues. How would we provide for the queue? If it was inside the building, most school buildings would not have adequate space. A queue outside of the building would provide challenges during bad weather and would consolidate students in large groups which is undesirable. How would school districts fund the metal detector purchases, facility improvements, and manpower in an already stressed funding environment? How will high school campuses deal with multiple entry points checking literally thousands of students daily? How would they deal with the constant movement throughout the day by students going to field houses, marching fields, and enrichment campuses?

The Cost of Hardening School Security

With every hardening suggestion, the group realized that proposed solutions would be costly when applied to all campuses and school districts throughout the state, and the results would be short-lived because the perpetrator would just find a work around or a different means of destruction. 

Recommended Security Features for School Buildings

There are some basic security features that we agreed that all districts could and should embrace; controlled entries, classroom locks, visibility control into classrooms, campus compartmentalization, two-way classroom communication devices, emergency notification capability (including social media apps), and secured, observable site elements should be provided as a baseline best practice. All schools should have controlled entry points that limit access to school buildings by visitors. Although this is moderately hardened, the protocol at least reinforces clearance expectations and provides students, faculty, and parents a set of rules to uphold. Most of the state’s fast-growth districts have been successfully introducing these elements for years and while moderately hardened, they convey the school district’s commitment to student safety.  

Best Practice Resources for Improved School Safety

Our Workgroup members endorsed utilization of a number of best practice resources including; CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design), A4LE (Association for Learning Environments) Safe Schools – A Best Practices Guide and the Texas State, Texas School Safety Center - Texas Unified School Safety and Security Standards in their practice of school design. The world has been flooded by safety policy recommendations, and we find that these references most closely reflect the needs of our communities and design features that are practical and helpful. We, as a group, wholeheartedly support the use of district level school safety committees that represent each community’s unique needs and values. The district selected School Safety and Security Committee should meet at least three times a year, once each semester and once during the summer. Because of the constantly shifting landscape of school safety and violence prevention, they should report to the board at least twice every year with emergency plan updates. Almost every security solution requires a building or infrastructure response so we, as educational architects, stand ready to participate with local committees to assist in designing, ensuring life-safety code compliance and budgeting solutions to meet their needs.

Student Mental Health as it Relates to Overall School Security

Lastly, we are united in the fact that mental health plays an enormous role in improving the safety of our schools. We feel strongly that a student who is engaged in learning, is known by at least one adult staff member, and participates in personalized learning is less likely to act out in violence. As environmental designers, we cannot endorse turning our schools into prisons. Hardening the buildings, eliminating natural light, and closing students off in bunkers will have the opposite effect on a student’s long-term mental outlook. Students should delight in learning, feel engaged with the greater community, and feel safe from harm while at school. 

Continued Efforts of the TxA School and Security and Safety Workgroup

The TxA School Security and Safety Workgroup continues to meet regularly to tackle this subject. School safety is a difficult problem for which there is no quick fix or one solution. Our children deserve to know that we are listening and actively attempting to make improvements to their safety.