Can school design help prevent school shootings?

“IT IS called a lockdown drill,” says Max, a nine-year-old pupil at a private school on the North side. “One teacher pretends to be an intruder. We have to hide in classroom, turn over our desks and hide behind them. We have to lock the door, barricade all the heavy stuff in front of the door and take a book or a ruler so we can throw it at the intruder if he comes in. We have to be super quiet. If someone says it is safe to come out we cannot do that, because it could be the intruder. We have to wait for the principal to come knocking on the door to tell us it is safe to come out.” 

This year has already seen the murder in February of 17 at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which had regularly held lockdown drills for years. On May 18th a student at Santa Fe High School in Texas killed ten of his peers and wounded 13 with a shotgun and a revolver. In the days after the Santa Fe massacre Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant-governor of Texas, made two suggestions. One was to echo President Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers with concealed weapons (many teachers abhor the idea of being armed). The other way he suggested to make schools safer was by reducing the number of entrances to one or two (how children might flee such a place was not apparently a major consideration).

Mr Patrick’s proposal might sound bananas, but some new schools are in fact designed with the prevention of mass shootings in mind. The average American school is 44 years old, built long before school shootings were a concern. Jim French, an architect with DLR Group who specialises in building schools, says his trade can help, but only up to a point. “The worst thing we can do is to turn our schools into prisons,” he says. (DLR also designs prisons.)

The recently redesigned school in Sandy Hook, site of the deadliest school shooting to date, has a new, light-filled building shaped like an “E” to maximise the number of evacuation routes. It has three entrances that can be reached from parking areas by foot bridges, allowing staff to monitor comings and goings. The school’s ground floor is elevated, making it difficult to see inside classrooms from the outside. Each classroom has locks and security doors as well as windows with impact-resistant glass.

Sandy Hook is a special case, as the brief for its architects was to build something that could withstand another horrific attack on the school. Connecticut provided a grant of $50m for the latest in anti-terror measures designed to “delay, detect and deter” an armed intruder. A similar case is a Jewish school in Las Vegas, sponsored by Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, and built by Mr French’s firm. The task was to make it terrorist-proof, says Mr French, who cannot disclose more details.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) produced a 225-page report in 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, which it dusted off after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The NRA suggests limiting entry to a single point; building a prison-style fence (the report shows a photo of a deficient fence juxtaposed with one that would have made GDR border guards proud); banning greenery outside schools because intruders may hide in trees and bushes or use them to cut through the aforementioned fence; and making do without windows, or only small ones with ballistic protective glass. Front offices should be protected with two sets of automatically locking doors to create an “entrapment area”.

At the end of the report is a draft for a law to allow schools to arm their teachers. Sadly it lacks any estimate of the cost of “hardening” America’s more than 100,000 schools, but it would probably run into hundreds of millions of dollars for each state, at a time when schools in Detroit have leaking roofs and schools in Baltimore are unable to heat their classrooms in winter. According to estimates by the American Society of Civil Engineers, America’s school infrastructure is underfunded by about $38 billion a year.

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