Masters of Utilizing CPTED to Improve School Safety, Security, Climate and Culture

©Michael Dorn Safe Havens International 2020 Magnolia Middle School in Mississippi serves as an excellent example of how architects with a high degree of expertise of the utilization of crime prevention through environmental design can create safer and more welcoming schools.
©Michael Dorn Safe Havens International 2020
Magnolia Middle School in Mississippi serves as an excellent example of how architects with a high degree of expertise of the utilization of crime prevention through environmental design can create safer and more welcoming schools.


©Michael Dorn Safe Havens International 2020
Thoughtful utilization of CPTED in school design can reduce the types of hidden and difficult to supervise areas that are the locations of many sexual assaults, acts of vandalism, deaths from medical emergencies, drug overdoses and homicides.  The open stairwell and extensive use of magnetic holdback devices on stairwells and main hallways dramatically reduce the risk of death in schools.


©Michael Dorn Safe Havens International 2020
The thoughtful utilization of visuals creates a greater sense of connectivity which improves school climate.  As demonstrated in multiple peer review studies, school climate is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of homicide in K12 schools.  While CPTED does not replace physical security measures, law enforcement and security personnel, policies, technology, hardware, mental health services, and other important options to enhance security, it is a powerful life-safety tool that can help prevent even heavily secured schools from feeling like prisons.  I wrote the original draft of this blog on my return flight from a keynote more than a year ago and it, like a dozen other blogs, was not finished and posted due to the massive workload we have experienced.   I am excited to finally get this blog out as I think it is still very timely.  Every time a see a new school designed to look like a fortress, built with poor sightlines and other dangerous concepts, I wish more school officials and architects were familiar with crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) that proves why it is so effective.

I have been blessed to meet many gifted and inspiring advocates for school safety when I keynote conferences.  I feel particularly blessed to have met someone whose work I have been admiring for a couple of years now.  He is the architect who designed a K12 school that best epitomizes the use of the principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) I have ever seen.

As a very slow convert to CPTED, I have become a huge proponent of this research-based approach to safer as well as more welcoming schools.  CPTED can help architects and school planners create beautiful, more secure schools without degrading school climate and culture in the process.  In fact, the thoughtful application of CPTED can increase security while helping to improve school climate and connectivity.

For several years, I have been showing photographs that I took while conducting a site visit to Magnolia Middle School in Moss Point, Mississippi when I present and when I work with clients.  If I could recommend only one school for architects and school officials to visit to see a superb example of how CPTED can be used to create safer schools that are also beautiful and welcoming, my choice would be Magnolia Middle School in Moss Point, Mississippi.  As I was showing photos of the school during a keynote for the Learning SCAPES School Design Conference in Chicago last year, I happened to mention, as I have at many other architectural conferences, that if anyone in the audience was responsible for this superb design, I would be honored to meet them.  As I was answering questions from participants after my presentation, I had the opportunity to do exactly, that.  Gary Bailey AIA from Dale Partners Architects informed me that he was indeed the architect who designed this amazing school.  As I told Mr. Bailey, it was truly an honor to get to meet someone who was such a gifted practitioner.   Though I keynote a lot of school architectural conferences, I feel fortunate to have been able to connect to Mr. Bailey.  I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who does such high-end work with CPTED would attend the SCAPES National Conference to continue to learn his craft.

When I visited his website after the conference (http://www.dalepartners.com/about-dba), I learned that Mr. Bailey is a very successful architect whose firm has designed an astounding and increasing number of the schools built in Mississippi in recent years.  His work and his success demonstrate that architects who understand how to apply CPTED can be quite successful from a business standpoint while dramatically improving safety for tens of thousands of students and school employees for decades to come.  Mr. Bailey and his colleagues will never know how many fights, sexual assaults, acts of vandalism, incidents of gang violence, and perhaps even homicides will not occur due to his skill and expertise.  His work will also help many students stay in school and graduate because he has worked closely with his clients to craft welcoming schools where students feel more comfortable and engaged.

I have been truly fortunate to meet so many incredible teachers, school leaders, school resource officers, mental health professionals, coaches, school bus drivers, attorneys, engineers, architects and others who have made our nation’s schools far safer than they were when I was in school.  I experienced severe bullying, being robbed at knifepoint and attacked with a box cutter as a student in the 1970’s when violence was so prevalent in our schools.  A highly competitive 24/7 media, social media, and the Internet make it easier for those with products, services or ideologies to sow fear with alarmist disinformation and wildly inaccurate data developed to sell using fear.  Thankfully, many professionals like Mr. Bailey have been helping schools become safer and more effective places of learning in spite of the hype spewed forth by those who regardless of intent, are doing great damage to our schools and thus hurting the students who represent the future of our nation.

 

 

 

Biting Off More Security than You Can Chew

©Michael Dorn Safe Havens International 2020

School officials should exercise care to implement school security enhancements they can sustain with fidelity.  One commonly discussed option for the prevention of school shootings is the use of airport and courthouse style entry point metal detection.  While excellent metal detection equipment is relatively inexpensive, staffing, security, X-ray screening equipment, and security measures to support effective entry point weapons screening of this type can cost between $500,000 and one million dollars a year for a large high school.  For this reason, alternative approaches to weapons screening such as demonstrably random numerical sequence entry point screening and randomly selected classroom and school bus occupant screening can be more practical and, in my experience, are often more effective.

While we have been seeing many of the same harmful patterns that we saw after the tragic attacks at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School in the wake of a series of five major school attacks in the 2017-2018 school year, we have noted an even more pervasive and troubling trend during the past two years.  While many schools and districts have implemented considerable positive life-safety enhancements, some of the reactions to these terrible events have resulted in a considerable amount of damage to school safety across the nation.  This damage has resulted from demands from the public that school and public safety officials “do something” to stop school shootings without proper evaluation, consideration of reliable national school fatality data, and a comprehensive view of risks to safety and security.  

The negative effects of poorly developed and implemented active shooter training programs that became common after the Sandy Hook attack have caused significant degradation of school emergency preparedness in many schools.  As I have mentioned in other writings, we are seeing increasing evidence that these types of training programs can be quite dangerous.  However, in addition to the severe problems from emotively driven active shooter training approaches, we have been seeing intensive pressure for schools to implement security measures that people hope can ensure that a school shooting cannot possibly occur.  As there are no such security measures in any setting let alone in K12 schools, this is placing tremendous and potentially dangerous pressure on school officials.

One particularly prominent and concerning tendency of this type is the pressure to implement extensive target-hardening, security technologies, and emergency communications systems without the human resources to support them. 

For example, many school districts have been under considerable pressure to implement entry point metal detection by a public that is typically unaware of the actual costs required for adequate supportive security measures.  For example, security X-ray technology required to reliably and effectively screen bookbags, purses, musical instrument cases, and other hand-carry items can be staggering.  This is even more difficult for large K12 schools due to the challenges created by the need to screen massive numbers of students in short time spans each morning.  In addition, perimeter access control technology and most importantly, the significant ongoing budget required for personnel to accomplish reasonably reliable entry point metal detection are very costly.  For many of our nation’s larger and more complex middle and high school campuses, running reasonably reliable entry point metal detection during the daytime and all evening and weekend hours the facilities are open, personnel costs can run from between $250,000 to $1,000,000 per school per year depending on a variety of factors such as local labor costs.  As with an airport or courthouse, if screening is not conducted during all hours of operation, it is very easy for a student to defeat the screening process.  For example, a student or non-student can enter a school and hide a gun to be retrieved later while an evening event is being held but no security screening is being conducted. 

One of our primary concerns is that school officials may agree to conduct entry point metal detection or other security upgrades without receiving the funding to support them that is needed to make them work with reasonable reliability.  This inherently results in problems the technologies were purchased to address taking place in spite of significant expenditures.  In many cases, the discussion and resulting litigation moves from “why didn’t you use metal detectors” (or a variety of other security technologies) to “you were incompetent because you spent X dollars and still had a shooting.”  In my experience, thoughtful explanation of the resources and thus funding that will be needed to effectively support the security upgrades combined with a tactful but clear message that while there are ways to reduce risk, but there are no 100% reliable ways to absolutely assure that violence will not occur in any setting is not only honest but critical for success.  As an example, I have tried to help parents understand the limits of even well-funded, professional and extensive security measures, repeated breaches of White House security by multiple intruders over the years demonstrate that something as seemingly simple as keeping an intruder out of one of the most heavily secured and budgeted facilities in the world has been challenging. 

Regardless of the type of enhancement being considered, we caution school officials to take care not to attempt to implement approaches that may make people feel good in the short term but require resources beyond those available to implement with fidelity.  The cost of appeasement to urgent demands in the short-term can be dire when unrealistic approaches are revealed as a facade of security in the long run.  My advice is to thoughtfully develop a comprehensive and sustainable approach to school security while not biting off more than you can chew for short-term pacification which creates great risks of long-term failures.

20 Years After Columbine, Challenges Remain

We have learned a lot since Columbine, but Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas show us we can still improve.

Over the past year, Safe Havens has been relatively silent on social media and our website. As our regular readers know, we are typically very active in print and online media. This is a primary function of our mission to provide free resources. The unprecedented interest in school safety over the past year has forced us to reallocate resources. The demand for school safety services is unlike anything our analysts have seen over the past two decades. While we love what we do, we truly wish the demand had not been so urgent. Around this same time we also stopped running our monthly newsletter as our intern moved on. We are currently exploring new formats and looking for a few dedicated and qualified interns to resume these activities.

Our center was already engaged with a number of projects when the terrible tragedy occurred at Marjorie-Stoneman Douglas High School.  Safe Havens received a call or email request every five minutes for about two weeks. By the first of March, we declined about 50% of all requests for school security assessments. We also had to limit our emergency plan development projects, consulting work and conference keynotes.  I decided to decline almost every request to review cases as an expert witness. We also declined to submit proposals for two projects with estimated budgets approaching $2,000,000. These adjustments allowed us to focus our efforts on conducting assessment projects.  Though we have more than 60 highly capable analysts, our leadership team is relatively small and our capacity to provide proper oversight and quality control has limits.

There has been an unprecedented demand for school safety after the Parkland shooting.

Since the attack at Stoneman Douglas High School, our team completed reports for for more than 900 public, faith-based and independent schools. This included school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessments for two of the nation’s largest public school systems. One of these was an assessment of more than 250 schools and support facilities for the Broward County School System. Our analysts conducted more than 1,000 site visits, interviewed thousands of personnel and ran more than 2,000 controlled one-on-one crisis simulations with district staff. We also participated in public forums and conducted surveys and focus groups of more than 80,000 students. The end result was more than 15,000 pages of reports.

This is the first time we know of  a school system opting to have a comprehensive external assessment in the wake of a mass casualty school shooting. Typically, legal counsel and/or insurance carriers dissuade school officials from doing this level of assessment. In some cases, there are concerns relating to mental health recovery, in other cases, school officials opt not to do this because this process will identify gaps.

The Broward County School Board recently asked us to extend our contract by an additional twelve months. The long term goal is the creation of an Enterprise Risk Management System – a first for a “top 70” largest public school system in the nation. The ERM provides oversight, coordination and accountability. A modern and highly robust 24/7/365 communications and monitoring center will support these efforts. We are also currently scheduling assessments for more than 360 public, faith-based and independent schools as part of upcoming projects. Other upcoming projects include a five-year state-wide school emergency preparedness program and several other large multi-year projects.

Continuing to focus on our mission of creating safer schools for all

During this time, our analysts also completed a number of other projects. We assisted 6 school districts with updating their emergency operations plans. This included developing hundreds of new pages of content for one district to meet stringent state requirements. We also developed an active shooter prevention program for the South Carolina Department of Education. We delivered dozens of conference keynotes and worked on many other significant projects. Several of these are very complex, including a multi-year project to assess all Jewish schools in the Boston area.

Our requests for assistance from other countries has also increased during this time period. We have expended hundreds of hours of staff time providing assistance to school and public safety officials abroad, where schools are often far less safe than in the U.S. In our home state of Georgia we were asked to provide oversight and generate a report for a school safety commission for Fulton County Public Schools and have been asked to assist the state with development of new standards for school safety assessments.

Meanwhile, we are still working to finish the manuscript for our 600-page textbook Extreme Violence – Understanding and Protecting People from Active Assailant, Hate Crimes and Terrorism. In the wake of this unprecedented demand, our publisher was kind enough to agree to an extension to allow us to devote additional time to serve our clients.

How far have we come since the Columbine shooting?

We deeply regret the understandable levels of anxiety and fear that mass casualty school attacks have caused. The Sandy Hook shooting and Parkland Florida attack remind us that we still have much further to go. Our experience and judgment tells us otherwise, but we hope that the  upcoming school years are some of the safest on record. It may still seem like we have a long way to go, but it is important not to lose hope. One must only look back over the twenty years since the Columbine school shooting to see how far we have come since then. Countless lives have been saved by the efforts of hard working school safety professionals over the past two decades.