free web templates

Creating Safe Schools: A Balanced Approach to Hardening and Softening Strategies in School Design

FRIDAY | APRIL 3, 2020

10:45 AM - 11:45 AM

Room: Rock Creek

Two years ago, the Select Committee on School Safety was formed in the Virginia House of Delegates to evaluate emergency preparedness, school security infrastructure, and prevention protocols for K-12 schools across Virginia. As part of this initiative, AIA Virginia, with a team of architects, contributed research and best practices for safeguarding the health, safety, and welfare of the public through the Infrastructure and Security Subcommittee of the Select Committee on School Safety. Many of these recommendations were incorporated into the House Select Committee’s finalized recommendations that launched in 2019 and are being considered for expansion in 2020. These strategies advocate for a balanced approach for creating secure schools and a secure future. While buildings cannot prevent violence, they can – through a balance of physical and programmatic hardening and softening strategies – responsibly contribute to a sense of belonging, identity, and psychological security. Featuring owner feedback as well as strategies from the renovation of Bedford County Public Schools’ Forest Middle School, this session will explore 13 design principles that support safety and security for school communities through a mix of hardening and softening strategies:

  • Separation of Vehicular and Pedestrian Flow
  • Singular Entry
  • Views from Front Office
  • Secure Vestibule
  • Discreet Guidance Entrance
  • Cool-Down Zone
  • Improving Internal Circulation
  • Layers of Security
  • Cloistered Learning Courtyard
  • Hard Shell / Soft Middle
  • Combining Open and Closed Classrooms
  • Avoiding ‘Hiding Places’
  • Safety During Construction

Beyond good design theories and practices, it takes a holistic mix of industries and services – bolstered by awareness, advocacy, and investment – to advance commitments to training, procedure development, mental health services, and other school resources. We hope this session offers a series of implementable design strategies that can be easily adapted by school districts across the country, with the encouragement that they be personalized for the specific needs – social, emotional, psychological, and economical – of a community and its community of learners.

Appendix of 13 Design Strategies for Safer Schools:

  1. Separation of Vehicular and Pedestrian Flow: Minimizing conflict between cars and people is a common-sense goal of any site-planning project. It is a particularly sensitive topic in Forest as a child was killed in the Forest Middle School parking lot some years ago. By reconfiguring bus and car circulation on the site, a clear path was created between the school and the playfields.
  2. Singular Entry: A clearly identifiable school entrance helps to direct all visitors to a central check-in location, simplifying monitoring responsibilities and making intruders who approach other school entrances more obvious.
  3. Views from the Front Office: Abundant exterior windows at the reception area allows the staff there to monitor everyone approaching the school.
  4. Secure Vestibule: Once through an initial entryway, lockable interior doors redirect all visitors to the receptionist where they are properly screened and further visitation is authorized.
  5. Discreet Guidance Entrance: A modest entrance to this suite, “off the beaten path,” gives students a chance to duck in to see a counselor without attracting the attention of their classmates.
  6. Cool-Down Zone: Outside of the Principal’s office, and separate from the school’s public lobby, a small safe space is provided for troubled students, who can wait to meet with administrators without being seen or heard by others.
  7. Improving Internal Circulation: Previously arranged as a long, singular spine, this new, enlarged school is arranged around an oval of circulation, reducing traffic congestion and offering multiple pathways for teachers and staff to quickly respond to incidents.
  8. Layers of Security: Threats identified outside the school entrance can be thwarted by closing and locking intermediate doors that isolate learning communities from the school’s entrance.
  9. Cloistered Learning Courtyard: The arrangement of a new addition parallel to the long axis of the existing school has created a long, enclosed courtyard nearly fully protected from external threats.
  10. Hard Shell / Soft Middle: Throughout the design process, this client remained concerned about external threats facing the school. As such, exterior walls were made more substantial than interior walls or walls that faced the courtyard. Once inside the secure perimeter of the school, the environment is quite open, with views across classrooms to the courtyard giving instructors the confidence to allow students to work independently, outside of their rooms.
  11. Combining Open and Closed Classrooms: With an abundance of new ‘studio’ classrooms, giving students proximity to traditional enclosed classrooms for a rare but serious lock-down event was an important feature for this client. Similarly, the completely enclosed gym offers a space without glass that is protected from wind and storm events.
  12. Avoiding ‘Hiding Places’: The school aims to eliminate secluded places so that children can rarely be out of view of instructors or their peers. Stairwells – traditionally isolated spaces – are planned with openness and gathering opportunities nearby.
  13. Safety During Construction: Because the construction of an addition is happening adjacent to a continuously operating school, special attention was paid to phasing plans, clear separation of construction zones, new circulation patterns, and robust safety barricades.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Understand 13 design strategies for creating safer schools that are implementable and customizable for existing facilities, new construction, and schools undergoing renovation.
  2. Discover how to personalize and prioritize design strategies to provide a secure learning environment based on specific needs or parameters.
  3. Understand how to achieve an effective balance between hardening strategies (i.e. surveillance, safe patterns of egress / circulation, and lockdown protocol) and softening strategies (i.e. enhancing feelings of connection through a school’s layout, design.
  4. Learn about legislative recommendations for school safety that the Virginia Assembly is advancing through its Select Committee on School Safety and how it might apply to your state, region, or school district.

Philip Donovan

Mac Duis

Chief Operations Officer
Bedford County Public Schools
Tomás Jiménez-Eliæson

Ken Thacker

VMDO Architects
Michael Meechin

Bryce Powell, AIA

Senior Associate
VMDO Architects


March 18-20, 2021   Washington, D.C.

Follow Us