Safer Schools by Design

The recent school shooting in Florida continues an unsettling trend of assaults on students in their neighborhood schools.  While the debate will continue at the national level on proposals for arming teachers and “hardening” our schools, in Pennsylvania, we need to continue the conversation on what can be done to make our students safer at the schools in our communities.

As architects, we are responsible for designing public and private school facilities that serve pre-K through 12th grade students and faculty throughout the Commonwealth.  As leaders of the planning, design and construction process, architects are licensed guardians of the health, safety, and welfare of our building’s occupants.  The buildings architects design safeguard our students from a host of potential threats, both natural and man-made, and the continuing danger of school shootings only adds another potential hazard to address.

AIA Pennsylvania, a component of the American Institute of Architects, represents the voices of nearly 3,000 registered architects throughout Pennsylvania, with many of our members nationally-recognized authorities on school planning and design. Beginning in 2016, AIA Pennsylvania began a series of public forums designed to bring together experts in the field of school construction including state legislators, school superintendents, general contractors and architects. Initially intended to support the debate on PlanCon, this series of presentations continues and is a vehicle for AIA Pennsylvania to engage the public and our legislators on the complex facets of school construction in the Commonwealth.

How will Pennsylvania’s architects design new schools and adapt our existing schools in response to a world of shelter-in-place, active shooter drills, and lock-down classrooms?   In the nearly 20 years since the Columbine tragedy, architects have developed best-practices for the design of resilient, secure facilities that not only protect our students, but help them thrive.  AIA Pennsylvania intends to continue our ongoing dialogue with state legislators, the Department of Education, the Governor and local school districts to find workable solutions to safeguard our school children.

Scott J. Compton, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP
2018 President, AIA Pennsylvania


One of the largest concerns regarding school safety in Pennsylvania is the age of our schools. More than 65% of schools in Pennsylvania were built before 1970.* That’s before the energy crisis, before computer technology, and certainly before active shooter drills became part of our students’ lives. Many of these buildings have been renovated over time to upgrade their services, educational opportunities, and safeguards. But far too many have not.

While establishing an emergency management plan is the first step in a school’s safety program, the configuration of the building and its security infrastructure is also crucial.

As a school architect, I have walked through numerous facilities that do not have even the most basic safety measures. Examples include administration offices remotely located from unmonitored school entrances, exterior doors that lead directly into classrooms, classrooms unable to be properly locked down, and lack of security cameras both on the campus and inside the building.

Over the nearly 20 years since the Columbine tragedy, school security equipment and protocols have evolved immensely. A locked vestibule at the main entrance enables all visitors to be formally screened before gaining access into a school. Security cameras provide real-time video to district administrators and police. A building-wide communications system allows anyone anywhere in the school to warn everyone of a security threat. Classrooms with a strong, solid door and a robust locking system secures the space from an intruder.

The conversation about keeping our children safe is complex and spans many subjects. But there are tangible, non-political steps we can take right now to make our buildings safer. Teachers, students, school district leaders, emergency personnel, and school architects must team together to implement current security practices as well as continue to explore new methods to keep our children safe.

Michael Kelly, AIA, LEED AP
AIA Pennsylvania Education/School Construction Subcommittee, Vice Chair

*Statistic as reported by the Pennsylvania Department of Education School Facilities Survey