Can Design Help Thwart School Gun Violence?

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There was time when the worst a student could expect to face at school was an invitation to fisticuffs by the school bully. Sadly, in the wake of acts of school gun violence too numerous to list a single sentence, students from kindergarten through graduation attend school with the possibility of gun violence looming over them. To address the issue, some schools like a new high school in the State College Area School District (SCASD) are addressing the problem through design.

Architect Jeff Straub of the architectural firm Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates of Mechanicsburg, Pa., has incorporated design elements in his last four projects for SCASD, including State College Area High School, that are specifically meant to thwart gun violence and enhance student safety. Straub also recently designed three elementary school projects, which break ground next month. For each of these projects, he found himself working outside of the purview of his usual — namely school administrators — as he incorporated the insights of local law enforcement and first responders.

“It used to be that we would build a building and the police would come in afterward and have zero input through the process,” Straub said to the Centre Daily Times, a local news service. “Now we have law enforcement and [emergency medical services] walking the site and letting us know how they would approach a building and what are their concerns when you’re putting a building together.”

Among the design elements intended to help curb gun violence are “natural surveillance” techniques like maintaining a visually open main entrance so that school officials have a clear vantage of everyone who enters the facility from inside of the building. Likewise, ground plants do not exceed 1.5 feet, and trees and other vegetation will be not be permitted canopies lower than 5.5 feet from the ground, thus reducing the amount of “cover” an armed attacker could use. Other entrances will be made with transparent glass with entry points that can be locked electronically. Moreover, the grounds will be lit at night with an array of LED lights.

Besides his professional certifications as an architect, Straub also completed training in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), which practitioners pronounce “sep-ted.” It’s defined by the International CPTED Association (ICA) as “a multidisciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior through environmental design.” School faculty and staff will also be trained by local law enforcement on how to effectively deal with an armed person on campus.

“We need to make sure that we’re paying attention and working with people who need to be involved to help us improve our security,” said Superintendent Bob O’Donnell saidto the Centre Daily Times. “We want to make sure that we’re building an environment where it’s optimum for the kids learning and balancing that with the needs to make sure we’re building highly secure facilities so that the kids are safe.”