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Mass shootings, school design, and the architecture of resignation

“Hardening” schools exacts a financial and psychological toll on students

The front entrance of a wood-clad modern school, with an entryway that spans a landscaped rock garden.
The design for the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which opened in 2016 on the site of a tragic school shooting, seeks to balance openness and security.
Town of Newtown

It’s back-to-school season in the United States, which means stocking up on school supplies and picking out new clothes. Among the offerings in stores are bulletproof backpacks—just one example of the ways in which worried students and parents are looking for safety solutions.

As the nation’s gun violence crisis continues, without any substantive federal legislative action to lessen shooting events, the everyday experience of going to school has evolved. The Washington Post estimates that more than 228,000 students have been exposed to gun violence during school hours since the 1999 Columbine High School attack. Metal detectors, gun-toting guards, and drills to protect against active shooters were once the vision of a dystopian future. Now they’re part of the routine for today’s students.

Increasingly, those seeking a solution to these senseless acts have turned—without many other places to go—toward architecture, design, and the built environment. The first, and perhaps most famous example, was Sandy Hook, Connecticut. When the school district unveiled a new elementary school in 2016, revamped to be safer while still being welcoming and open to nature, it immediately became “the most scrutinized school design in the United States,” as Henry Grabar wrote for Slate. It also became “the landmark project of the era in which stopping school shootings became the responsibility of architects and administrators because the U.S. Congress would do nothing.”

Turning classrooms into safe rooms

Three years later, the lessons of the new Sandy Hook Elementary have clearly not been learned by a new generation of school administrators, architects, and safety officials. In the last few weeks, a story about a $48 million upgrade of the Fruitport High School in west central Michigan went viral due to the design’s focus on violence prevention. When the renovation finishes in 2021, the school will contain curved hallways, meant to reduce sightlines for shooters, and jutting barriers throughout to provide shelter during an attack. Fruitport superintendent Bob Szymoniak told The Washington Post these features will impede any active shooter: “It has reduced his ability to do harm.”

But in so many ways, this design, and designs like it, have already done harm to the learning environment. While Sandy Hook was the first, and perhaps most high-profile, example of school redesign in the age of mass shootings, it will definitely not be the last. Since its completion, more innocent lives have been lost, the gun debate has become even more charged, and more school administrators, security industry officials, and government leaders have proposed increased “hardening” of schools, whether it’s through security features like those at Fruitport, increased security and scrutiny, or even armed guards.

The nation has spent so long in gridlock and inaction over the gun crisis, it’s threatening to permanently alter how we design a generation of schools. Educational infrastructure for K-12 students, which is in a deep state of disrepair across the nation, is in dire need of increased funding and support. Currently, there’s a $38 billion-a-year gap in what needs to be, and what is, spent on repair and upgrades. The average U.S. school is 44 years old, and strained budgets mean that new buildings, and building standards, have been slow to emerge on a national level.

But while it may move slowly, school construction is a huge business. According to the [Re]Build America’s Schools Infrastructure Coalition (BASIC), public education infrastructure is the second largest construction spending sector; districts spent $1 trillion on infrastructure projects between 1994 and 2013.

Eventually, even districts with huge backlogs—the Center for American Progress estimates that Detroit schools need $500 million to bring all buildings up to a state of good repair, and Baltimore schools need $2.8 billion—will rebuild. The scary thing to contemplate is when and if schools designed in large part for high security, not just as a pathway to higher education, become the norm.

How hardening school can change how they function

The architects of the new Sandy Hook Elementary had this balance in the back of their heads when they were designing the new campus. The new school was built around an open “town square” with breakout spaces and seating, a two-story curtain wall with aluminum “tree trunks” running parallel to the lobby, and a second floor bridge running above that offered a spacious gathering spot.

Architect Julia McFadden, an associate principal at Svigals + Partners, the firm that led the project, told Curbed that even back in 2016, the concept of “hardening” schools—an adaptation of a security industry term that means adding a greater level of impenetrability to physical elements, such as walls and doors—was part of the design dialogue. This meant things like ballistics-level glass or blast-resistant sheetrock.

While Sandy Hook utilized many design elements to create a safer environment, including a forested site, perimeter security gate, and increased technological surveillance, the new facility still “exudes a feeling of openness and access.” But because it was located in a relatively wealthy district, and funded in part by a $50 million state grant, it could afford to balance openness and safety. McFadden’s big fear is that for districts with smaller budgets and less resources, security will come first, and leave less for design elements that promote a more engaging and open and space for learning.

“In order to harden to that level while keeping a certain level of openness, there’s a very big tradeoff in openness and a premium in cost,” she said. “I think that’s a big burden that takes away from the primary focus of schools, which is education. Dollars go to the physical structure, rather than what’s happening inside them.”

Of course, every school will say that education is paramount, and clearly, an environment needs to be safe before it can be a place for learning. But there’s no doubt in an era when teachers raise money for school supplies online from strangers, the reality of tighter budgets and soaring fears may be smaller, more secure windows, thicker doors, and a more confined classroom.

School budget show where our priorities are at

A security-industrial complex is already forming around this pressing issue, estimated to be worth $2.7 billion and climbing. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent at all levels of government to improve school safety, including $249 million in grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create safe rooms and implement warning systems. School districts and local governments are spending more on school safety officers and metal detectors, which studies find can lead to increased disciplinary actions towards students of color. The Center for American Progress said that “a single-minded focus on hardening schools funnels critical resources into the pockets of private companies that are prepared to profit from tragedy.”

The architect for the Fruitport redesign, Matt Slage, works for the TowerPinkster design firm, which also designs prisons. Slagle told the post that he wanted his design to “strike a balance between security and a welcoming presence without the pendulum swinging too far in either direction.”

Perhaps the slow shift in school designs exemplifies how the nation has normalized this kind of violence. If an architect presented a new design for a kindergarten classroom tomorrow with barred windows, barricades, and an armed guard, it might seem preposterous. But in the years since Sandy Hook and Parkland, as parents and teachers have grimly resigned themselves to a certain reality, and students have learned to sing songs to remind them about how to deal with gunmen lurking amid bookshelves and desks, how preposterous is it? As school design evolves, is it an architecture of protection, or an architecture of resignation?