Schools, buildings now designed to thwart shooters

NEWTOWN, Connecticut — After 20 children and six adults died at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly five years ago, the district promised to rebuild a school that looked nothing like the one where a shooter went on a rampage and the district promised the new school would be the most secure one in the country.
 
The new school requires visitors to enter across three short bridges that end at the school’s front doors.
 
Each entrance is visible to those inside the school giving them a view of who is walking up long before that person enters the building.
 
"What it is doing on a psychological level is it's saying, ‘If you're approaching this school we can see you. We can see out these windows and through this glass and see you approaching.’ That's a good strong psychological message,” said Svigals + Partners’ associate principal architect Julia McFadden.
 
McFadden helped design the new school and has worked to incorporate safety in other school design projects.
 
“In most cases you don’t even notice it,” McFadden said.
 
McFadden and the firm she works for pay special attention to the height of school windows.
 
At the new Sandy Hook School, windows give people inside the building a view of nature outside, but they are raised up enough that they provide a hiding place below for students in an emergency, away from a bad guy's view.
 
"If [a perpetrator] is looking into the classroom they can't see what's below the window sill so it creates a zone in which people inside can hide and duck down,” she said.
 
The landscape around the school makes it tough for someone to walk up to a classroom window. There is a manmade rocky wetlands area in front of the schools that fills with rainwater and requires someone walking from the parking lots to use the bridges.
 
"There's no way that anyone can approach the school without crossing the bridge,” said landscape architect William Richter, of Richter and Cegan. “The moat concept is actually very real in the sense that it is a water body.”
 
He also designed the elevation of the landscaping to be lower than the school in many places to provide a view of people approaching. It also prevents a vehicle from easily being able to be driven into a school wall.
 
To cross from the visitors’ parking lot to the school entrance, a person must walk across two distinct lanes of traffic where school busses pick up students and an additional lane where parents drop off children.
 
"That's if someone is trying to approach a school, there's other layers to get through to get to students in the classroom,” Richter said.
 
Schools are not the only buildings constructed with safety in mind.
 
"We're looking at it in every type of building today. Office buildings, they always talk about security. Clinics now days, you have to worry about that. We're doing very similar entrance control mechanisms for those buildings,” said Svigals + Partners Managing Partner Jay Brotman.
 
With today's technology an alarm in buildings can be sounded and that same alarm can be set to trigger more security.
 
"The alarm goes off, the door closes and the deadbolt throws,” Brotman said.
 
The technology can be wrapped in a building that gives a safe feeling without being secluded from the outside world.
 
The cost of such a building doesn't come with a sky-high price tag. Many components are needed in a building anyway, such as a parking lot for visitors or a main entrance. 
 
The design allows for a smarter, more secure layout, architects say.

Still images in this story by Robert Benson, courtesy of Svigals + Partners.

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