Back in September, almost exactly a year to the day after the deadly Las Vegas shooting, a peculiar incident occurred at a music festival in Manhattan’s Central Park. During a Cardi B performance, false reports of gunfire spread quickly across the crowd of spectators, and thousands of attendees rushed away from the stage, causing a chaotic stampede that knocked down barrier fences and trampled dozens of concertgoers. The New York Times would later report that the loud popping sounds that ignited the chaos were caused by someone stepping on water bottles. This confounding series of events reached its denouement as Chris Martin of Coldplay stepped on stage to explain to the crowd that no shots had been fired and everyone should stick around to see Janet Jackson.
Panicked scenes like these are indicators of a specific fear response that has crept into the way that people engage with and participate in public spaces in the U.S. in recent years. Although mass shootings are statistically rare, they have become commonplace in our culture, both as uniquely American incidents and as divisive topics. With these active shooter events at the forefront of public awareness, the built environments within which they occur have become the business of architecture.
Nowhere does this fear take hold more tragically than in the context of the school campus. More than any other public facility, schools are trusted public spaces: Your school campuses helped form your identity. If you are a parent, they protect and foster your children in your absence. And with every tragic school shooting incident, our collective assumption of safety is rattled, and trust is eroded. Designers of campus facilities are quite familiar with these anxieties and have been asked to engage with this fear as a prominent component of their practice. There is a growing awareness in the architectural community that the fear of active shooter scenarios not only impacts the design aesthetics of school campuses, but also will eventually begin to shape building codes.
What should the public expect of public architecture? In the absence of protective legislation, and in the presence of over 300 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S., the discourse on school violence has unfortunately wandered from prevention to control. In the event of confrontation by an armed assailant, the built environment is more and more expected to protect and shelter people from unmitigated violence.
Faced with limited budgets and existing facilities that were designed prior to the recent spectacle surrounding mass shooting incidents, school administrators often employ architects to retrofit their campuses with systems intended to protect their occupants from violent attacks. Sean Connor, AIA, a partner at Pfluger Architects, has extensive experience in such retrofits, which include perimeter control, secure entry vestibules, visual access/surveillance, combination alert systems, and internal locking mechanisms at classroom doors. While Connor reassures his clients that the statistical likelihood of a violent incident on school campuses is quite small, he does recognize the increasing demands placed upon school administrators to protect their students and faculty.
Laura Sachtleben, AIA, a principal architect with Stantec who specializes in educational facility design, has witnessed the implementation of these new safety measures on school campuses. She cautions against reliance on these systems alone. According to Sachtleben, “It’s easier to focus on physical barriers as a quick fix” [to the perceived threat of school violence] — but she emphasizes to her clients that physical barriers are just one component in building a safer campus. Because perimeter control and secured vestibules could, unfortunately, result in a so-called “hardened” campus, the goal of architects like Sachtleben and Connor is to create a less isolating environment for campus-goers, one that encourages collaboration, fosters community, engages natural light, and supports programs focused on mental health through counseling and awareness.
If the building code is eventually adapted to account for the increasing prevalence of these dangers, such a development should come as no surprise: It was such catastrophic events as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Iroquois Theatre Fire several decades later that spurred the early editions of the fire and building codes that influence architectural design to this day. Their efficacy cannot be understated; deaths from smoke inhalation or fire are rare occurrences in structures that conform to recent building and life safety codes. But we might question the ability of a building code to institute effective prescriptive strategies and solutions in the event of such a nuanced scenario as an active shooter on a school campus.
For instance, many perimeter control systems neglect the fact that the majority of assailants on school campuses are members of the student body or faculty, and could easily sidestep the security measures that they engage with on a daily basis. Lockdown strategies ignore the human factor that might compel a teacher to keep a classroom door open to gather fleeing students into protection, while concealed fire barriers are often automatically deployed in the event of a fire.
Another stumbling block is that there is currently no consensus on what the protocol should be for building occupants involved in an active shooter scenario. Fire drills across the country are standardized, and the end result is the same: evacuation, as quickly and safely as possible. In an active shooter scenario, protocol for drills varies greatly from one district to another. Should individuals always lock down and barricade themselves in whatever room they are in? If they are in a hallway or lunch room and they hear gunfire, do they run and evade the situation? Violent rampages are in many ways more unpredictable than building fires, and that makes it incredibly hard to dictate what the correct decision should be, how drills should be run, and what the building’s response systems should be.
In a handful of recent school shooting incidents, the attacker has pulled the fire alarm, spurring occupants to evacuate their classrooms and potentially put themselves in harm’s way. The conflict between these two protocols has led to the implementation of combination alarm systems. As a response to this, fire pull stations are becoming less frequent in new school designs, and combination alarm systems, which integrate security, fire detection, and active lockdown isolation systems, offer a broader array of features. The challenge of new lockdown systems, which would implement mechanical locking devices to divide and isolate areas of the building where an active shooter might be, is that they must avoid conflict with current egress requirements dictated by life safety code.
This disparity is further compounded by the varying proximity of different school campuses to the emergency response services that are so critical during a violent attack. The average emergency response time of eight minutes is unachievable in rural school districts, and in more remote parts of Texas, this has led to the increasing popularity of the “Guardian Plan,” wherein school faculty and administrators are allowed to bring firearms onto campuses under the guise of protecting their students. Though many would question the logic of allowing more guns onto a school campus, few would fault a school administration for trying every available means to protect its student body from attack.
During my short time in the world of K-12 school design, I was surprised by the demands and compromises administrators made to establish a perceived level of protection from active shooter scenarios. For each campus, significant portions of bond money would be allocated to retrofitting schools with secure systems. As of now, there are no official regulations governing the design of these systems. Instead, it becomes a conversation among architects, administrators, and faculty to determine which approaches will offer the greatest perceived degree of safety.
Ironically, it appears that the National Rifle Association has attempted to position itself as an authority in implementing school design as a way to prevent gun violence in schools. In 2013, the NRA’s National School Shield Task Force issued a 225-page document outlining its recommendations. This report often cites the tenets of CPTED, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which is the basis of Oscar Newman’s controversial 1970s theory of Defensible Space, wherein the behavior of a building’s users can be controlled through the implementation of surveillance, control of access, and territorial reinforcement. The task force’s numerous recommendations for safer school design include installing ballistic protective glass and steel plating and planting thorny, sharp-leaved shrubs to deter attackers. Today, the NRA’s School Shield program offers free-of-charge training to school administrators and emphasizes perimeter security and video monitoring to identify possible threats.
In 2018, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published the first edition of its Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program. Contained in the NFPA 3000, the ASHER Program is targeted toward emergency responders and facility managers, and does not yet codify standards that would impact building design. But according to Robert Solomon with the NFPA, provisions are in the works for the upcoming 2021 edition of the NFPA Building Code, which will likely include standards related specifically to building security. As a result of two workshops on the topic, the first in 2014, officials are attempting to achieve consensus regarding lockdown strategies and occupant responses during what Solomon calls “low-probability, high-consequence events” such as active shooter scenarios.
In this current climate of fear and outrage, we are far from consensus on lockdown, causality, or — truly — any aspect of school shootings. In light of this fact, it is unreasonable to believe that we can rely solely on school facilities themselves to prevent fatalities from an assailant. Architecture and the built environment can only do so much to protect against the assault of someone with unabated access to automatic weapons. If we continue to fall short when addressing the social, political, and psychological issues that lie at the root of such violence, then we continue to fail the public, which looks to professions like ours to bring solutions to the table.
Christy Taylor, AIA, is a project architect at Chioco Design in Austin.