More than a year ago, Texas families were forced to face the unimaginable. Nineteen defenseless third- and fourth-grade students and two educators were brutally murdered in the violent shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. This event occurred four years after the 2018 tragedy at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, after which school safety was made an emergency item during the 86th legislative session in 2019. The Texas Society of Architects stepped into that discussion by creating a School Safety Subcommittee, consisting of representatives from some of the state’s top education design firms, to assist in finding ways to improve school safety and to become a resource to legislators.
In 2019, the Texas Legislature passed comprehensive school safety and mental health legislation to make schools safer for students, educators, and staff. Following the 88th legislative session held this year, Texas legislators have reacted by implementing comprehensive school safety measures that include creating a safety and security department within the Texas Education Agency (TEA), establishing regional safety teams, requiring an armed person at every school district or open enrollment charter, and more. As legislators work to protect families through policy, architects and designers aid the effort by implementing research-based design strategies to create safer and more secure learning environments.
Protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public is vital to the profession of architecture. Since its establishment, the School Safety Subcommittee has created multiple documents with the purpose of incorporating language from them into the State’s overall dialogue and response. The subcommittee’s official position can be found at the TxA website. Abby Hiles, AIA, associate principal with BRW Architects and chair of the School Safety Subcommittee notes: “The physical environment is only one layer, along with so many other factors, that must be taken into consideration when we discuss school security. Within the physical environment, there are also multiple layers of site, building, and technology that can be considered for deterrence and protection. As the rules proposed by the TEA [Texas Education Agency] look to address a standard for physical security layers, architects are an important voice in understanding the impact of these elements on the physical environment.”
The subcommittee has defined several fundamental truths: First, needs differ by community, so responses must be determined locally. Second, the broadest possible community input is critical when those decisions are being made. And third, whatever choices are made, additional resources will be required for adaptability for future needs. “A basic need for all human beings is to feel safe,” says Lauren Brown, AIA, principal at VLK Architects and chair-elect of the School Safety Subcommittee. “Our most vulnerable are our children who depend on and trust that we, as their guardians, are providing a safe environment without intellectual and physical barriers to grow and learn.
Brown elaborates: “Our essential charge as architects lies with the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants. That overarching responsibility allows the architect’s lens to focus and implement passive design solutions from thoroughly researched CPTED [Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design] principles. The layering of safety building design practices and elevated technologies can create the security optics that teachers and even our youngest of learners need within a building. I am encouraged by some school districts’ supplementing the basic safety offerings by openly discussing and implementing mental health solutions.” Brown also notes that any new TEA requirements should be fully funded by the state so that the full cost burden of equitably implementing safety measures does not become a district funding issue.
In 2018, AIA’s Committee on Education held a summit and subsequently published a report on the design of safe, secure, and welcoming learning environments. The report’s findings concluded that the design of secure and welcoming educational environments is a product of combining the interventional strategies of CPTED with curative strategies that contribute to positive mental health and a sense of community and culture of care. Diego Barrera, AIA, a design director at WRA Architects and the 2023 vice-chair of the AIA Committee on Education, served as a moderator for the CPTED and Code Enforcement working group. Barrera comments: “Through the 2018 efforts, one of our primary goals was to have all the voices in the room. Architects, policymakers, students, educators, school administrators, law enforcement and building code officials, mental health experts, and more were brought to the table…. Buildings alone cannot solve gun violence. Our role as architects is to create spaces that engage students. Our designs must balance creating welcoming environments that celebrate students while using all the tools and technology available to keep students safe.”
The Texas Society of Architects included the following as a part of the 2023 legislative agenda regarding school safety: “Through our ongoing work to promote best practice standards for the design and construction of school facilities, we are committed to providing the best guidance possible on how school districts and charter schools might improve school safety in existing facilities and in the design of new facilities, while maintaining open and positive learning environments.”
The 88th legislature’s response to safety and security in schools is House Bill 3, authored by Representative Dustin Burrows (R–Lubbock). It was signed into law by the governor on June 14 and will be effective September 1, 2023. This bill requires that every school district and open enrollment charter in the state establish an active shooter protocol and that the Texas School Safety Center collectively gathers every five years to ensure that best practices are being followed. In addition, every school district will receive $15,000 per campus, plus a safety and security funding allotment equivalent to $10 per student, based on daily average attendance, toward further hardening their campuses. Lawmakers have allocated $1.1 billion to the TEA for administering school safety grants to be distributed among the over 1,000 school districts in the state. TxA’s advocacy and input has ensured that safety and security requirements for school facilities was predicated on best practices and that no new liability or compliance traps were created for the profession.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to school safety. To ensure the safety and well-being of students, school design must remain dynamic, responsive, and adaptable to the evolving needs of the community. Architects are champions of innovation and are a critical voice in the creation of effective and productive learning environments. Both architects and educators have the responsibility to be at the table with policymakers to promote positive, community-centric experiences, while prioritizing student health and safety
Gabriella Bermea, AIA, NOMA, is an associate and design architect with VLK Architects; chair of the TxA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee; and communications director for the Young Architects Forum.