- Since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, school design with security in mind has changed dramatically in places that can afford the upgrades.
- Yet many of America’s schools haven’t changed at all and can’t afford the sophisticated features embedded in the new Sandy Hook.
- Architects and designers who build and modify K-12 schools agree that design alone can help but cannot stop or prevent school shootings altogether.
Meg Tarpey and her younger sister survived the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School 10 years ago, then watched the site of that massacre be demolished and a new school built in its place.
In 2016, Tarpey, her sister and their mother visited the new building for the first time along with a comfort dog. Sandy Hook had been reimagined, with community input, incorporating a footbridge leading to the entrance of the school, a gate surrounding the campus and floor-to-ceiling windows for easy views of anyone approaching the school.
“That day was really hard, because in a way I felt like they’re trying to get rid of what happened, like moving on from it,” said Tarpey, who was in third grade, and her sister in first, when the shooter with an AR-15 assault weapon blasted into their Newtown, Connecticut, school.
Years later, Tarpey, now 18 and speaking in one of her first interviews with media since the Dec. 14, 2012 killings, said she’s come to realize visiting the new site gave her back a piece of herself.
“There’s an aspect of it that is really beautiful,” she said, “making something beautiful from tragedy.”
Since the 26 deaths at Sandy Hook, at least a dozen schools, from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, have been the site of mass shootings or killings, according to a USA TODAY, Associated Press and Northwestern University database. A compendium of guidance has been developed on constructing schools to prevent such killings. Yet no national database tracks remodeled or new buildings that incorporate school safety features.
More:Shots fired in US schools spiked dramatically last year, gun violence report finds
But many experts suggest the changes are creating a system of haves and have nots, where many school districts, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods of color, are left exposed, unable to afford significant upgrades. In addition, these changes may only slow someone intent on killing others and are unlikely to stop them altogether.
Others worry many children are paying the price for the hardening of schools, with campuses converted from inviting spaces open to the community into fortresses designed to keep strangers, and sometimes students themselves, out.
Architects and designers who specialize in K-12 schools said a balance is needed between designing schools for safety and learning. Schools also need to focus on mental health to prevent isolated, bullied or disenfranchised students from targeting schools with guns, they said.
“There is only so much that the physical design of schools can accomplish, especially as budgets for school buildings have dropped over the past 50 years,” said Julia McFadden, an architect and designer who worked on the $50 million rebuild of Sandy Hook.
Sandy Hook to Uvalde:Congress has proposed many gun control laws. Only one has passed.
How Sandy Hook was reimagined
Groups including the American Institute of Architects, the International Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design Association and the National Rifle Association have crafted guidance on how schools can keep shooters from entering classrooms.
McFadden, now of TSKP STUDIO and previously of Svigals + Partners, the Connecticut firm chosen to rebuild Sandy Hook, said partners and architects at the firm, including herself, were adamant about allowing the community to play a role in what the school should be and what school security meant.
The firm gathered about 50 teachers, staff, parents, maintenance workers, first responders, government officials and others for insight.
Jay Brotman, a managing partner of the firm, recalled showing design decisions to the families of the victims throughout the process and called those meetings “obviously emotionally fraught.”
The new campus entryway has a footbridge that crosses a rain garden and delays visitors from entering, floor-to-ceiling windows built with impact resistant glass that can shield against threats and allow anyone to see who’s coming onto campus, and a surveillance gate, among other safety features.
More:This new high school in Michigan was designed to thwart active shooters
Brotman, who has consulted school leaders and other architecture firms on creating safe schools over the years, advises against adding obvious barricades around the front of a school and blocking natural light from windows.
“Instead of hardening, it’s really about layering. You delay, you slow down, you put buffers in front,” he said. “That’s where these politicians are standing up and saying to harden. It’s preposterous. Kids have to go outside and play.”
For schools without resources for large projects, “sometimes it’s trimming trees and bushes around the property so you can see inside. If you can control the environment and monitor the environment, that’s probably 80% to 90% of the work,” he said.
“You don’t have to spend millions of dollars … In this country, if we renovated every school to be as safe as Sandy Hook, well, there’s not that kind of money out there, nor is it needed,” Brotman said.
After shooting, Uvalde is upgrading Robb Elementary School
In Texas, a new building, funded entirely by grants and donations, will include security features the district once never thought imaginable for a Uvalde school. The district- and community-approved conceptual design for the new Robb Elementary will cost an estimated $50 million, said Gary Patterson, Uvalde’s interim superintendent. It will be re-designed at no cost by Fort-Worth architect firm Huckabee and Joeris General Contractors.
Other Uvalde schools likely won’t get the same treatment. Limited state funding and local tax contributions to schools in Texas mean building upgrades have been almost nonexistent. The plan for upgrading security at other Uvalde schools involves equipping campuses with 8-foot high perimeter fencing and gates that funnel everyone into a single entrance.
Many schools can’t afford new construction
American school buildings on average are nearly half a century old.
Black, Latino and Native children are overrepresented at schools that receive and spend less on facilities and maintenance, according to a 2021 report co-published by the 21st Century School Fund, a DC-based organization that advocates for modernizing school buildings.
In recent years, various states have doled out funding for school safety enhancements, like security vestibules, bulletproof windows and automatic door locks.
But according to Mary Filardo, founder and executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, any security features schools added on will be superficial unless part of a larger building modernization effort. And Filardo predicts most schools will opt for piecemeal safety measures given the limited and uneven local investment in public school facilities, paired with the imminent expiration date of federal pandemic-era relief money.
“They’re going to buy products, a lot of technology, things they can slap on – a little bit like the lipstick on a pig,” Filardo said. “They might put all new door locks or something, but then the doors really need to be replaced. That’s the kind of stuff you worry about.”
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden over the summer, sets aside more than $2 billion for school safety, including mental health services, but spread across the country’s nearly 100,000 public schools won’t provide necessary facility upgrades to make I say truly safe, Filardo said.
If schools use these funds as part of larger health, education and safety improvements to facilities, Filardo said, students and staff will benefit.
“The problem is far too many school districts don’t have the funds for more comprehensive modernization of their aged schools,” she said.
Some kids are left behind in the school safety debate
These add-ons also tend to lead to an imbalance in which kinds of students have access to what kinds of safety measures.
Black and brown students are more likely than white peers to attend schools with security features such as metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs. Even at predominantly nonwhite schools, students of color are subjected to these measures and other forms of punishment at higher rates, said Matthew Cuellar, a University of Alaska Anchorage social work professor who has studied school safety’s disparate outcomes.
These hardening measures often have little impact on safety and in some cases undermine children’s achievement.
Jason Jabbari, an education researcher and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has found that students at “high surveillance” schools – those with exclusionary discipline policies and lots of student monitoring – tend to have lower math performance and higher dropout rates.
“The evidence that school surveillance makes schools safer – it’s debatable,” Jabbari said. “What’s not debatable: It doesn’t make schools smarter.”
How much does design help?
Architects and school officials agree it’s impossible to erase trauma or fully insulate children from the gun violence crisis.
On her way to Newtown High School each morning, Tarpey said she tried her best to take the backstreets to avoid passing the newly designed Sandy Hook Elementary.
She’s returning to Newtown from her first semester away at college this week, and although she’s excited to see her friends and family, she said it will also be a reminder of the tragedy.
More:The memorial dedicated to the 26 victims of Sandy Hook opens nearly 10 years after the massacre
Meanwhile, as plans for a new Robb Elementary School come together, there’s a glimmer of hope in Uvalde.
“It’s been a real bright light in an otherwise dark situation,” Patterson said.
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