Post-Littleton bid to revamp schools
As Columbine High begins repairs, nation rethinks school design with an
LITTLETON, COLO. — The halls of Columbine High are once again bustling, but not with students. During the next two months, cleanup and construction crews will work to wipe away the reminders of April's shootings, restoring walls pockmarked with bullets and remodeling classrooms and landscaping.
But will the school be safer?
Since the deadliest school shooting in United States history, parents and educators have searched for solutions by probing virtually every facet of teen academic life. In recent weeks, though, more and more attention has been paid to the structure and layout of schools, and what role design plays in safety.
Suggestions range from adding windows to building smaller schools. The goal: schools that are easier to patrol and promote a sense of community. While no one says such changes are the ultimate cure, supporters say that designing schools more carefully can make them less susceptible to violence.
"Columbine is the Pearl Harbor of school shootings," says Pam Riley, executive director of the Center for Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C. "It's getting us to focus on what we have to do for school security."
Many argue that the most important component of preventing school violence is changing the behavior of students and teachers rather than the layout of buildings. Still, experts say altering a school's physical layout can help.
"Instead of having something an architect might think is beautiful, like glass, you might want to minimize something a student could drive a car through," says Ms. Riley of school entrances.
Yet certain tactics, such as adding touches of glass in the right places, can also promote safety. Putting windows in strategic locations, for instance, or eliminating columns and walls to improve lines of sight, helps "natural supervision," says Ron Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
Such alterations are now under way, or are being proposed, in Metro School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, says Chuck Hibbert, safety and security coordinator.
More expensive solutions include relocating school offices near entrances to better view who comes in and out. Also, officials want teachers to be able to lock doors from the inside to protect classrooms from intruders.
Nationwide, maybe the most radical proposal is to build smaller schools, an idea supporters hope will gain greater prominence in light of Columbine.
New Orleans architect Steven Bingler says the push for smaller schools has come in the past few years, after studies showed students in such settings have higher test scores. But Mr. Bingler also says schools with fewer than 800 students are safer schools. They are easier to patrol, and allow students and teachers to form interpersonal bonds.
"There's no metal detector that's going to solve this problem," he says. "It's people getting to know each other."
One long-standing criticism, however, is that making all these changes - especially smaller schools - is too expensive. "It's not the same price to take two, 600-student facilities and build one," says Jack Swanzy, architect for Jefferson County public schools, where Columbine, which has 2,000 students, is located.
While Columbine has sparked a national discussion, the school itself is undergoing very little physical renovation to improve safety. The major campus alteration is an additional staircase to help improve circulation.
"This building is 100 percent safe," said Mr. Swanzy, although he noted that a security consultant and task force is still examining the issue.