More than just a hardened target, new high school will feature broad approach to security

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

While Ronald Requeño generally feels safe walking through the halls of Harrisonburg High School, a bit of unease nags at him. 

“I don’t feel in danger, just not necessarily the safest,” the high school senior told The Citizen. “But it’s fine the way it is.”

Requeño said a metal detector might be a good addition to ensure students aren’t bringing in weapons.

He said some of his classmates might discuss school shootings that have been in the news, but they don’t dwell on the subject — just another reality of  the post-Columbine era. 

During the public discussions about Harrisonburg’s new high school, some local parents and students made it clear that it was a top priority to guard against those 21st century school security issues. School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald said she noticed this in the stakeholder meetings held by the new high school’s design committee.

“The very, very first questions that were asked, I think all of them were about safety and security,” Fitzgerald said.

As the architecture firm for the new school continues drafting the plans, they’re incorporating what they call “best practices” into the design in order to make the school safer in addition to any technological bells and whistles.

Much of the public concern about security has been driven by horrific school shootings, such as the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida where a gunman killed 17 and injured 17 more, and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where 26 people, most of whom were young children, died in 2012. 

At the same time, though, overall violent incidents in schools — like assaults and threats — have decreased since the 1990s.

“Being in school is safer than being out of school, in terms of risk factors, and in terms of the percentage of violent crimes that occur,” Superintendent Michael Richards said.

How safe are today’s schools?

Non-fatal violent crimes and thefts at school against students age 12 to 18 have fallen dramatically – from almost 200 incidents per 1,000 students in 1993 to fewer than 50 incidents per 1,000 students in 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Among 12-to-18-year-olds, the rate of those who reported being the victim of a crime has decreased from about 5% in 2001 to about 2% in 2017. 

And the threat of weapons on high school campuses is also dropping. In 2001, 9% of high school students reported being threatened or injured by a weapon on school property within the last year. In 2017, that dropped to 6%.

Analyzing incidents of gun violence, though, is more complicated. There have been 113 school shootings in the United States since January 2015. By comparison, there were 65 shootings at U.S. schools and universities in the entire decade of the 1990s. NPR, however, reported last year that specifically multiple-victim shootings in schools were more common in the 1990s than they were in this decade.

Still, the Washington Post maintains a database showing more than 230,000 students have been exposed to gun violence since the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999. CNN aggregated data on all shootings — with or without fatalities — on American K-12 campuses from 2009 to 2018, which showed an increase in shootings over that 10 year period. 

No matter how school shootings are quantified, they’re still statistically unlikely – especially compared to crimes such as bullying or assault.

Those are “your daily threats that happen in every school across the land,” said Scott Eschbach, vice president of Grimm + Parker Architects — the firm designing the new high school. 

Grimm + Parker has used “CPTED” principles, pronounced sep-ted, for decades to build safer schools. The acronym stands for Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. It’s a design philosophy first developed in the 1970s. 

These principles “handle both issues: the rare shooting or lockdown, as well as that daily threat,” Eschbach said. 

The architects referenced their approach to safe school design in a Harrisonburg School Board work session earlier this year

Representatives from Grimm + Parker declined to discuss specifics about the new high school’s design, which is still in progress. But they did break down some best practices for The Citizen.

Designing safe schools, step by step

This design approach includes applying five major principles: 

  • access control;
  • natural surveillance; 
  • communication;
  • territoriality;
  • and target hardening.

Access control means “you know who’s coming onto your site,” Paul Klee, a principal with Grimm + Parker, explained. One way of visualizing this is in “concentric rings of security,” that start at the property line. 

“The next one might be at the parking area,” Klee said. 

An example of access control in action would be using a “secure vestibule” — or entrance space — that funnels visitors through the main office so staff can check identification before allowing them to enter the rest of the school.

Natural surveillance means that the building is designed for maximum visibility, without hiding places. Klee said “when we talk to first responders, which we do when we design schools,” they want to be able to see into a situation. For example, Grimm + Parker could use transparent glass walls and straight hallways to provide that visibility. 

“When people are seen, they actually behave better,” Klee explained.

The third CPTED principle is communication, as in real-time communication between teachers, administrators and first responders when necessary. Grimm + Parker’s architects are cognizant of how many traditional, cinder block-built schools are beset by poor cell service. Eschbach said during the construction phase, they typically test signal strength to ensure they can reach police or emergency responders. 

“The contractor is required to follow a certain series of steps, should it need enhancement,” he said. 

Territoriality refers to the students, faculty, staff and community members feeling a sense of ownership and pride about their school. 

“When you start to get things that degrade … broken windows, trash, those sorts of things give criminals clues,” Klee said. But when a school is well-designed and maintained, “it does discourage intruders, it really does psychologically.” 

Eschbach added, “It’s showing kids that they’re valuable to the community.”

The final principle, target hardening, uses the physical building to guard against intruder access while allowing those inside to escape if need be. 

This principle is, for many parents and community members, “the first thing they think about,” Klee said. 

“People and students need to know that they have a safe place to go,” he said. 

But Klee said access control and natural surveillance are more effective in preventing crime on school campuses by preventing an emergency from happening in the first place.

Still, when it comes to school safety, “there’s no magic pill,” Eschbach said, especially considering that the perpetrators of more serious crimes are often students themselves, who are familiar with a school’s lockdown protocols.

To that end, the architects prioritize access to counseling and mental health services in the school design.

“So the students really know that they matter … that the school was designed for them,” Klee said. “So that when students are hurting, they have a place to talk.”

Superintendent Michael Richards with School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald at his inaugural board meeting in March.

Strengths and challenges in keeping Harrisonburg schools safe

Fitzgerald told The Citizen that a lot has changed in building design since the current high school opened 14 years ago.

“The [existing] high school design was approved the week after 9/11,” Fitzgerald said. Back then, we were not “as aware of how the building can itself enhance security. We are now, that’s for sure.”

But Fitzgerald said a big contributor to school safety will come just from relieving the overcrowding at the high school.

She said Harrisonburg High School reported to the Virginia Board of Education that 1,881 students are enrolled there this fall – compared to the 1,360 students the school was built to accommodate. 

One consequence of this overcrowding is that many teachers now operate out of mobile carts, swapping classrooms as they become available throughout the day. With two high schools, teachers will be able to settle into their own classrooms – thus providing stable, private spaces for students who need to talk to a teacher about a problem.

Then, “it’s easier to see something growing, to see the first seeds of somebody who’s got some anxiety or is newly distressed about something maybe going on at home,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s just a relief of overcrowding problem.”

Pressures of social media 

Another challenge to school safety in Harrisonburg is a ubiquitous problem – the influence of social media.

“I’ve been coordinating school safety for a number of years, and with the advent of social media, that presents challenges for us in the building, particularly regarding threats and bullying,” said Craig Mackail, the school district’s chief operating officer.

Richards, the superintendent, said monitoring social media has become part of staff responsibilities — “to react appropriately to social media, to preempt potential violence.” 

Coordinator of Policy and Communication Kelly Lineweaver said students and parents are becoming more comfortable reporting inappropriate or threatening social media content to their principals.

Harrisonburg does boast a few characteristics that bolster school safety. 

Fitzgerald said the community’s embrace of diversity is an asset.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 16.5% of Harrisonburg’s population was born outside the U.S. One effect of this, Fitzgerald explained, is that current global events can trickle down into the microcosm of classroom hostilities. For example, if two students’ native countries go to war with each other, that could potentially cause friction between them. 

 But this doesn’t catch administrators off guard. 

 “Conflict that might come from differences is expected,” Fitzgerald said.

“We view our diversity as a strength,” she added. “We think it’s important, and we want to learn from each other.”

Another strength, Richards said, is the nature of the district’s partnership with local law enforcement.

“We’ve found, in general, that police presence in schools can be a positive thing when … the officer is integrated into the system in a way that supports students and behavior,” Richards said, “and those officers are friendly faces in the schools now, not threatening faces.”

Richards also attributes the “Social Emotional Learning” curriculum with making the schools safer. This teaching model incorporates values of empathy, community building, and constructive emotional management into the classroom.

“That’s a huge factor in reducing victimization in schools,” Richards said.

While the schools do work to provide counseling and mental health services to the students who need them, the Social Emotional Learning curriculum has a wider footprint of impact.   

“That touches every student, not just the ones who are recommended for or seek services,” Lineweaver said.

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