Deterring School Shootings with Environmental Design

04.15.2019

Timothy A. Schuler

Gun violence has become a part of everyday life for Americans. The shock and horror we felt when the disaster at Columbine occurred more than 20 years ago is still with us and has become engrained in our collective psyche through additional tragedies at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Las Vegas and countless others. Since this article was originally published, we’ve lost hundreds, if not thousands, to senseless firearm accidents and attacks. We would love to say that this article is no longer relevant, but unfortunately, it may be more meaningful today than it was three years ago.” statement from ASID

There is a growing market for ballistic furniture—chairs, desks, cubicle dividers and even whiteboards—that offers the usual functionality but is also bulletproof. Some is marketed toward homeowners. The Texas company Heracles Research Corporation offers sofas upholstered with fabric that can stop bullets (the couch cushions have handles that can be used as shields). Others are designed for the commercial market. Ballistic Furniture Systems’ Amulet ballistic barriers, when used in office seating, integrate with the product lines of most major contract furniture companies, including Herman Miller, Knoll and Steelcase. The heaviest-duty product, Amulet III, can withstand a 7.62mm rifle round. The goal, says Ballistic Furniture Systems president and CEO Jeffrey Isquith, who told Bloomberg that sales doubled between 2014 and 2015, is to save lives without disrupting people’s everyday routines.

Utilizing Environmental Design

“We don’t want to change American society,” he says. “We want people not to have to check their bags every time they walk in the building or be sniffed by a bomb-sniffing dog.” Instead, Isquith’s company is working to weave ballistic fortification into the built environment, a mission he says is informed by human biology. “When you hear the pop! pop! pop! of gunfire, your field of vision closes, and you duck and cover,” he says. “That’s what you do. It’s instinctive.”

As politics editor Charles Homans wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “There are some cultural milestones that you don’t even know exist until you trip over them: the moment, for instance, when an ‘active shooter’ becomes the kind of thing a furniture manufacturer might factor into its product design in the same way it considers ergonomics or biodegradability.”

Anticipating the Worst

The thinking of people like Isquith is that if we can’t prevent mass shootings, then we must design buildings that anticipate them. But this gives some professionals pause. Few deny the need for safety, but there’s a worry that an overemphasis on security could do more harm than good. A 1999 study of nearly 7,000 American students aged 12-19 suggested that “active” security measures such as metal detectors, locked doors and security guards contributed to an environment of crime and violence, rather than the other way around.

“Not surprisingly, having more of these hard security features does relate to kids feeling heightened anxiety and more like their safety is at risk,” says Amanda Nickerson, the director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention and a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Many designers worry about feeding a culture of fear and isolation that many experts say contributes to the underlying issues that could result in mass violence. In recent years, some have embraced more passive strategies such as ensuring unobstructed sightlines at building entrances or using reflecting pools and other landscape features as natural barriers—methods often bundled under the term “crime prevention through environmental design,” or CPTED (pronounced “sep-ted”).

The new Sandy Hook school is a prime example. A wide, boulder-strewn rain garden runs the length of the building’s curving façade, creating a natural, moat-like barrier between the parking lot and the school. Limiting the number of entrances allows each to be surveilled well. The rain garden is more than a deterrent. It helps slow rainwater runoff while simultaneously beautifying the building, and even provides opportunities for environmental education. Similarly, the colorful sunshades on the building’s exterior, spaced at 18 inches, deter intruders while also reducing solar gain.

Recently, a group of interior designers in Charleston, SC, helped the congregation of (Mother) Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church outfit its new resiliency center, which will use part of a $3.6 million federal grant from the Office for Victims of Crime, part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, to provide counseling, support groups and other social services to those affected by the shooting of nine churchgoers (including the senior pastor) during a prayer service in June 2015.

The Most Good Against Crime

As designers are increasingly asked to think through how buildings can both prevent and respond to mass shootings, it may be as citizens—parents, neighbors and community leaders—that they can do the most good. Design solutions have their place, but most violent acts are prevented not by security measures but by concerned individuals, Nickerson says. “It’s those social relationships, and an environment where you can go to someone and tell them about [a potential threat], that will go further to prevent these kinds of acts of violence,” she says.

Advanced Classrooms: Innovation in Modern Schools

As demonstrated in Charleston, communities also have the power to prevent further violence by joining together and preaching messages of tolerance, acceptance and kindness. No bulletproof desk can do the same.