(CBSDFW.COM) – Law enforcement and architects are teaming up to alter school building designs to enhance safety.
It’s an unlikely alliance to make schools safer.
Architect Ian Powell, a partner at PBK Architects, has been building schools for 25 years. His goal is to build safe schools where learning thrives.
“It’s always on our minds to do a better job for safety and security,” he told CBS 11 I-Team reporter Ginger Allen. “But events recently have changed the intensity and urgency of the conversation.”
Those events – the two big school shootings in 2018 – have changed the conversation in the country. After the shooting at Parkland, Florida in February and then in Santa Fe, Texas in May, lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, said more needs to be done.
“We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward and retrofitting schools that are already built,” he said at a press conference on the day of the Santa Fe shooting.
This new school year starts with a renewed determination to make safer schools.
“The harder we can make that person to get into the schools the easier we can make to the law enforcement to capture that person,” said Dallas ISD Police Chief Craig Miller. He, along with other school chiefs, were present the first meeting of the newly formed Texas School Safety and Security Council. Its members include the architects who build and the police who protect.
The most valuable lessons learned from all the schools shootings were discussed in the meeting in Houston.
For example: Parkland taught the group about the problem with locked classroom doors. “The chief of police said that one of the teachers could not tell if the door was locked when they had knowledge the intruder was coming,” Powell said. Architects are now hoping to install doors that clearly indicate if they are locked.
From the Santa Fe shooting, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said our schools have too many entrances and exits. “It is important to look at the physical design and layout to help us mitigate the damage that can be done,” said DISD Police Chief Miller.
Back to the Drawing Board
To show some of the features the two groups discussed, Powell toured the newly-built Bush Elementary School at Wylie ISD with I-Team’s Ginger Allen. Walking down a long hallway inside the school, Powell pointed out that the hallway itself was an important part of a design, “It is not just for circulation but also for that event when someone has to come to access the building. They have a great view from the front to the back,” Powell said.
The open-air concept is one of the many new designs architects are also building into this nearby elementary school under renovation.
Todd Spore, also a partner with PBK architects, is responsible for this project. “We are actually standing here,” he said as he pointed to the new office space that with wide open views into the parking lot. “Now it’s all open to the front.”
Also in those plans are features meant to help the school administrators and law enforcement.
Plans include clearly-marked entrances which are slightly above street level. This helps police to have a clear line of sight on the way into the building.
Even the landscaping has a purpose. “The bushes along the perimeter are low. They won’t get in your line of sight,” Powell said, pointing to the low shrubbery outside.
The front of the building has concrete columns to prevent vehicles from crashing in.
Inside, the open-floor plans allow the police to easily spot problems. “As police officers, first thing you see is not what is immediate to you, but furthest away and then you work your way back,” DISD Police Chief Miller said about the strategy law enforcement uses. He believes the open concept could help law enforcement get the bad guy faster.
Powell believes the front entry vestibule is the most important architectural feature. The two locking doors help monitor everyone who gets into the school.
The shootings triggered the conversation about school security around the state. This summer, former Secret Service agents held a similar meeting in Irving, merging the minds of law enforcement and educators.
Mike Lowery, a former Secret Service Agent in charge who protected presidents, was also there. He is trained to spot danger. “We’re talking about concealment so people don’t have places to do things that they should be doing,” Lowery said as he walked down a long hallway pointing out nooks and crannies that could hide a bad guy.
Now, it’s up to the building experts to process the feedback and build it into foundations that are strong and safe. The architects and police chiefs have come up with best practices recommendations that include safe rooms and bullet-resistance glazing.
You can read their preliminary best practice document here. The group has a scheduled meeting in Dallas in September.