Other creative interventions have had a twofer effect, encouraging interaction among students and teachers while also creating a safer environment. The Dunbar layout, for example, spreads teacher and administrative offices throughout the school instead of closing them off in a single wing, thereby enabling students to have more frequent interaction with teachers and staff—but also allowing teachers easy, passive supervision throughout the day.
The assistant principal’s office is placed at the entrance to an academic wing at Dunbar High School
in Washington, DC. Copyright Joseph Romeo/Courtesy Perkins Eastman
Bell calls that approach “responsible visibility.” In their planning for Mount Greylock Regional School in Williamstown, MA, the team designed classroom “neighborhoods” around flexible open space, with each neighborhood containing a teacher planning office. He remembers the client reporting back later that a teacher heard, saw, and quickly intervened in a student confrontation before it had the chance to escalate. “There was an immediate, natural interaction from the teacher, and it was a positive one,” Bell says—the silver lining of this neighborhood design.
Bell is certified in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a term that means building and landscape layouts themselves can go a long way toward preventing danger. Research cited in the white paper shows that transportation to and from schools accounted for the highest proportion of school fatalities in 2014—at forty percent. “If the focus is purely about saving lives, more attention must be given to transportation and site safety,” the paper said. Although transportation safety looks different depending on a school’s location, there are common themes that can inform a smart design approach, such as separating cars from buses and putting pedestrians first with wide pathways and landscaped buffers from vehicles.
At Zervas Elementary School in Newton, MA, Perkins Eastman designed a plan that places vehicular zones on the perimeter of the property, with wide, well-lit paths in a park-like setting at the front of the school that is both pleasing to the eye and provides excellent visibility for those who are coming and going.
The entry to Zervas Elementary School in Newtown, MA, left, provides a park-like setting, keeping roads and
parking, right, out to the property’s perimeter. Photograph Sarah Mechling/Copyright Perkins Eastman
This design-forward approach continues inside the school, where classroom doors have transoms and wide sidelights to let more light inside and also enable connections between the class and hallway. At the same time, those windows are located in such a way so there is an “out-of-sight zone” in each classroom where students can go so a potential shooter can’t see who’s inside.
Built-in storage, above right, lines the wall adjacent to a classroom doorway and window at Zervas
Elementary School, preventing someone outside from having a clear view in that direction.
Photograph Sarah Mechling/Copyright Perkins Eastman
The research for Design for Safe & Healthy Children began after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, which killed seventeen and injured seventeen more. There have been 119 school shootings since then, killing eighty-eight and injuring 229, according to EducationWeek. A worldwide pandemic shut down schools everywhere in 2020 and 2021, adding even more stress to our young population. Despite all these developments, Bell and Neeriemer’s findings—with help from Perkins Eastman Associate Principal and Design Research Director Emily Chmielewski—still seem freshly relevant. Beyond its design aspects, the paper includes detailed recommendations across five categories. They include hosting more community programs at schools to blend the generations; providing more counselors, psychologists, and supplemental mental-health services to help students who are struggling; and training school personnel in behavioral detection and de-escalation.
In the end, Neeriemer says, schools are all about those who use them rather than those who might attack them. “Kids can’t learn if they’re not well overall,” she says. “You have to think about both students and staff; you have to feel compassion for them, no matter their age. They’re fully formed people with their own fears and their own hopes and their own dreams. With every design choice I make, I ask if that decision is honoring their personhood.”