School Shootings: The School Safety Lesson We Can't Forget

In a season already crowded with anniversaries (BP, health care reform, the earthquake in China) this one came and went without much fan fare.

On April 16, 2007 an individual walked into a classroom building and killed 5 teachers and 27 students at Virginia Tech. As a "Hokie" myself (Virginia Tech, class of '81), I will always remember where I was on that day. But this tragedy still reverberates in other communities as well.

The Tech Corps of Cadets lit a memorial candle at 12 midnight last Friday night and extinguished it at 11:59 Saturday. Memorials were held on campus as well in the state capital.

On that fateful spring day, the gunman went from a dormitory building across campus, to a three story grey limestone building known as Norris Hall, an academic building that houses the Engineering Science and Mechanics programs. He pulled from his duffel bag a heavy chain that he laced across the three main doors of the building, and placed a note stating that attempts to remove the chain would result in the detonation of a bomb.

There was no warning and almost no protection. The first classroom, an advanced hydrology engineering class, had a professor and 13 students. All but 4 students were killed. In the rest of the building professors tried to barricade doors while students jumped from windows almost too small to fit through. In one case a professor moved his class into his office so that he could lock the door and protect the students. He then went to investigate the situation and was killed as he came down the stairs.

Imagine, 49 people shot in less than 12 minutes; that's one every 15 seconds. The event has caused a gun rights ruckus both for and against concealed weapons on educational campuses. In May 2008, the Midwestern Higher Education Compact published "The Ripple Effect of Virginia Tech," the results of a nationwide survey of student life officers and campus safety directors to assess the impact of the Virginia Tech shootings on campus safety and security procedures.

The Survey found that a profound change regarding school safety has taken place within a very short time in the U.S.:

Like ripples in a pond that eminate outward from a source of disturbance, the impact of the Virginia Tech tragedy has reverberated throughout the country in significant ways. The fact that nearly 9 in 10 colleges and universities conducted some sort of assessment of their ability to prevent or effectively respond to a campus shooting or other acts of violence is testimony to the profound impact of the events of April 16, 2007. The myriad strategies to improve safety and security that have been studied, pursued, and implemented since that date illustrate the effect of the Virginia Tech tragedy on campus policies and operations.

This past week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have permitted guns to be carried on public rights of way at public university and community college campuses.

But, as this recent article in The Huffington Post explains, the guns-on-campus debate is anything but settled:

Legislation that involves some form of gun carrying on campus is currently pending in at least ten states -- three of which, Illinois, Nebraska and North Carolina, are seeing this legislation introduced for the first time this year. Early 2011 saw nearly 20 states considering such legislation, but bills have already failed in Colorado, Florida, Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia, Virginia and now Arizona. New Hampshire, too, voted down a two-year bill for this year, but it will reappear in 2012. Currently Utah is the only state that requires public universities to allow guns on college campuses.

Turning to technology, all State universities in Florida have created, or expanded, their emergency notification systems. Students can receive immediate text messages, emails or be alerted through a campus wide loudspeaker system.

While there may have been lessons learned for mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and campus communication planners, there has to be a "teachable moment" for educational facility designers.

In August of 2008, the U. S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools issued a summary of School Safety and Physical Design. And while they referenced national design standards they also discussed school vulnerability assessments and physical design weaknesses. Design elements such as classroom door locks and vision panels speak directly to the tragic component shortcomings at Virginia Tech.

The bottom line is this: Schools need to be designed and renovated to be more efficient and a better value to their community. They need to be easily monitored, easily secured, and safe.

But how?

The renovation of Wilson High School in the District of Columbia involves a building built in 1935. One of the first things the design team did was hire a "pedestrian traffic" consultant to look at walking times and distances (the school encompasses a sprawling campus) with an emphasis on places to hide, get lost or to be "taken."

Traffic and walking patterns are just one component in an overall "vulnerability assessment" of school facilities. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that these assessments need to be a part of an ongoing process. The process should "evaluate and prioritize risks and areas of weakness that could have adverse consequences for individual schools and school districts."

One example might be the lesson learned at a large mid Atlantic suburban school district that suffered a high profile attack of a student in a "gang toilet" by an individual that should not have been in the building. Their response was to eliminate these "gang toilets" in academic wings and increase intrusion protection and surveillance in all of their school buildings.

It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to discover the weaknesses in school facility security. These safety gaps include easy access to the school and classrooms by potential offenders, inadequate escape paths, an inability of staff to spot threats, and inadequate communications.

Add to this the four fundamental elements to Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED): natural access control, natural surveillance, territoriality and maintenance, and you have the beginning of design criteria that could have created a safer classroom building.

We may never understand what drives an individual to violence. Earlier treatment and screening might, in fact, surround those that need care and assistance with necessary safeguards. And perhaps enhanced personal defenses will make us safer by eliminating or reducing unsecured entrances, removing hidden areas, improving indoor lighting, securing and repairing doors and door hardware, maintaining emergency devices...the list goes on.

This year, the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings came and went with little media attention or public conversation. But I hope that over the next twelve months, we can apply the lessons of Virginia Tech to move education policy and planning forward towards real safety.

Next April 16th we will commemorate the passing of another year. Some of us will visit the Tech campus to remember our sons and daughters' team mates, favorite professors, or just heroic people. Some will visit Norris Hall to walk through the newly renovated building that was almost torn down in response to the tragedy.

And perhaps we'll also walk those corridors with the knowledge that finally, instead of reacting from crisis to crisis, we've built the foundation of safety standards that begin on the architect's table. I know they are on mine.