2012 Bond Campuses Using Environmental Design to Keep Schools Safe

At DeChaumes Elementary School, the main entrance to the school is controlled through an intercom system and two sets of locked doors.

The design process has started for the first phase of HISD’s 2012 bond program, and district officials plan to incorporate crime prevention through environmental design on all 40 campuses under the $1.89 billion bond project.

“We’re going to create safe and secure environments for our students and faculty,” HISD’s General Manager for Facilities Planning Sue Robertson said. “That doesn’t mean creating prison-like environments, but including common-sense applications.”

Features of crime prevention through environmental design, also known as CPTED, can be included in both new and existing schools in three ways – natural surveillance, natural access control and territoriality. Natural surveillance increases visibility by avoiding such design features as solid walls, tall shrubs, sculptures and large signs.

The territoriality features are signs restricting visitor access, directing them to the office or posting campus closing times. Low fencing also helps establish borders for visitors and possible intruders.

“We not only have to create a safe environment, but we have to make sure people actually feel safe within those environments,” Robertson said.

Many schools under the district’s 2007 bond program have already implemented access control, which allows school officials to monitor who enters and leaves the building. Such a system includes fewer entry points, automatic locks on doors and a locked entrance for visitors to check in when they arrive.

At DeChaumes Elementary in north Houston, special attention was paid to safety and security when the school was rebuilt, opening for students in 2011. The main entryway at the school incorporates an intercom system with two sets of locked doors. Visitors must be routed through the main office before they are allowed access to the school through a second set of doors. Most exterior doors are controlled through staff-only key cards.

“For me, a safe school is looking at the points of entry,” DeChaumes Principal Sandy Gaw said.  “Are those points of entry locked throughout the day? And who is monitoring those points of entry?”

See more photos of DeChaumes Elementary School

Milby High School Principal Roy de la Garza understands the importance of controlling visitor access. His school, originally built in 1942, has its main office and administration office both near the center of the building and away from the main entrances.

De la Garza said he hopes the new Milby campus design includes a central point with visibility to hallways and corners. The school already has almost 100 surveillance cameras.

“I envision a school where visitors have one access door when you enter with all of the administration in one office,” de la Garza said.

Those are the features Sean Connor, an architect at Pfluger Associates Architects and a member of the International Crime Prevention through Environmental Design Association, says will help keep students and faculty safe. All schools need a place by the main entry where visitors must check in, he said.

Connor, who has specialized in educational facilities design for 25 years, says environmentally designed safe campuses not only help with student behavior issues, but they also reduce the number of staff required to monitor hallways and drop-off areas.

Milby and other campuses in the first group of the 2012 bond program are scheduled to begin construction by the end of 2014. Connor says faculty members and designers should think about creating their new campuses as social environments.

“You need to have the attitude that you’re maximizing positive social interaction,” Connor said. “Understand that you’re creating a culture that makes bigger difference for safer positive environments.”