When architect Jeff Straub was in the process of designing the new State College Area High School, the news of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary shocked the nation and changed the way school design was approached.
The four SCASD projects he’s designed since each have elements that reflect a detailed approach to student safety.
For almost 18 years, Straub has specialized in school design for the architectural firm Crabtree, Rohrbaugh and Associates, where he led the design of the high school and more recently the three elementary school projects that are beginning next month.
Design elements inside and outside of schools have changed to address a culture where school gun violence is on the rise, but the communal approach to design is what Straub says has changed the most.
Prior to Sandy Hook, architects would mainly integrate with administrators, such as Ed Poprik, who is the director of the Office of Physical Plant for the State College Area School District, but now architects are including aspects in the design process such as school safety personnel, local law enforcement and first responders.
“It used to be that we would build a building and the police would come in afterward and have zero input through the process,” Straub said. “Now we have law enforcement and EMS walking the site and letting us know how they would approach a building and what are their concerns when you’re putting a building together.”
The engagement with non-school officials coupled with design elements that focus on protection from an armed person inform the design process. Along with his architecture certifications, Straub has also completed Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design training.
CPTED is a multidisciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior through environmental design. One of the most visible implementations of Straub’s CPTED training will be seen in the landscape and lighting design of the facilities.
All of the schools will have a visually open concept at the main entrance point. Ground cover plants will not be higher than 18 inches and any tree that is planted will have a canopy that begins at a minimum of 66 inches or 5 and a half feet from the ground. The design will allow school officials inside of the building to have a clear view of any person approaching and will not provide cover for a person attempting to hide.
The entrances to the buildings will be constructed of mainly glass and there will be electronically locked entrance points. All of the glass will be bullet resistant or laminated, which Straub said would take a person several minutes to break with a sledgehammer.
LED lights will illuminate the grounds at night, which Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said was a decision to which the school board and the design team paid close attention.
“Our high school campus is extremely busy in the evenings as are our other facilities and having a significantly better lighting system will be another tool for security,” O’Donnell said.
Inside of the buildings all of the offices will be located at the front entrance, and after passing through a locked vestibule, visitors will enter the office before being permitted to move throughout the building. But one security option that Straub said is a dramatic change is the ability to lock down a school.
“It used to be, you have the front door that was maybe able to be locked and then you have the classroom door that could maybe lock,” Straub said. “What we’re doing is creating a redundancy of levels of security by having the potential to lock down entire sectors of a building.”
As construction of the buildings progress, O’Donnell said the district will continue to work with local law enforcement to train faculty and staff to handle a potential situation involving an armed person, but he said it’s important to steer away from the mentality that “it can’t happen here” and move forward with a mindset of improving security and working with professionals who devote their lives to the issue.
“We need to make sure that we’re paying attention and working with people who need to be involved to help us improve our security,” O’Donnell said. “We want to make sure that we’re building an environment where it’s optimum for the kids learning and balancing that with the needs to make sure we’re building highly-secure facilities so that the kids are safe.”