The Art And Science Of School Safety

A multilayered approach to school safety is critical for student well-being.

By Devin Bowman
From the August 2023 Issue


Designing safer schools is often a collaborative effort—both in terms of planning a building and the use thereof. While code requirements provide protections in the event of emergencies like fires, most school districts enhance campus security voluntarily. Rather than codified standards, there are best practices like the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) K-12 guidelines or the tools and resources provided by the interagency website However, the voluntary nature of improving building security makes it more difficult to plan for a school that provides as much protection as possible.

School Safety
(Photo: TGP-DesignerGuardSystem)

As facility managers and design teams evaluate these guidelines and others like them, it is important to note one security measure alone is often not effective for guarding against all safety threats.

As facility managers and design teams evaluate these guidelines and others like them, it is important to note one security measure alone is often not effective for guarding against all safety threats. Instead, it is recommended that schools utilize multiple layers of protection to provide occupants with the utmost security. These layers can include secured access to the building, the use of surveillance systems, employment of security officers, the creation of safe havens within a building’s interior and much more. That said, as protective layers are added, there is an increasing chance that an area will have multiple forms of protection overlap, most notably along areas of egress and other places where fire-rated materials are required, adding another layer of difficulty to the equation. It is also critical that the intentions of the building—such as creating a welcoming space that contributes to learning outcomes—are not forgotten.

Though fire- and life-safety code requirements and security best-practice guidelines provide some certainty to safer school design, these types of projects still present all involved with unique challenges, making them as much an art as they are a science. This article will examine how multifunctional, fire-rated glazing can be an integral part of creating schools that are safe, secure and promote student well-being.

A Multilayered Approach To School Safety

As multiple disciplines (such as criminal justice, architecture, education, and law enforcement) analyze safe school design, more experts agree that focusing on one line of defense is not an effective strategy. Instead, many best-practice guidelines, like PASS K-12, recommend implementing several layers that deter, detect, or delay and respond to life safety threats. Having multiple layers of protection can create redundancies to guard against user error or mechanical failure as well as work together to increase the effectiveness of the entire security system.

For example, a perimeter fence may be an initial deterrent but have several weak points—both intentionally and unintentionally. In the event an intruder gains access to the school grounds, surveillance systems can alert school administration of an incoming threat. These surveillance systems can include both CCTVs and open sightlines from the inside of a building to the surrounding areas.

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If an intruder is noticed, then those within the building can communicate to first responders and secure the building itself. While the integration of these layers certainly provides a level of security, it is not without limitations. Given a large percentage of school violence is committed by current or former students, administration and security personnel may not be aware these layers have been breached. Further, human error can reduce the effectiveness of surveillance and securing building access—as was the case at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

In these situations, it is important to have classrooms that can be locked from the inside and can withstand forced-entry. It is also recommended to design safe havens—which can range from entire rooms that can be made inaccessible to intruders to areas within a room or corridor that are hardened and removed from sightlines into the space.

The reasons for a multilayered approach are myriad. On the one hand, it’s intended to help create failsafes if a layer is breached. On the other hand, it recognizes that delaying an intruder can be as effective as stopping one outright, giving first responders time to arrive and deescalate a violent situation.

Incorporating Multifunctional, Fire-Rated Glass

Multifunctional, fire-rated glazing systems protect occupants against several types of threats to life safety, such as fire, forced-entry, and ballistics. When these assemblies are made from components that are known to be compatible or as full systems that have undergone multiple testing protocols, they can meet code-driven, fire-rated requirements and fulfill multiple tiers of best-practice recommendations for school security.

At their most basic level, multifunctional, fire-rated glass systems protect areas where safety and security concerns overlap. Consider entry vestibules, exit corridors, and stairwells. For such applications, it may be as essential to defend against or slow an intruder attack as it is to provide safe egress in the event of a fire. Despite the need for multiple forms of protection in these areas, protective components only need to satisfy testing standards that pertain to their function—fire-rated materials are rarely tested for ballistic ratings and vice versa. While this is logical for applications that only need one form of protection, it could have unintended consequences for systems meant to protect against several life safety threats. For example, many forced-entry- and ballistic-rated products are plastic-based and can burn intensely, which may reduce the effectiveness of fire-rated components.

In addition to areas that are required to use fire-rated materials, multifunctional, fire-rated glazing assemblies can be specified throughout a building to help ensure occupants do not have to choose whether to shelter-in-place in an area unprotected against fire or to evacuate into a potentially unsafe situation.

Carving Away Impediments To Community

Transparent glazing can provide multiple forms of protection. It also contributes to a design that supports student well-being. Whereas opaque materials can meet both fire code requirements and best practice security recommendations, they do not contribute to an open, welcoming environment. This is especially poignant given that intruders and active shooters are not the only instances of violence at schools. Bullying and other forms of student-on-student violence can be a serious concern.

School Safety
(Photo: TGP-DesignerGuardSystem)

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects, high school students indicated one of their most desired architectural features was open sightlines across multiple spaces and levels.

In fact, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects, high school students indicated one of their most desired architectural features was open sightlines across multiple spaces and levels. Their reasoning was that this helped reduce the areas where students could be isolated and vulnerable to threats and bullying. Transparent materials contribute to these open sightlines while also providing critical protections to other threats.

Furthermore, research into the consequences of security measures has indicated that some actions and equipment may increase feelings of alarm and concern among the student body, which can work against building a sense of community. As such, facility managers and design teams need to weigh the impact some security systems may inadvertently have on a school’s population when choosing a solution to increase school safety.

An Incremental Approach To School Security

A multilayered approach to school safety can help ease the burden of creating a campus with every security measure in one phase. Facility managers and school administrators can work with their districts and budgetary allocations to determine which aspects of their security plan are the most pressing and which can be incorporated later to complement a base level of security.

No matter where a school starts in the process, multifunctional, fire-rated glazing can be an important link between each phase of an incremental approach to school safety. For instance, these systems can support exterior surveillance by allowing occupants to view the grounds in real time. They can also work with access control systems by further fortifying a door assembly or entry vestibule. The glazing’s ability to integrate various security measures also enhances the effectiveness of each and of the entire security plan. And multifunctional, fire-rated systems can do all this without compromising an assembly’s fire rating; they can be integral in linking voluntary security improvements with requisite fire safety.

Just as individual schools and districts can take a step-by-step approach to improving the level of campus security, it is important for everyone involved in building safer schools, from architects to building managers, to understand that establishing best-practice recommendations is only one step in the process of creating safer schools. An important next step is to codify standards for building security. In doing so, designers and administrators will know what their buildings may need to be as secure as possible.

Bowman is General Manager of Technical Glass Products (TGP) and AD Systems. With nearly 20 years of industry experience, Bowman is actively involved in advancing fire- and life-safety codes and sits on the Glazing Industry Code Committee (GICC).

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