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  • 11.10.14

Can Newtown Design A Safer Sandy Hook School That Doesn’t Feel Like A Fortress?

The architects of the new Sandy Hook school want to create the most iron-clad security features students and teachers barely notice.

In fall 2016, when 506 pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade students file into the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, they will navigate a complex series of security features designed to ensure that the kind of event that made Sandy Hook a household name–the second deadliest school shooting in national history–will never happen again. Designed by Svigals + Partners, it will be one of the most secure elementary schools in the nation. But if the design works as planned, it won’t feel that way.

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After Newtown decided to raze the old Sandy Hook, the town commissioned the New Haven-based architects to build a new elementary school in its place. Here, the need to create a safe space for students and faculty was key. But that had to be balanced with other concerns, too. For one thing, the school still had to fulfill its main mission, educating young students. It couldn’t be a fortress.

“We want schools to look like schools,” as Julia McFadden, an associate principal at Svigals + Partners who heads up the firm’s education work, explained at a panel on school security design in New York City earlier this fall. The firm didn’t want to create “in your face” security features, as she put it.

A view of the school entrance featuring the rain garden

“For us, the most important security aspect is for you not to feel it–for it to feel like any other school,” Svigals + Partners’ Jay Brotman tells Co.Design. “You won’t know where the glass is resistant, or where the doors might prevent entry,” he says. Here are six ways the new Sandy Hook, which broke ground in October, is designed to be have the most iron-clad security features students and teachers barely notice.

Creating Natural Surveillance

The layout of the architecture and location of the school within the 12.2 acre forested site near the eastern edge of Newtown are designed to create natural surveillance–what urbanist Jane Jacobs would have called “eyes on the street.” The sooner someone in the school knows that something is amiss, the sooner the police can be called. The front of the school is meant to increase staffers’ abilities to notice that someone isn’t where he or she is supposed to be, through a variety of features, from the way visitors drive up, to how people approach the entrances to the school, to the views from the administrative offices (see floorplan below). “You want to be able to see who’s approaching,” as Brotman says.

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Parking

Sandy Hook Elementary’s security features begin the moment you drive into the parking lot. The driveway into the school has been rerouted through two wetland areas, which create a natural barrier against unwanted visitors; the main road is the only way to drive into the school. A gate at the entrance to the parking lot serves as a checkpoint, and segregated parking lots divert regular visitors from staff members and create a parental drop-off area. The idea is that different parking lots, with different passes required for each, create a layer of protocol so that it’s more apparent when a visitor isn’t behaving normally. Because only pre-cleared staff can get into the staff parking lot using a key fob or access card, it allows security monitors to focus the brunt of their observation elsewhere, to the public parking lot, where an unknown visitor is more likely to arrive. A bus loop in front of the school provides yet another buffer space between the school’s entrance and the outside world. The school itself is placed farther into the forest than the original elementary school.


Rain Garden

Between the school and the parking lot, the architects have created what looks like a moat made of plants. The rain garden–a low-lying planted area that collects storm runoff–spans the front of the school, with only a few pathways leading to entrances to the school. The three entrances to the school have different functions: one for pre-kindergarden and kindergarden students, a main entrance, and one for the more public spaces like the cafeteria and auditorium. During the middle of the school day, only the main entrance will be open. The rain garden isn’t much of an actual barrier–a little bit of shrubbery won’t stop an attacker in his tracks–but it does set off warning signals if someone comes running through it.

The garden serves other purposes, too. The architects want the school’s design to explore the “regenerative, restorative, and healing elements of nature,” as the school’s website explains. “You’re coming from a parking lot–that’s more asphalt than you’d love to have,” Brotman says, “and you’re crossing this zone and you’re headed back into nature.” Almost 70% of rain water from the roof will be funneled into the garden, creating better natural drainage for the site. And it can be incorporated into the curriculum as well. “When it rains, this garden will fill up with water, and there are plants in it, and the children can learn from it. They can go dig in it when it’s drier.”

School Organization

The new Sandy Hook Elementary will be a two-story building that gently curves inward, toward the parking lot. The front of the school is dedicated to administrative offices, support spaces like the kitchen and cafeteria, the library, and music room–places where adults are around to keep an eye out on what’s going on outside. The classrooms, where children spend most of their time, are clustered toward the back of the school, which is bordered by forest (and the back courtyards are bordered by a fence with vertical bars).

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The classrooms are located in three wings that extend toward the back of the site. These wings can be locked off in the event of an emergency, creating yet another barrier to entry. Though these corridors are an extra layer of security to delay any sort of attacker from reaching the students, they also form three courtyards with amphitheaters opening up into the woods.


Better Door Locks

In many schools, classroom doors lock from the outside. In the event of an emergency, teachers have to rush out into the corridor to lock their doors, putting themselves at risk. Sandy Hook’s new doors–heavy-duty metal covered in a wood veneer–automatically lock from the inside with a one-inch deadbolt, allowing teachers to remain safely in their classrooms.

Hardened Glass, Raised Windows

Kids need to be able to look out windows. But glass is one of the most vulnerable materials to build with. And Sandy Hook needs window sills that are fairly short, so kids can see over them. That presents another security challenge. Lower windows don’t leave much wall space for people to duck down under if someone were to start shooting at the window.

The compromise? The land immediately surrounding the building is a bit lower than the grade of the building itself. Essentially, anybody who might want to shoot into a classroom through a window would be standing in a hole, unable to shoot straight at desk height. But from the classroom point of view, the window sill is still at a comfortable height so a young kid can see out.

The school will also feature glass that’s not quite bulletproof, but it’s close. It has impact-resistant glazing that prevents the pane from shattering completely, but looks exactly like normal glass, and isn’t as thick as ballistic glass.

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It was important that the school retain glass windows into classrooms from the inside, so the principal can still walk by a classroom and see that everything is going well. But glass panels around classroom doors have also been moved to the other side of the doorway, where someone couldn’t reach in through the broken glass and open the door from the inside.

A New Model?

When it comes to school security design, Sandy Hook Elementary School is likely to be one of the most-watched case studies in the nation. “We knew we’d be under some scrutiny,” McFadden said of the project. The shooting made parents and educators around the country rethink how safe children are at school, prompting everyone from the American Association of School Administrators to the the National Association of School Psychologists to release recommendations on improving school safety policies (while also reminding the public that statistically schools are still the safest place for kids to be).

In the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook, Connecticut established a committee to create a set of uniform school security standards and procedures for the state’s 165 individual school districts, ensuring that all new and refurbished schools designed after July 1, 2014 follow a certain set of security design guidelines, tied to state grant funding. Since 2013, more than 30 states have passed school security-related legislation, as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year. Though Sandy Hook’s new design was developed before Connecticut’s state standards were officially enacted, the school will no doubt influence how other new schools are built for safety, and how older schools think about refurbishing their security features.

“This school, by virtue of being a new school for Sandy Hook, will more than likely be a model for future schools,” Brotman says.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.

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