Designing Safer Schools

Cody Wortham
Cody Wortham

Cody J. Wortham, a recent alumnus from the Department of Security Studies, won an international award from the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) Foundation for his research on improving security at schools through low-cost, low-tech architectural design.

“Cody Wortham was able to demonstrate the excellence that Sam Houston State University produces each year into industry,” said Charles Andrews CPP (BS ’85), Regional Vice President for ASIS International. “The Houston ASIS chapter is proud of Cody’s accomplishments and wished him well in his career endeavors.”

The ASIS International Student Writing Competition rewards students who conduct research, engage in thoughtful deliberation and write an academic paper on an issue relevant to the security and assets protection profession. As the graduate category winner, Wortham received $1,500 and complimentary registration at one of the ASIS annual events.

“The project started as an assignment for my Crisis Management course,” said Wortham. “Dr. (Stephen) Sloan asked us to look at places that have a security lapse or that can use improvements. I was going to look at the issue of sheltering in place in school…I found that sheltering in place is not a bad idea, it’s where to shelter that’s the problem.”

Man reviews architectural plans for safety issues.With the advent of school shootings in the 1990s, as well as ongoing natural or manmade disasters, such as fires, bomb threats, tornados and hurricanes, it is imperative to make security the top priority in school design, according to “Designing school security: Low cost/low tech solutions for building a better security plan through architectural design in public schools.” To accomplish this, it is critical to have security professionals involved in the planning of new schools or major renovations of existing campuses to present low cost, low tech options to enhance safety, especially in budget-strapped rural areas.

“It is the duty of security professionals to see that each of our students is able to obtain an education in a safe and functional environment,” wrote Wortham in the study. “In order to create the safest environment possible for students, school officials need clear guidance, basic principles, and cost effective ideas to manage the risk that their school faces.”

Empty classroom surrounded by glass windows.Many schools are designed to be open and to hold the greatest number of students possible, but provide little security or access control. For schools that use sheltering in place in response to crisis, this can result in a “death sentence” because of the large concentration of students in one area as well as the use of large amounts of exposed glass. An example of this was found in the Columbine school massacre, where school officials were unable or unaware of how to lock the library. As a result several students were shot at point black range.

According to a 2009 study of more than 16,000 schools, some security features used in schools were perimeter fencing (16.3%), security cameras (18.7 %), exterior lighting (84.8%), metal detectors (5.1%) and alarms on exteriors doors (14.7%).

Malbork Castle in Poland.While a bunker or prison design may provide ideal security, it is unappealing and impractical. However, security can be incorporated in the design and layout of the building without compromising aesthetics. For example, common areas frequently used by the public, such as cafeterias, auditoriums or performing arts stages, should be located in areas where access can be controlled, and the number of windows in schools should be reduced or placed at higher elevations so they cannot be easily accessed. Wortham suggests that a castle design, similar to the Malbork Castle in Poland, that survived several sieges over a 100 year period before it was destroyed by bombing in WWII, is both functional and appealing. Wortham visited Malbork Castle during a Study Abroad trip at SHSU.

“That’s the reason why I asked why modern technology cannot yield a school that can delay an attacker for 15 minutes, when building like this survived numerous wars and sieges,” said Wortham.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, a theory which relies on building design to deter the majority of potential threats, is also critical to safe schools by allowing for natural surveillance, access control and territorial reinforcement. Neutral colors and natural light sources can help produce calming effects on building occupants and reduce violence, and landscaping and repairs can help dissuade crime and violent behavior.

Several camera mounted on a school building.One of the biggest costs in the design and construction of schools is technology, and security professionals should be consulted because of the rapid evolution of security features in the industry. For example, new remote security link boxes can be installed that allow police or other emergency agencies to connect to existing security cameras remotely. New technology also can be paired with traditional security cameras to identify abandoned or forbidden items, detect individuals in secure areas and alert staff and security to potential threats.

There are several security features than can be added to existing schools to improve safety. Among these are adding security film to windows to prevent shattering and improving sight lines from the central office to hallways.

“Incidents such as Columbine show the need for drastic changes to school design,” said Wortham. “The idea that security is a sub-heading equal to eco-friendliness of building materials needs to be abandoned. No longer can the idea that visual aesthetics outweigh security in the design of the building exist, especially when the building houses some of the most precious assets in the nation.”

Student gather in a hallway.With the debate heating up again following the tragic shooting of 20 children and six staff members at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, Wortham would like to build his career on finding solutions.

“Predicting and trying to profile the shooter isn’t going to work,” said Wortham “I want to focus on the mitigation and preparation side of it.”

Wortham presented his proposal not only to his hometown school district in Neches, but also to the Houston Chapter of ASIS, which invited representatives from the Houston Independent School District.

“Cody is a great student and a terrific young man,” said Dr. Jim Dozier, Coordinator of the Internship Program. “He is representative of the strong group of students in our graduate Security Studies program.”

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