Balancing Safety and Security with Openness and Connectivity

When a school shooting resulted in the death of Karen Smith and Jonathan Martinez at North Park Elementary School, San Bernardino City Unified School District wanted to increase safety measures at the school while still affording students the opportunity to learn in open and collaborative environments. They enlisted in the help of our design team to balance security and openness and bring vibrancy back to the halls of North Park. In just four short months, our team was able to design and reconstruct the space helping students and staff feel joyous and safe again.

In response to the numerous tragedies related to school shootings, our design team collaborated to understand how they can design safer schools for students and staff while keeping the focus on student learning outcomes.

In our current social climate, a lot of school districts are proactively taking measures to improve the safety of their campuses. Whether it is creating a single point-of-entry onto their school campuses or upgrading door hardware throughout, one thing remains true: these facilities exist to educate our future generations and as such should still be welcoming environments that are conducive to learning. It is a challenging balance to be successful in both but it is an endeavor that architects, school districts and communities are committed to.
— Jennifer Dubon, Associate Principal

Below are 7 actions everyone should consider when making safety upgrades to their community’s schools.

1. Improve fencing/site enclosure

An ideal learning environment allows students to have both visual and physical connections to the outdoors. One component of that is site fencing which should serve as a physical barrier—not a visual barrier. Architects and schools are getting creative with how they enclose school sites. The idea is to keep intruders out and use fencing that allows for visibility. From the outside looking in, you want an enclosure that is aesthetically appealing. More importantly, you want to be able to see potential intruders or vandals as they approach the school.

Choose a type of fencing or enclosure that makes the students feel safe but not trapped or locked in. While traditional chain-link fences provide visibility, they are quite easy to climb or cut. You can reduce the chain-link to 1-inch squares (as opposed to the standard 2-inch) to prevent trespassers from gaining foothold, or thicken the gauge and make it more difficult to cut with bolt or wire cutters.  Although they are more costly, an upgrade to tubular ornamental fencing or welded wire mesh are several other options that offer more curb appeal.

Steel perforated panel fencing (Image property of

Steel perforated panel fencing
(Image property of

Ornamental steel fencing with accent infill panels (Image property of

Ornamental steel fencing with accent infill panels
(Image property of

Welded wire fencing with wayfinding signage (Image property of

Welded wire fencing with wayfinding signage
(Image property of

2.    Create a single point-of-entry for visitors

You can regulate who enters and exits the campus by limiting your school to one single point-of-entry. With this layout all visitors enter and exit through a secure, regulated entryway. Casework can also be built into the interior entrance to add another level of security beyond the check in point. Oftentimes this casework includes a controlled access gate operated by the administrative staff with concealed hardware – this allows staff to discretely take action if restricted visitors arrive.  

Unlike visitors, students are often granted access to the campus in multiple areas. These are gated areas that are heavily monitored by campus supervisors and only open when students arrive to school in the morning and leave in the afternoon. Ideally, these accessways are strategically placed near school parking lots so students can safely make their way to their pickup vehicles rather than wandering around campus.  

3.    Install visitor management software

An increasing number of schools are ditching handwritten visitor logs and adopting visitor management software to capture guest information. For example, the RAPTOR Visitor Management System requires visitors to provide a government-issued ID upon check-in. Their ID is fed through a scanner that checks their name against registered sex offender lists, and child custody or court orders. The system can also send out alerts to discretely inform security personnel or local law enforcement of restricted visitors.

(Image property of Raptor Technologies

(Image property of Raptor Technologies

4.    Upgrade to safety glass or add window film

Windows help create openness and visual connections for students to the outdoors, but they can also be a vulnerable access point for schools since intruders can easily break the glass and enter the premises. For that reason, many schools are upgrading to bullet or shatterproof safety glass both indoors and outdoors. The safety industry refers to this as “hardening” by adding additional layers of protection to windows and fortifying materials in the walls.

Whether laminated or tempered, safety glass delays forced entry and gives law enforcement additional time to respond to the scene. Applying a safety and security window film atop your existing glass will also provide a shatterproof barrier and additional layer of protection without having to replace the entire window. One way to reduce cost is to focus on the exterior windows first—since they are the most vulnerable—and interior windows second.


5.    Switch from physical keys to programmed keycards

Many schools still use physical keys to gain access into classrooms and buildings. One concern with physical keys is that they are extremely easy to duplicate, especially if they fall into the wrong hands e.g. a student who steals a master key or a former disgruntled employee. On the contrary, key cards can be easily programmed but not easily duplicated. You can program them to grant specific people access to certain buildings, and easily reprogram or deactivate if the card is lost or stolen. 

6.    Install Security Cameras

Installing security cameras in plain sight, helps act as a deterrent for potential intruders by increasing the perception of security. About 60% convicted burglars stated the presence of a security camera system influenced their decision to look for another easy target.

Security cameras help protect students, teachers and visitors, but deciding where to place them can be tough. It’s important to strike a balance between security and privacy. Focus on placing cameras in public gathering spaces and at the entrances and exits of interior spaces, consider the following areas:

  • Main Entrance

  • Main Offices

  • Hallways

  • Parking Lots

  • Gymnasium

  • Theater

  • Student Union

  • Library

Clear signage and classroom numbering also way-finding for occupants and responders in emergency situations.

Clear signage and classroom numbering also way-finding for occupants and responders in emergency situations.

7.    Communicate with local law enforcement and emergency  responders

Some school districts are fortunate enough to have their own police departments and/or security resource officers to help keep students safe. Regardless of your security staffing, it’s important to also communicate with local law enforcement and emergency responders about the layout of your school. You can take action by:

  • Sharing your school’s site plan

  • Identifying critical infrastructure

  • Giving detailed evacuation plans

Informing local fire and police departments of these details allows them to quickly respond to the scene and navigate to the correct location. 

Consider how the design of your school affects security—whether it be in site circulation or hardening features—and understand the role technology and communication play in your school’s safety plan. With these tips in mind, find the right balance for your school. One that makes necessary safety upgrades and doesn’t sacrifice optimal learning environments for students.

Stay up-to-date with blog posts, articles and firm news by subscribing to our newsletter.

Ruhnau Clarke Architects is a multi-disciplinary planning, architecture, and interiors firm that partners with organizations to realize their vision through design. For over 68 years, Ruhnau Clarke Architects has been committed to creating spaces that bring communities together and elevate their experience with the built environment.