Public Release:  Graduate student wins award for designing safer schools

Sam Houston State University

HUNTSVILLE, TX (3/27/13) -- Cody J. Wortham, a graduate of Sam Houston State University's Security Studies Department, 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.

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.

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.

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%).

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.

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.

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.

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

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