Metropolis

The Mad Rush to Bulletproof American Schools

Aggression sensors. Classroom barricades. How architects are transforming schools for the era of mass shootings.

The redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School
The redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Robert Benson Photography

SANDY HOOK, Connecticut—There’s a gate to the parking lot, and a plaque stating “In Loving Memory” by the front door. Those are the only signs that I’ve arrived at the site of an unspeakably dark American moment—the Dec. 14, 2012, murder of 20 first graders and six women who taught them. I half expect the grass not to grow.

Instead, the architect Jay Brotman parks the car and we walk toward the whimsical, undulating façade of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, fronted with a rain garden that is flush with milkweed and marsh grasses. The timber is dotted with windows; its height rises and falls like the hills around the town, with two peaked second-story hallways poking up like little farmhouses. A low stone wall marks the base. “My goal is to lead everybody to more open and accessible schools, instead of prisonlike spaces,” the architect says. “You’re not going to raise a good person in a prison.”

This may be the most scrutinized school design in the United States, the landmark project of the era in which stopping school shootings became the responsibility of architects and administrators because the U.S. Congress would do nothing. Designed by Svigals + Partners, the New Haven firm where Brotman is a partner, the new Sandy Hook Elementary opened in 2016; when I visited last week with an eye toward assessing the impact of shootings on school architecture, incoming students’ names were already affixed by classroom doors to prepare for the first day of school on Monday.

The animating theme is nature: Through the front doors, reliefs in the great entry hall call back to the ducks that frequented the demolished school’s courtyard. A tree-shaded terrace sits beyond a wall of windows. On the second floor, the hallways end in “treehouses,” cozy nooks with windows facing onto the forest behind the school.

The inside of the redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary Schoo
The redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Robert Benson Photography

The ubiquitous black globes of cameras in the ceiling are a reminder that this is also a school designed with the unthinkable in mind. The glass in the double row of doors is bulletproof, a feature that costs 10 times what normal glass does. Each classroom door is propped open with a wall magnet, which is connected to a centralized lockdown button that sends all doors swinging shut at once. The below-grade rain garden doubles as a moat that limits the school to three entry points and allows child-level windows to stand, on the outside, high above the ground.

Brotman is one of the architects who argues that a school designed to resist a massacre need not look that way. As school districts rush to redesign facilities for the post–Sandy Hook, post-Parkland era, it’s not clear his ideas are carrying the day. Elsewhere, frightened parents, liability-conscious administrators, and a school-safety industrial complex are pushing for an architectural posture that is more explicitly defensive, one designed to reassure students and teachers at every turn that their classrooms are ready for the horrific but vanishingly remote possibility of a school shooting.

Last week in Jefferson County, Colorado, home of Columbine, public school teacher Cassie Lopez received buckets, kitty litter, and a Sharpie to start the year. The buckets and the kitty litter can comprise a makeshift toilet during a prolonged lockdown. The Sharpie is there so Lopez can write the time she applied a tourniquet to a bleeding student.

It’s an example of the ghastly protocols that school districts have undertaken as another school year begins with no movement in Washington on gun control. Armed volunteers have arrived in elementary schools. Parents have gone their own route, stocking up on bulletproof backpacks. Because the average U.S. school is 44 years old, architectural adaptations to gunfire have been slower to arrive—but now that they are being considered in the design of every new school in the United States, their impact will last for decades.

In Shelbyville, Indiana, a high school redesigned at the behest of the state sheriff’s association has teachers wearing panic buttons, and motion detectors and smoke cannons in the hallways. When it opened a few years ago, Indiana Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Steve Luce labeled it a “paradigm change in public safety.” In a PR coup for the planners, NBC called it the “safest school in America.”

The Shelbyville school is an extreme case. It was built by NetTalon, a Virginia security company that doesn’t seem to have been able to convince anyone to replicate its prototype. But it is far from the only school where military technology drives design.

Southwestern High School
Southwestern High School in Indiana.

In Fruitport, Michigan, superintendent Bob Szymoniak boasts the new high school will be “the safest, most secure building in the state of Michigan,” with limited sightlines, wing-wall protrusions for students to hide behind, and an all-seeing reception desk the architect calls an “educational entry panopticon.” The firm behind the building, TowerPinkster, has built a number of school facilities—as well as jails in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Midland. Matt Slagle, the architect on the project, says all this is standard procedure—and that with its emphasis on glass windows (coated in ballistic film) and open sightlines, the Fruitport school is on the less carceral end of the spectrum.

Commissions on school safety have prepared reports with standardized school safety recommendations after the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, and Parkland. But on the ground, approaches are highly localized and often dependent on the whims of one superintendent or the entreaties of a local entrepreneur.

In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, Tony Deering, a local manufacturer of bomb-resistant vehicle armor, has a new venture in bulletproof doors, incorporating “the experience we gleaned from protecting the war fighter.” Deering has offered the doors free to three district schools, which will begin installing them this year, and he hopes Charleston’s schools will be the first of many clients.

“There is this industry that is monetizing off of fear,” said Jenine Kotob, a D.C.-based school architect, when I spoke to her earlier this month. “The school security industry is now a $2.7 billion industry in the United States, and those numbers keep rising. Thinking about the building and the site in a holistic way, and not necessarily focusing on the bells and whistles that come after the fact, would probably be a better investment.”

Kotob is one of the estimated 225,000 Americans who have lived through a school shooting. One of her best friends was killed at Virginia Tech. Later, she studied in Israel and Palestine, and saw schools built for war, with features like perimeter walls designed to withstand explosives. “If America continues along a trajectory of fear, we will end up in a situation where the building and the infrastructure we’re investing in are not places we want to be. We’re talking about a building that will be standing for 20, 30, 40 years. And how we react today says a lot about who we are as a society and what our beliefs are.”

Listen to our What Next episode with Jenine Kotob on this topic:

One place where the military-educational complex is winning: a particular piece of panic hardware called a “barricade device,” which is supposed to prevent anyone from entering or exiting a classroom during a lockdown. The National Association of State Fire Marshals argues that it should always be easy for anyone to exit a room—and for authorized officials to enter a locked room. But several states have bucked that advice and changed the law to permit barricades in school settings. Those might include steel bars that secure the door to the door frame or into the floor.

In Arkansas, for example, the Legislature changed the fire code, overruling the fire marshal. Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert was subsequently appointed CEO of Arkansas-based ULockIt, which has sold barricades to dozens of schools in the state. (He had recused himself from the vote because he had investments in the firm.)

“What happens is, when these companies come in, some of them can try to take advantage of situations,” said Guy Grace, security director of public schools in Littleton, Colorado, where Columbine is located. He is also the chair of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools, or PASS, which has argued that barricades will create more problems than they solve. “When you have an active shooter situation, I guarantee in the first couple days your inbox is going to have solutions from companies trying to market their technology.”

PASS, in turn, is criticized for being a vehicle for security tech. Its school design guidelines are “mostly from security industry folks with their products as their main concern,” Brotman wrote to me. They recommend that new schools be equipped with biometric screening, outdoor lighting optimized for video surveillance, and audio analytics that can detect “specific acoustic signatures of threat indicators, such as aggression or panic in people’s voices.”

The resistance to barricades isn’t just about fire. Far more common than school shootings is routine violence, including threats, fighting, and sexual assault. Many forward-thinking architects see themselves as responding not just to the infinitesimal threat of a shooting but the far more common incidence of bullying. “To truly create spaces where students feel safe, to a certain extent those interventional strategies have to be as unobtrusive as possible,” observes Karina Ruiz, a Portland, Oregon–based architect who chaired the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Education. She recalled speaking to survivors of the 2017 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, who returned to a school that required passing through a metal detector with a clear backpack. “They said, ‘We are the victims—and we feel like we’re being punished.’ ”

Metal detectors have been a fixture in inner-city schools for decades, but there is still little evidence on whether they make students safer or put them at ease. There is less evidence still about the new active-shooter-exercise “start kits” that the Department of Homeland Security now releases, which are designed to help administrators prepare kids for a lockdown. In Littleton, Grace argues the twice-a-year drills are “empowering, not overwhelming” for the district’s students. “When you don’t tell them anything is where the fear factor comes into play.”

Virtually nothing is known about the utility or consequence of architectural modifications. What are the long-term effects of spending your youth in a classroom with red tape on the floor telling you where to stand when someone opens fire? No one knows. In a 2016 study, researchers from Johns Hopkins University wrote there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

Back at Sandy Hook, Brotman knows that’s true. He does his best to hide his bulletproofing, and he also acknowledges that no school will ever be completely invulnerable, not even this one. The first concern in school design should always be education, he said, even as the grim headlines fuel parental concern about security: “Parents will bring it up, and it’s up to us to help them understand it’s a priority—but it’s not the No. 1 priority.”

We were standing among the tiny, thigh-high chairs in the library as a summer thunderstorm battered the windows and filled the rain garden outside. If we’re designing shooter-proof schools, I hope they look like this. It was also clear, as Brotman and I gamed out the path of bullets in the empty hallways, that this is a small victory in a war we have lost.