Bulletproof doors. Single entrances. Razing the entire school.
In the mounting anger since the shooting at Robb elementary primary school in Uvalde, Texas, these are just some of ideas of how to move on from the trauma and “harden” American schools against the ever-impending threat of active shooters.
Recently the Uvalde mayor, Don McClaughlin, tentatively announced plans to demolish the school where 19 children and two teachers were shot dead by an eighteen year old with an AR-15. “You can never ask a child to go back or teacher to go back in that school ever,” McLaughlin said, at a council meeting, speaking of the decision.
But what would a new school look like? And how effective are architectural changes at preventing mass shootings?
What sorts of changes do people want in US schools?
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has spoken much about its School Shield program , touting school fortification as an alternative to gun control. Pamphlets for the program push high-tech alarm systems; schools with high fences, no windows and few trees.
But the NRA is not alone in looking to school design. In the wake of so many school shootings in the last two decades, US schools have added panic buttons, smoke cannons and facial recognition software to try and warn off impending threats.
Mass shootings have changed the overall environment in schools, too.
Most states now require active shooter drills and almost all schools use them, according to Everytown, a gun reform coalition. In some schools, students and teachers barricade doors and hide under tables during such drills, while other schools have come under fire for introducing increasingly gory simulations in the classrooms, utilizing fake blood and pellet guns to simulate real active shooter scenarios.
Another environmental change since the 90s has been the vast increase in police officers on school campuses, which proliferated since the Columbine massacre in 1999, and again after Sandy Hook in 2012. There is now more law enforcement in US schools than there are social workers – and most US schools have a police officer.
With fortress style buildings and uniformed guards and armed cops on patrol increasingly touted as the solution, some have questioned whether schools have begun to resemble prisons more than educational institutions.
Does ‘hardening’ schools work?
Despite billions being spent on teacher training and drills; school redesign and cops in the wake of mass shootings, there is no evidence that they prevent mass shootings, make students safer, or are a good use of money, experts say.
“Nobody has tested the efficiency and efficacy of these procedures,” said Dr Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health researcher from the University of New Mexico. He points to a recent meta-analysis he and colleagues worked on, analyzing hundreds of safety protocols used in schools attempting to prevent firearm violence in the last two decades. They found no evidence that stronger schools are less likely to have a school shootings; and concluded that the return on investment for such protocols is weak considering nobody knows whether or not they work.
Some of the moves to harden schools can actually have the opposite effect of what is needed for grieving families and children, some experts say.
“Those fortifications start to create an institutional environment that further exacerbates a lack of feeling of community and support,” said Julia McFadden, the architect who redesigned Sandy Hook school after the mass shooting there in 2012. “[It] can be traumatizing for students, diminishing their ability to feel safe, optimistic, and to have a sense of wonder,” she says.
She points to the positive benefits of light, windows, and nature in the learning environment. “[These are] things that will stimulate [a child’s] thinking and imagination,” McFadden explains.
In the case of Texas, Senator Ted Cruz’s suggestion to have single doors only in a school, Bill Avera, a board member for the Texas School Safety Center, pointed to the implausibility of such a measure. “The fire codes do not allow that. It is impossible to have a school building function, nor is it legal, with only a single door in and out,” Alvarez explains.
But focusing on the design of the school at all is looking in the wrong direction, explains Khubchandani.
He points to the fact that more than half of American schools have at least two to three safety practices in place – such as security cameras, locked doors or active shooter drills – in place.
“Look at all the shootings that have happened in the past decade in schools – were those schools not doing enough? They were doing more than schools in other countries, and yet they continue to suffer,” he said. “Physical structures are not a deterrent. Someone who’s decided to shoot and kill and die doesn’t think about school security much.
What actually works
Avera believes in school fortification – not least because he hopes it can save precious time when an armed intruder tries to enter a school. But asked whether any security measures has ever stopped at school shooting in Texas he said he didn’t know.
“I don’t really know of any way that we could quantify that we’ve actually prevented,” he said. “But I have to believe in my heart that we have. You have to assume that all these measures working together have not caused one[a shooting] for sure.”
But he also says that in most cases, school re-design is simply not an option: “Most of us are not building new buildings,” he said.
McFadden, explains that in the case of Sandy Hook, the school building was already 50 years old when the shooting happened, so the decision to rebuild was not purely reactionary – the school benefitted from becoming more energy efficient and sustainable.
She said each community hit by a school shooting has to make its own mind up about whether to totally demolish and rebuild, but that when they do, schools should appear welcoming and inviting, rather than like a fortress.
“When you are basically throwing up your hands and saying we don’t know how to tackle the root causes of these issues, and so they’re looking at right gates and fences; and a single entry to the school; and investing in all sorts of kinds of high tech stuff. That’s a lot of money for things that – unless well coordinated and financed – will do very little. It’s a wrong allocation of resources,” she said.
Khubcandani said most school shooters in the US have a similar profile: male teenagers, with a connection to the school, and who have recently bought a gun and announced their intent to take drastic action.
He asked how a school redesign helps any of those issues. “Lockdown drills, showing blood to students, it doesn’t create a conducive climate for education. There are millions of children in schools in United States with a police officer, but they are without a school counselor,” he explained.
But he is also careful not to make solutions just about mental health interventions – which he says are also under-evidenced in relation to whether they can actually stop school shootings.
“The United Kingdom does not have school shootings – and it is not because they are mentally healthy. In America, we are trying to prove that we are the most mentally ill nation on the planet. That argument doesn’t fly well,” he says, adding: “We have the highest per capita guns. There are more guns in the country than people. Guns are now the biggest killer of children in America, and he says that’s not a coincidence.”
“Among the richest, industrialized nations – the UK, United States, Canada and so on – if 10 kids die of guns today, eight [will be] from the United States. How does that happen?” he asked.
So why is there so much emphasis on what happens to the school building following a mass shooting? “Because it’s easy. And because it side skirts all the real issues,” said McFadden.