Designing ‘Safe’ Schools: Identifying Areas of Research in Achieving School Safety and Security

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Nowak, Michael S.
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Multiple stakeholders have an interest in making our schools ‘safe’ places to learn and work. Among these are students and parents, law enforcement officials, school administrators and teachers, code officials, and architects. Each party approaches the concept of ‘safe’ from varying institutional logics defined by their professional culture or place in society. Institutional logics represent frameworks for how people in society can frame an issue and help guide them to solve problems. These logics can be complementary or competing. One issue is finding common ground defining the problem and finding a common language with which stakeholders can communicate and work together. Another is understanding how practices and customs differ between stakeholders. Knowing how each party frames the issue of ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ schools’ aids in finding solutions to impasses where logics conflict through more holistic definitions. It also allows us to empirically know varying approaches to problem solving and where research is being conducted on the issue. The American Institute of Architects has lobbied the US government to establish a “Safe Schools Clearinghouse”. Conceived as a repository of best practices for ‘safe’ school design, this clearinghouse encourages experimental research by design schools. Research would be the foundation for decision-making by local school districts and would encourage the development of new technologies in school safety. However, there currently appears to be a lack of safety or security research within our architecture schools. To understand where academia is on the issue of school safety research, this paper explores, through a contemporary literature review, the areas of peer-reviewed research on four key terms: “safe schools”, “school safety”, “school security”, and “school shootings”. The results indicate that the topic of school safety is absent in architecture academia, and most prevalent in the fields of psychology and education. While there is much literature on school safety outside academia sharing ideas, opinions, and case studies of design practices, no rigorous research appears to be being conducted in our design schools offering the validity necessary to make prudent decisions. If architects are expected to act as arbiters of best practices to guide and educate society on the design of ‘safe’ schools, then research within our design schools must begin now.
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