As school violence incidents continue to impact classrooms and communities nationwide, policymakers are tasked with creating preventive legislation, law enforcement teams work to devise better emergency plans and architects conceptualize safer schools designs. In aiming to prevent these incidents, more schools have chosen to renovate existing buildings and, in some cases, completely start over in favor of building a more secure school.
At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, things are a bit more personal. The town was rocked by a 2012 massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead, and the town voted in a referendum to tear the building down to honor the victims. The new and improved Sandy Hook reopened on the same site in August 2016, sharing almost no resemblance to its former structure. And while administrators, for obvious reasons, have kept quiet about details of the new security measures, anyone who looks at the building can glean some lessons from the redesign.
Here are six takeaways from the new Sandy Hook Elementary:
1. Lots of windows isn’t a bad thing
While some might assume windows are inherently unsafe — due to either transparency or being more breakable compared to walls — Sandy Hook Elementary’s design proves otherwise. The school’s central lobby is filled with light, nearly every hallway and classroom has a view of the outside, and floor-to-ceiling windows sprinkled with red, orange and yellow glass panels overlook the school’s courtyard. The increased transparency makes it nearly impossible to miss an approaching threat, but laminated glass technology keeps it resistant to impact.
Critics also claim natural light poses a distraction to students, but the school’s feelings of openness also stand to benefit these young learners. Studies have shown that access to sunlight boosts student performance, and providing outdoor views makes students feel like they’re in a welcoming environment, rather than a harsh institution.
2. Small details can make a big difference
School security isn’t all about the big, intimidating pieces of equipment or state-of-the-art surveillance tech. Smaller, more subtle measures at the school, including classroom doors that look like wood — but are actually 350 pounds of stainless steel — automatically lock when closed and notify the school if left open, which could make the difference if a threat were to ever occur.
Additionally, walls between classrooms and corridors were also hardened, and whole parts of the school can be isolated, Architect Magazine notes, making students safer from anything that could happen in an open space without significantly changing the school’s appearance.
3. Investing in hi-tech security measures
Small fixes can make a big difference in some cases of school violence threats, but if a school can afford to purchase some of the bigger, more sophisticated security systems, they can only help to boost safety. A series of motion-detecting cameras and lights can instantly sense when someone is in the space, giving members of the school community more time to react.
However, it’s important to promote a balance between a safe school and a welcoming one, and making sure these tools are subtle enough to maintain a positive learning environment is key to making sure students still feel peaceful and encouraged to learn — rather than like they’re holed up in a prison-like space.
4. Playing with shapes and spaces
Rather than being a straight line, the school’s roof is shaped like a wave to blend in with the landscape, as well as to replicate the hills of the Newtown area. Steel, tree-shaped beams stand 20 feet tall in the school’s lobby, and a mobile of rectangle-shaped "leaves" hang from the ceiling to give way to the forest-like atmosphere.
The school also incorporated different types of indoor and outdoor spaces to promote creativity and unique learning environments. The school wraps itself around spaces, including an amphitheater and two playgrounds, and on the ends of the second floor, "treehouses" set aside small spaces that students and teachers can use for activities with smaller groups, Julia McFadden — one of the lead architects behind the redesign — told Metropolis.
5. Looking beyond the walls
Where the school physically sits is a crucial aspect of its degree of safety. The new Sandy Hook Elementary sits further back on the property than it did before, and it isn’t easily seen from the main road. It also sits at a higher elevation, Architectural Digest reported, giving administrators a better view of who might be approaching the school.
The hardwood planks on the building’s exterior and its gray roofline help it easily blend into the nearby forest and tree line. Rather than making it feel isolated, the design makes the school feel connected to the surrounding greenery, which can be soothing and peaceful for students.
Some more obvious security features include the school’s central entryway, which has a surveillance gate and main entrance, along with external security, Curbed reported. When parents and buses drive up to drop off students, they have to pass through multiple security checkpoints, Business Insider notes. And if visitors want to come into the school through its front entrance, they have to get buzzed in through its two sets of doors with bulletproof glass windows, according to the Los Angeles Times.
6. Giving students a personal touch
A brand new, decked-out school may seem cool and exciting for a school community, but it can also be scary and intimidating for students to enter a new building for the first time. The new Sandy Hook Elementary has a few personal touches from the old school that helped any returning students feel at home. Shelley the turtle sits in the school in a permanent tank, and a weather vane with a duck on it gives a nod to the mini rubber ducks that became a symbol of recovery and healing after the shooting.
Architects also incorporated many of the community’s ideas after consulting them during the design process. For example, community members said footbridges were a binding feature of the municipality of Sandy Hook, so designers created a metaphorical stream with three footbridge-like entries to give students a familiar environment, McFadden told Metropolis.
And while it may be new, a special symbol greets students while also serving as a subtle reminder of what took place at the school almost six years ago: a green, flower-shaped mosaic hanging on the wall in the lobby that says, "be kind."