|■_ In the aftermath of a school shooting, there’s often a call for hardening schools.|
|■_ The idea is that a “harder” school is a safe school—one that protects students.|
|■_ In my experience, designing a safe school means more openness, not less.|
by Danish Kurani
What happened in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas shooting in the summer of 2022 was infuriating. As an architect who builds schools, I saw it coming a mile away.
Just a few days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, state politicians and lawmakers quickly began calling for a “hardening” of schools. In their view, turning schools into impenetrable fortresses is what will, once and for all, protect our children.
Over the past decade, I’ve designed dozens of schools in the US, Australia, India, and Brazil. The schools I’ve designed have caught the attention of forward-thinking organizations like TED; I’ve spoken on the importance of school design at major conferences like SXSW; and my work has appeared in esteemed national publications.
Trust me: Hardening schools isn’t the answer. (By the way, Texas already tried that. It didn’t work.)
Architecture’s role in education isn’t to isolate or shield. It’s to make schools fertile grounds for personal growth and community building. Places that foster social, psychological, and emotional development—that is a truly safe school design.
Invoking the school’s design as the issue distracts from a more serious governmental issue: too-easy access to high-powered killing machines. The longer lawmakers ignore this truth, I fear the worst will keep happening, and school buildings will remain the scapegoat.
Debunking the ‘hardening schools’ myth
America has made this mistake before. Look at the schools we built in the 1950s and 60s. It was an era of heightened tension on the streets—rightfully so, as people were fighting for their civil rights.
Government officials of that era took the riots and unrest as a sign that schools should be built in a way to keep out the “urban ills.” They installed metal bars in windows, built tall fences, and constructed schools with tiny windows and hardened exteriors.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Do we really want more school buildings that look like prisons? More metal detectors on campus, as many schools are doing? More armed guards standing watch?
Designing a safe school requires abandoning each one of these assumptions.
By the time a student graduates high school, they will have spent more than 15,000 hours in a school, which is the second-longest exposure anywhere after their home. This is a time of critical growth and development—and the school campus plays a vital role in steering that growth in the right direction.
For example, research has repeatedly shown that well-lit classrooms lead to better outcomes. In one set of studies, students performed 20% better in math and 26% better in reading when their classrooms had large windows letting in lots of sunlight. Kids who are learning behind bars, in artificially lit rooms, aren’t reaping these benefits.
The problem is, even administrators and school leaders start to believe the “hardened school” myth. Some years ago, I was working with a high school in Georgia when the headmaster looked at my design and remarked, “That’s too much glass. Let’s design it to protect us from active shooters.”
Personally, I was sad and sympathetic. But as a designer, the comment made me frustrated. I felt the need to remind him that school shootings aren’t a design problem. If someone is motivated enough to arrive at the school fully loaded, they are motivated enough to shoot through just about any set of obstacles.
So I pushed back, hard. I knew that building the fortress he envisioned wouldn’t get him the outcome he wanted. Students would lose their joy and interest in learning; they’d become despondent, uninspired, and depressed by their surroundings. Being in a lifeless, hyper-secured school, they might actually feel less safe.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that schools built like prisons accustom kids to life under lockdown. Building hardened schools, in the name of protection, all but guarantees bad outcomes later in life. The trouble is, too much time has passed for us to notice it was the school’s doing when it happens.
A model from down under
It doesn’t have to be like this.
One of the first schools I designed was in Wodonga, Australia, a small blue-collar town not too different from Uvalde. It was a middle school that had slightly opened its doors to the community—and I helped them blow the doors wide open.
I didn’t just come in to redesign the layout; I conducted ethnographic studies with the school to learn how the entire ecosystem could improve with a new design. I observed classes, lunch, and break periods, and I saw how students, teachers, and administrators all interacted with one another.
Through seeing how people behaved, I learned what the school needed—and that was more community.
The school was already allowing community members to use parts of campus after hours. While I was in Wodonga, some locals invited me to play basketball on a weeknight at the school’s gym.
I brought the school and City Council together to discuss how drama and music students could walk off campus to use the city’s new state-of-the-art performance center.
This middle school didn’t have a full cafeteria, just a small canteen. Many of their students were skipping lunch because of it, and failing to nourish their bodies before they could nourish their minds. So, I nudged the school to talk with the elementary school across the street about sharing their gym—which wasn’t being fully utilized—so they could turn their own gym into a food hall.
Vendors from around the town could set up stalls for the kids and community members to get food throughout the day and evening. This was particularly useful since the school was in a food desert.
With my help, the school agreed to bring services on campus that would help blue-collar parents with skills training and résumé building. They also planned to provide computers for the 25% of families that didn’t have one at home. They created opportunities for seniors to garden with kids, and they had retired men teach kids woodworking.
This is what schools can and should be—the heartbeat of a community, where kids learn, parents get involved, and everyone can play a part. Urbanist Jane Jacobs was a keen observer, back in 1961. She realized: More eyes on the streets make for safer cities. In this case, more adults on campus make for safer schools.
“Hardening” schools is not how to design a safe school. It isn’t the answer to safely raising healthy, happy, and kind children. We need to soften the school’s boundary, making it more accessible and connected to people.
With harder schools, we should only expect harder communities. More isolated communities. More skeptical communities.
Harder schools aren’t the solution.
Fix the real problem.