Recently, greater emphasis has been placed on creating safe and secure school environments, prompting the development of resources like the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) K-12 guidelines. In addition to knowing best practices, it is important to consider how security measures may affect student perceptions of their own safety.

Research into safer school design indicates that most traditional security measures have pros and cons — especially in how they can influence students’ attitudes on their school’s security.

To help create an inviting learning environment, protective building materials are now available without an institutional appearance. For instance, multifunctional, fire-rated security glazing can now resemble ordinary window glass. These systems guard against fire while also providing resistance to forced entry or active shooters. They can help improve safety and security without sacrificing an open and welcoming atmosphere. Understanding what these glazing assemblies do for safer school design and how to use them effectively can help security leaders make recommendations that meet life safety and security goals without creating alarm.

When seeing isn’t believing

The PASS K-12 guidelines recommend creating multiple layers of security for the most effective approach to safer school design. While no single solution will prove 100% effective, layering measures will enhance a school’s ability to deter or delay a violent intruder. A multilayered approach also gives professionals options for achieving security goals. As such, security leaders can more closely consider how an individual security component may impact students’ perception of their school.

For example, visually conspicuous security measures (metal detectors, barred windows, barricade devices, etc.) can increase students’ perceptions that schools are unsafe places. Further, fixed window grills and barricade devices can impede egress during a fire and so are often prohibited by code in many jurisdictions. These examples underscore what architects already know generally — that occupant experience and safety is vital to a successful design.

Creating a positive occupant experience is central to most projects. However, for educational settings, it has added significance. According to research from the U.S. Department of Education, positive and welcoming school environments “can improve attendance, achievement, retention and even rates of graduation.” Therefore, it is crucial that a system’s impact on student wellbeing also be considered when improving school safety and security.

When security rated systems can blend seamlessly into a design, they can improve safety without negatively affecting student perceptions. Multifunctional, fire-rated security glass can help security professionals recommend a solution that meets security best practices, building code requirements and occupant-centered design intentions.

How multifunctional, fire-rated glass contributes to school safety

A school building’s perimeter and interior layers may have the most potential to impact students’ perception of their safety. At these layers, multifunctional, fire-rated glass can help security professionals meet their goals without compromising student wellbeing. 

These systems can enhance access control. Whether in exterior windows, sidelites, vision panels or full-lite doors in entry vestibules, glass can often be seen as weak points in building security. However, forced-entry or bullet-resistance rated glazing can harden exteriors, protecting those inside from life safety threats. When used inside a building, this type of glazing can support open sightlines between adjacent spaces. In both applications, these systems provide passive protection since they do not require human intervention to activate. 

It should be noted that these systems may need fire ratings. Given the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates an average of 3,000 fires per year on school campuses, achieving security goals should not come at the expense of keeping occupants safe during a fire. 

But specifying a system that protects against multiple threats is more complicated than putting a security-rated component and a fire-rated one together. Doing so may have unintended consequences on the performance of the complete assembly. For example, many ballistic-rated materials are plastic-based and so burn quickly and intensely, potentially compromising a system’s fire rating. As such, it’s important that, in areas where multiple safety concerns overlap, specifiers choose systems that are made with compatible parts or tested as complete systems.

Invisible protection: controlled openness

While multifunctional, fire-rated glazing can contribute to school security goals without sacrificing requisite fire safety, it provides other benefits to school safety. When these systems use narrow-profile steel frames, they can offer a close visual match to adjacent non-rated assemblies. From a student perspective, narrow-profile frames reduce, or even eliminate, visual reminders that schools can be a target of violence.

It also helps create a sense of openness, making it harder for students to be isolated and bullied. Impacting both school security and student wellbeing, open sightlines were a key consideration students raised in a 2018 American Institute of Architects (AIA) survey. With transparent protective systems surrounding them, students can concentrate more fully on schoolwork, making memories and growing into adulthood.

Many choices, many responsibilities

There are many paths to improved school safety and security, so it is crucial that security professionals understand how systems and products impact students’ perceptions of their safety. While easily observed security measures may deter some potential offenders, they may also increase alarm among students. Multifunctional, fire-rated security glazing is one solution that easily blends into the background for improved security that works with occupant-centered design.

School security is more than stopping threats to life safety. It is about safeguarding a better future. Systems that provide nearly invisible protection do both.