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Sign of the times: School designed to limit impact of mass shootings

With little progress on other avenues to preventing mass shootings, one firm has employed architecture to save students.

An artist's rendering of how part of the school will look when finished.

Image source: TowerPinkster
  • A school in Michigan is being remodeled in a way to minimize the effect of a shooter should the worst happen.
  • It features limited sight lines, bullet proof windows, and doors that can be locked at the push of a button.
  • Some research casts doubt on how effective the plans will actually be.

America has a mental health, video game, single-parent household, lack of school prayer, violent television, gun violence problem. Every day, 100 Americans are killed by gun violence, and hundreds more are injured. While most of these shootings are not in public schools, it is the images of school children being mowed down in their innocence that sticks with us.

Despite widespread support for various gun control measures, they are currently political non-starters. Desperate for a solution, many people have turned to bulletproof backpacks among other curious solutions in an attempt to protect their children.

However, an architectural firm has decided to up the ante in this odd game; they have designed a school that is designed to minimize the impact of mass shootings.

The world Americans live in now

TowerPinkster, an architecture firm based in Michigan, has designed a school for the hamlet of Fruitport. It features many design elements selected by the firm to limit the impact of a shooter. While the project won't be finished until 2021, some elements are already in place as part of the longterm $48 million remodeling effort.

The campus will feature a series of fire doors which can all be closed and locked with the pushing of a single button, to isolate an attacker in one area. Hallways will be slightly curved to cut off the shooter's line of sight; intermittent wing walls will dot the halls as well so that children might hide behind them. Similar barriers will exist behind classroom doors in hopes that teachers and students can hide in their rooms as well.

Lockers will no longer line walls, but instead, be located on islands in the middle of wide-open spaces. The stated benefit of this is to allow teachers to see the whole room without obstruction. The lockers will also be much shorter than most high school lockers. The building's windows will be covered in a bulletproof film.

Before you get too shocked by all this, Sandy Hook was recently rebuilt with an eye towards keeping people out, and the American Institute of Architects came up with several ideas to make schools less vulnerable to mass shootings last year.

Do people think this will actually work? What are experts saying?

The designs are mostly untested, and their effectiveness during an active shooter situation is still theoretical. The Center for American Progress, a non-partisan think tank, has data that suggests that making schools "hard targets" isn't very effective and has unwanted side effects on students. The center's experts, instead, suggest we do something about gun violence overall, in terms of policy — a common refrain from other researchers.

It should also be said that some are concerned that if the worst should happen, the same features that are supposed to protect students could make it harder for the police to apprehend the shooter. This isn't too farfetched, in 2003 SWAT team members blamed the design of a Frank Gehry building for delaying their capture of a shooter — it took seven hours.

The people who built the school in Fruitport are also quick to say that it isn't "impenetrable," but do suggest that the design could make a difference in an emergency.

Given the stance of the American Institute of Architects and the number of expert resources that TowerPinkster had to turn to, it is likely that we will see more schools like this before we see fewer. Additionally, some of the design choices were suggested by the National Institute of Crime Prevention's Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design program.

In a Kafkaesque vision of things that may be, Fruitport Superintendent Bob Szymoniak did say of the building's features: "These are going to be design elements that are just naturally part of buildings going into the future."

As the United States continues to grapple with gun violence, private actors are beginning to step in where policy has failed. While the actual effectiveness of a "massacre proof" school remains unknown, it is understandable why some people would turn to one for a feeling of security.

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