Safe School Building Characteristics in Virginia's Elementary Schools: Architect and Principal Perspectives

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Virginia Tech

A safe school is defined as a physically and emotionally safe environment where faculty and staff, members of the community, and students perceive that they are safe. School safety is an important topic for both school administrators and architects who design schools. Previous research into the physical environment of a school has explored its impact on student achievement and, to a lesser extent, school climate and school safety. Overall, research into the relationship between a physical environment of a school and its influence on the perception of safety is inadequate. The study sought to determine what were the design elements that principals and architects believed promoted a safe elementary school. The main research question for the study was, "What are the design elements that principals and architects believe influence a safe elementary school?"

The study replicated the methodology of Walton's study (2011) called Physical Design for Safe Schools. Walton focused on perceptions of high school principals and architects who were involved in designing and building schools. Walton's study concluded that safety was an important issue to principals and architects. Specifically, each group identified supervision, technology and cameras, and controlling access to school buildings as important to school safety. The groups also identified restrooms and locker rooms as the two most problematic areas of a school building due to inability to supervise.

Data for the study were gathered through qualitative methods and utilized a phenomenological approach to exploring data. Principals from elementary schools built before 1999, principals from elementary schools built since 2011, and architects with experience designing elementary schools were included as participants in the study. Participants were asked five to nine semi-structured and open-ended questions relevant to the design elements and physical features associated with school buildings.

Results of the study found that the physical design of a school building was viewed as having an influence on safety in schools. The two common themes from all three groups were access control and visibility. Sub-themes were the importance of preparation for emergencies, perceptions of inequality in funding for school safety measures, the prevalence of technology that has created greater opportunities to keep schools safe, and the need for balance between safety and aesthetics when designing schools.

School Safety, School Culture, Physical Environment, Building Design Elements, Principal Perceptions, Architect Perceptions