SWAT officers work to secure a hallway during an active shooter drill at Creekview High School in Canton, Ga., on Thursday, July 11, 2019. 
Photo: Casey Sykes
Photo: Casey Sykes

Building schools as bunkers, not as sanctuaries for learning

University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky, a frequent contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog, discusses the push to design schools to thwart mass shootings.

A redesigned high school, for example, set to open in 2021 in western Michigan will feature curved hallways, protective "wing walls," impact-resistant windows and doors that lock with a touch of a smartphone. 

Smagorinsky wonders if there might be better ways to keep students safe, drawing on his recent experiences in Mexico where he is helping to  develop a national literacy program.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Sen. David Perdue recently wrote an essay for the AJC lauding the state’s efforts to ensure school safety for Georgia’s students through improved architectural design. Specifically, the article addressed the need to redesign schools to minimize the damage a mass shooter might cause in a rampage with automatic weapons designed to slaughter people with speed and fury.

His remarks fit well within current national attention to school safety. For several decades, schools, among other institutions, have become sites for mass murder and mayhem. The response has been to fortify them against attacks. Fruitfort High School in Michigan has gotten considerable attention for its redesign to increase surveillance, limit access, and reduce open ranges where a shooter can open fire with little obstruction. Its hallways are modeled on World War I trenches that zigzagged to reduce shooting opportunities should an enemy breach the barriers. 

Fruitfort’s hallways now consist of curves to reduce sight lines and targets for active shooters. The architecture, accompanied by the trench warfare model on which they are designed, are depicted in the article found here.

I am not criticizing this movement, or Sen. Perdue for promoting it. I have written about teachers who now fear going to school and never coming home. I regret that our country has reached this state where a major emphasis of education is preventing mass violence. But it has.  Architecture is among the means designed to reduce, if not prevent, the carnage.

I think it’s worth contrasting the situation in the United States with school architecture in Mexico, which has never experienced a mass shooting. I am not romanticizing Mexico, Mexicans, or Mexican education. It’s a complex nation with its own problematic history. 

I’m not suggesting that we adopt their educational system, which is grossly underfunded and inadequate for serving the nation’s students. My visiting appointment at the University of Guadalajara was offered to help develop a literacy program in a nation that has historically lagged in international comparisons. 

Pick just about any challenge in educating students here, and you’ll find that Mexico’s schools are struggling to meet them much more.

But not in the area of school mass violence. 

I will next provide photographs I took of the Escuela Prepatoria Tonalá, a public high school in the Guadalajara metro area, where I worked with a group of teachers on literacy education. A larger gallery of the school is available here. The design is typical of the schools I’ve visited in the University of Guadalajara-affiliated school system.

Mexico’s perpetually temperate climate is partly responsible for the open design. At the same time, the open design does not take the possibility of a rampaging shooter into account. 

The school has a perimeter to prevent unwanted visitors; everyone enters through a monitored gate. If they have a problem, it’s narcos—students dealing drugs, a concern plaguing US schools as well. Toward that end, the school employs a police officer who patrols the grounds.

Once inside the perimeter, the school has an open look and feel that fits with tradition of plazas, a feature that is central to Latin American urban design. The classrooms are entered motel-style; that is, there are no hallways. Rather, the campus itself is the hallway, and classrooms are entered from outdoors. Students stroll leisurely, unconcerned that they will be mowed down by an intruder or student armed with an arsenal of weapons.

Such a design is unthinkable in present-day USA. It makes me wonder: Why is the U.S. plagued by the specter of school violence, while Mexico has no such concern? 

Sen. Perdue and I have a general agreement that “School design is not the only solution to making schools safer; we still have to find better ways to enforce existing law and keep guns out of the wrong hands.” 

His endorsement and campaign contributions from the NRA suggest that he and I interpret that imperative differently. On the way home from campus, I can stop at any number of pawn shops and gun stores and buy an arsenal of weapons. Once home, I can order on the internet enough ammunition to kill thousands of people. 

Mexico has a total of one gun store, itself “behind a fortress-like wall on a heavily guarded military base.” Mexico’s recent wave of gun-related violence has relied on weapons purchased in the United States, often related to the drug trade generated by the demand in this country for narcotics. 

The lack of gun stores and the absence of school shootings in Mexico and the easy availability of guns and frequency of school shootings in the United States can’t be a coincidence. I make this point with the understanding that many of my fellow Georgians would reject it out of hand.

But there must be more to the problem of gun violence in the U.S., especially in schools. What is causing such anger and the need to lash out at people who are in school to teach and learn?

I’ll include another photo from the school in Tonalá I’ve featured. 

Mexico is a land where art matters. There is a mural culture that has thrived for ages. Schools, too, are sites for murals and other forms of art. I have never seen one defaced. There seems to be a lot less anger, a lot more emotional support, in Mexican schools than there appears to be in many American schools. 

I am not suggesting having murals will end gun violence in schools. To me their ubiquity in Mexican schools is symptomatic of a setting in which young people can feel safe, in which they feel they belong. The art in the schools is all done by students, investing the institution with their cultures and perspectives. That sense of ownership and affiliation undoubtedly contributes to a sense of well-being that reduces the need to strike back violently.

This, in a country with brutal economic disparities and other social challenges. There is plenty to work on in Mexico, including racism that diminishes native people and provides advantages to lighter-skinned and thus Spanish-descent people. But these differences have yet to produce a single mass shooting.

What is wrong with our schools, and by extension our society, that produces so much mass violence? I’m sure the answer is far more complex than a short essay can begin to provide. But I think it’s worth considering, because it has made schools unnerving places to be. 

In a separate essay, I’ll relate one school’s new routines to respond to an active shooter, in a district that has never experienced a shooting. For now, I’ll simply ask readers to consider: What has made our schools into places where, as Sen. Perdue has found, “building design is more than brick, metal, and wood – it is the first line of defense”? 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.