As Texans grappled with being the site of America’s latest mass school shooting last week and the seemingly insoluble arguments over gun rights and student safety again flared, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that preventing future deaths could be a matter of rethinking how schools are built and operated.
“We may have to look at the design of our schools moving forward and retrofitting schools that are already built,” he said. “And what I mean by that is there are too many entrances and too many exits to our over 8,000 campuses in Texas.”
But the state’s public schools have long been designed with the possibility of mass murder in mind.
“Particularly since we’ve seen the rise of school shootings,” said James Perry, executive vice president of the Texas Society of Architects. “It’s always a topic at large conventions.”
Still, architecture and school safety experts say, there are limits to what inanimate buildings can do to minimize or prevent casualties — especially when the shooter is a student and has easy access to their intended targets.
“That changes the game completely,” said Christopher Huckabee, CEO of Huckabee Inc., an architecture firm based in Fort Worth that’s been designing schools for decades.
Gov. Greg Abbott this week convened a series of roundtable discussions about protecting students. A school architect was among the panelists, and after one meeting, Abbott echoed Patrick's statements about looking at entrances and exits. But it’s unclear what other aspects of campus design, if any, were discussed because Abbott closed the meetings to the public.
Patrick’s comments came during a press conference last week in the wake of Friday's shooting at Santa Fe High School in southeast Texas, where a student is accused of killing eight students and two teachers and wounding others. One of Patrick's suggestions — to have students pass through a single entrance that’s watched by law enforcement or school personnel — is already standard procedure in many school districts.
“The main entries of schools have changed over the years,” said Tim Carroll, a spokesman for the Allen school district north of Dallas, whose newer campuses have all been designed with a main entrance.
Allen also “retrofitted” older campuses, as Patrick suggested. But depending on the design of older buildings — and the reasoning behind where entrances and exits are located — some districts may face financial or logistical barriers to changing the flow of pedestrian traffic.
“Some of it is just the existing layout of the building wouldn’t facilitate that and you might compromise something like fire safety,” said Debra Dockery, a San Antonio architect who specializes in designing schools.
Patrick also noted that the accused Santa Fe shooter was wearing a trench coat in warm May weather, apparently suggesting that the outfit should have been a red flag for an authority figure watching students enter. But according to the Houston Chronicle, that was standard attire for the student. And, experts say, students familiar to school personnel don’t stick out like adults or outsiders.
“There are lots of people who would pass right by who have the IDs and are supposed to be there anyway,” said Frank Kelly, a senior planner at architecture firm Stantec in Houston.
Designing schools to minimize student deaths wasn’t much of a discussion in architecture circles when Kelly started practicing decades ago.
“It’s only in more recent times, after Columbine and these things, that people have started to get more attuned to the threat of violence,” he said.
Huckabee’s firm employs former school resource officers who review architects' work to make sure there aren’t design elements that would allow a shooter to increase death counts or slow law enforcement’s response. Many of the school districts who are clients of Huckabee’s firm also have their own officers involved during the design phase.
Besides entrances, officers and architects also try to provide clear sight lines throughout buildings so that security cameras can provide administrators and first responders with views of as much of the school as possible.
“That means less hidden corners and nooks and places like that,” Huckabee said.
School officials now typically also want to be able to lock all classroom doors from a central location and to communicate with people in any room on campus.
“Usually a shooter will move on to another room when faced with the fact that they can't get in through that door,” said Tom Kelley, a school safety specialist at Texas State University’s Texas School Safety Center.
School shootings aren’t the only thing that influence school designs. Architects are also mindful that campuses must maximize safety during fires, tornadoes and other disasters. That requires officials to balance a litany of design elements. And, architects say, there’s only so far they can go from a design perspective before a building starts to feel like a penal institution.
“Frankly moving schools toward prisons is scary,” said Dockery, the San Antonio architect. “You certainly want the learning environment to be rewarding and enriching. So there’s something to be said for that, too.”
Experts and architects also advise schools and local law enforcement to have plans in place for responding to active shooters. The Sante Fe school had practiced such plans. But experts say that when school shooters are students, their time on campus arms them with an intimate familiarity of building layouts. That can give them an advantage over — and a head start on — first responders.
“It does make it much more difficult,” Kelley said.
Jolie McCullough contributed to this report.