Architects warn Sandy Hook panel of security limits

School architects gave the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission a blunt lesson Friday in the limits of physical security measures, warning that the best architecture can do against an attacker like Adam Lanza would be to slow him until law enforcement can arrive.

“We can mitigate risk, we can delay risk, we can control risk, but there really is nothing we can do to guarantee a risk-free environment,” said James LaPosta Jr., principal and chief architectural officer with JCJ Architecture in Hartford.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy created the commission to recommend public policy changes, including looking at school building standards, in response to Lanza’s assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he shattered a locked door with rifle fire, then killed 20 children and six educators.

Putting school violence in context, LaPosta emphasized that incidents like the one in Newtown, although horrific, are a rarity and not the only threat faced in school environments.

“We run the risk of responding to the last event and not anticipating the next,” LaPosta said.

He was one of four building designers from the American Institute of Architects, and other security experts, who addressed commission members at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

The architects stressed that all buildings are different, their designs depending on location and needs. A school building in the Midwest may be designed to protect against tornadoes, for example, while one in an urban center may be designed to protect against gang violence.

Either way, they said, a school should be built to delay a threat, ensuring the safety of students and faculty until first responders arrive.

Sandy Hook panel members heard variations on this theme Friday, as well as a number of more specific concepts and suggestions:

* Technology, LaPosta said, “often becomes a forensic tool as opposed to a preventative tool,” but he noted that voice communication via radios, cell phones, public address and converged networks with law enforcement can be helpful.

* Richard Munday, of New Haven-based Newman Architects, likened his firm’s concepts of creating a safer school to a neighborhood watch principle: a building with large windows that allow those in the front office to have a view of the parking lot and front entrance; glass instead of walls on the interior of the building to permit visibility from room to room.  In one photo example, glass walls allowed faculty on a building’s second floor to easily see down into the cafeteria on the first floor.

* Glen Golenberg, principal architect at The S/L/A/M Collaborative in Glastonbury, suggested schools could install doors that alert people when they are breached. He also suggested window glazes, like a laminate, which he said are effective and far less costly than ballistic glass, which can range from $3,000 to $4,000 per classroom.

The architects said if a school district wanted to make immediate changes, there are very low-tech things to be done, including enforcing traffic and parking rules; removing obstructions from sight lines; reviewing exterior exit pathways; checking the condition of window shades and blinds and of keying and door security; and partnering with responders.


Follow Michael Gambina on Twitter @msgambina