5 Everyday Safety Risks at School (And How Design Can Help Solve Them)
Administrators and parents alike are inundated with news of sad or terrifying behavior-related incidents that occur on school grounds. Bullying, harassment, custody issues, and active shooters are real concerns that can be mitigated through both design solutions and protocol. But design can also mitigate the risk of common accidents that occur on school property in areas like Parking Lots & Drives, Science Labs & Maker Spaces, Playgrounds, Athletic Fields, Special Education Classrooms.
This fourth article in our series will address special education classrooms. Catch up on the other articles in our series: Parking Lots Safety, Science Lab Safety, Playground Safety, and Athletic Field Safety.
Risk 4: Special Education Classrooms
Dave Alphenaar, Architect
Designing spaces within special education classrooms requires attention to safety for both the students and the staff. Adjoining toilet facilities should have enough space for two aids to assist a student if needed, which requires space well beyond typical code requirement. Rooms often require lots of equipment, depending on student needs, and designing designated areas to store equipment when not in use can keep the room clear and safe.
Focus Rooms allow space for students to safely regain control and prepare to rejoin the classroom. These rooms must account for the safety of the student through specialized wall and floor coverings, specialized hardware, as well as visual and auditory connections so staff can monitor the student using the room. Having these spaces can also help maintain a safe environment by separating a student whose behavior represents a threat to the staff or other students.
Preventing the need for a student to use a focus room can benefit everyone in the class. A sensory room is a non-isolating space that allows a student to de-escalate their emotions or behavior. Considering the location of that room allows staff to quickly and efficiently move a student to a space without drawing unnecessary attention to them.
The trend in schools is moving toward using sensory rooms instead of focus rooms. Deciding to incorporate one or both of these spaces will depend on your student population needs, space availability, and staff and parent preferences.
A more complex issue is how to plan for the need for a quick evacuation of a special education classroom. Depending on the mobility of students, multiple teachers and aides may need to assist students to safely evacuate the building in the event of an emergency. Locating an egress door within the classroom can help facilitate a more rapid and smooth evacuation, where staff can exit and reenter the building multiple times until all students are safely outside. The challenge with this, of course, is that students who pose a flight risk may be more imperiled by the ability to readily exit the building. This also adds entry points for undesired entry. Most states’ life safety code prohibits the use of delayed egress hardware in classrooms. Where schools have desired (or inherited) an egress door in the classroom space, we have worked with them to assess the risk / reward. It may be possible to obtain a variance to make the solution meet code requirements.
Related to this issue is where in the building the special education classroom is located for daily ingress and egress. This involves proximity to the bus loop and main entrance, or even having a dedicated entrance (although typically integration is most desireable). Thinking about how students with mobility challenges can safely and readily get to their classroom is as important as how to quickly get them out of it in an emergency.