Scapegoating School Design

by Raphael Sperry

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants to blame school design for the recent school shooting in Santa Fe, TX, but as an architect I refuse to accept his scapegoating of school buildings for being ‘soft targets’. School buildings cannot be narrowed down to one easily surveilled entrance and windows restricted by potential firing lines. Schools need to be open and have large, inclusive areas to create the space for a community of learning. Just as important, daylight and views of nature in classrooms are essential for student attentiveness and performance, which is borne out by study after study of test scores and other metrics. Simply put, students can’t learn, and teachers can’t teach, in a bunker.

But the bunker mentality of Lt. Gov Patrick isn’t problematic just because it would obstruct what everyone knows about good school design. The bunker mentality is also a capitulation to fear -- if implemented it would teach children to fear their classmates and their school environments. School buildings are teachers themselves, and we must not allow them to teach lessons of fear and hostility.

Yet the biggest problem of Lt. Gov. Patrick’s school design bashing is how it distracts from the real problem: the easy availability of deadly firearms in a society filled with rage, bigotry, misogyny, and violence. No other developed country is considering turning their schools into fortresses; other countries don’t even consider Patrick’s horrible design ideas because they are not afraid of disaffected lone gunmen (and aren’t they always men?) toting tons of heavy weapons. Other countries achieve this remarkable (to Americans) sense of safety simply through having reasonable laws restricting gun possession to protect public health. The connection of guns to a threatened sense of white male identity makes it impossible for many Americans to accept this simple truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Lt. Gov Patrick doesn’t have exactly everything wrong, though. I share his dismay that we live in a culture of violence. However, I disagree strongly on what constitutes violence and how best to head towards a peaceful country. Patrick puts abortion at the top of his list of violent acts, followed by video games; his solution to violence includes arming teachers.

I fail to understand how arming more people can lead to a more peaceful society. In fact, I believe that the endorsement of violence by our government institutions sends a threatening message that instills fear and breeds more violence. This is on display when we send our military overseas to kill innocent civilians, and when police shoot and kill unarmed people of color and are not held to account. Nor is abortion a problem, though misogyny may well have been a factor in the Santa Fe, TX, shooting – restricting abortion and stealing away women’s rights does not send men the message that women are entitled to equality and respect, it reinforces a patriarchal worldview that ultimately justifies male violence.

ADPSR has long argued that designing “better” prisons can never solve the fundamental injustice of mass incarceration in our justice system; in the same vein, hardening schools does not even begin to address the real problem of school shootings. With respect to prisons, providing “nicer” cages cannot make up for the fundamental injustice of an incarceration rate 8 to 10 times that of other developed countries. And while ADPSR continues to insist that architects must resist prison designand uphold human rights when working for the justice system, the ultimate solution is to transform our society from one centered on punishment and retribution to one devoted to healing and restoration, with all the legislative changes that would entail.

To address school shootings, even gun control is only a partial solution – although at least it sends the message that preparing to solve your problems in a shoot-out is not OK (quite the opposite of Lt. Gov. Patrick’s goal of having more shoot-outs in schools by arming teachers). Ultimately, we must make a broadly shared commitment to build a peaceful society that treasures it children. In pursuit of that goal, school design is a place where architecture can make a difference.

Photo: Pentagram's Library Initiative is bringing art and design to school libraries across New York City.

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