McCoy and educators and architects across the state and country say the challenge is making a school safe without making it look like a bunker or a penitentiary. They say that Del Sol and other campuses manage to demonstrate that they can create a pleasant and safe learning environment.
“It’s a fine line,” said Del Sol Principal Terri León. “We want our children to feel safe, but we don’t want them to feel imprisoned. I think (the design) does a good job of balancing that. Our kids seem to like the design, the spaces, and how everything is set up. But we are pretty sure.”
The campus was designed by architecture firm PBK, which has nine offices throughout California. So far, the school consists of eight buildings, mainly two-story and connected by corridors. They all share a lot of outdoor space and squares. The hallways and classrooms have large windows that provide lots of light and views of the mountains. Students can present projects or hold meetings in large, flexible indoor spaces. While there is a sense of openness within the campus, there is no doubt that the decorative black chain-link fence outside presents a strong impression of keeping an uninvited visitor out, even without barbed wire or old-fashioned chain links.
In California, many older schools were built when openness and a sense of freedom were important, taking advantage of the climate with unprotected hallways, unfenced lawns, and multiple easy entrances. School officials, architects and parents say they don’t want to lose that completely, at least within safe perimeters.
“Safety is on everyone’s mind,” said Michael Pinto, design director for the Los Angeles office of the firm NAC Architecture, which has worked on many school projects with anti-crime features. “It’s really a concern for parents. And when someone is concerned about the safety of their children, there is nothing you can do but respect them and take those concerns seriously.”
That doesn’t mean designing a dark, windowless bunker or having excessive fencing, said Pinto, whose projects include the current reconstruction of the century-old Belvedere High School in East Los Angeles. The new Belvedere buildings were positioned to form much of the outer boundaries of the campus. As a result, the number of fences is reduced compared to the previous arrangement, according to Pinto. Meanwhile, inside the campus, students enjoy plenty of outdoor space and light.
“We don’t want hermetically sealed schools,” said Pinto, who served on the Los Angeles city attorney’s school safety commission. That panel’s 2018 report called for better security measures, such as single entry, along with better mental health services and more social gun controls. The federal government has issued similar guidelines that emphasize clear sight lines and access control, along with clean and optimistic school environments.
The Saugus Union School District in northern Los Angeles County recently spent much of a $148 million bond issue for safety measures at its 15 K-6 schools. These include new single entry point lobbies with locked secondary doors leading to campuses, improved fencing and lighting, new door locking systems and shutters that can be closed in an emergency. Identification letters and numbers have been painted on the roofs so police or firefighters can see them from the air and quickly get to the right place in an emergency, according to Nick Heinlein, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.
The goal is to make campuses “as safe as possible without making them look unattractive,” Heinlein said.
The need became clear with a tragic 2019 episode at Saugus High School, a local campus run by a separate district, Heinlein said. A student armed with a gun shot five schoolmates, killing two, before committing suicide. When something like this happens, “there’s always something you can learn,” Heinlein said. Among other things, changes were made to allow students to flee if necessary through campus exits with panic bars that can be opened from the inside or easily unlocked by adults in an emergency, he said.
Responses to school violence go beyond architecture and window panes. Staff are better trained to lead lockdowns, evacuations, and student drills. University and municipal police are better prepared for a faster response to shootings, quickly searching for attackers and being well enough armed to counter them. Schools are taking a closer look at student emotional and behavioral problems that could worsen. Mental health resources have been increased, as have methods for reporting threats.
Architecture and engineering help a lot, but they are not enough without other efforts, according to Scott Gaudineer, president of the California branch of the American Institute of Architects, a professional organization that represents 11,000 architects in the state. “Human intelligence is equally important,” said Gaudineer, president of the Los Angeles-area firm Flewelling & Moody, who has worked on school projects. “Schools need to be vigilant and offer counseling to a student “who is going through a divorce, who is stressed.”
“The challenge is that you never know who will show up with an AK-47 and is mentally deranged. It is surprising how often this happens,” he added.
Two of the most infamous school shooting sites have taken different approaches after the event. In Connecticut, Sandy Hook Elementary School was demolished following the 2012 attack that left 20 children and six educators dead. A new school was built with a moat-like rain garden around it, bulletproof windows, and a raised first floor to make it harder to see inside.
By contrast, Columbine High School in Colorado remained largely unchanged after the 1999 assault, during which two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide. Some new security measures have been added, such as more fencing.
McCoy, Oxnard Union’s superintendent, has personal experience dealing with violence. In 2001, a troubled teenager who was not a student there easily entered Hueneme High School. McCoy, then assistant principal, escorted him off the premises. The intruder returned, pointing a gun at a female student as he entered a campus courtyard through an unguarded door. A police sniper shot and killed the gunman, but the girl was not injured.
McCoy, who was nearby but did not witness the shooting, said his lessons are reflected in Del Sol’s design and improved emergency shelter and evacuation procedures. Adult staff, he said, must be prepared since “children look at adults immediately and follow our instructions.”
During the tour, McCoy pointed out what he said is one of the essential anti-violence features: a wellness center, a large sunny room with beanbag chairs where students under emotional stress can relax and meet with a counselor. “If they have a bad day, instead of misbehaving in the classroom, they can stay here, spend as much time as they need and go back to class,” he said. About 60 students a day spend at least some time there, usually at lunchtime.
Del Sol, built on a former strawberry and citrus farm on Oxnard’s east side, serves a predominantly Latino and low-income population, including some whose parents work in the fields. As additional classes enter each of the next three years and current freshmen become seniors, enrollment is expected to increase to approximately 2,100.
The land cost $25 million and construction bills so far total $194 million, including $30 million to the city for street improvements, funded by bonds, share certificates and other sources, according to McCoy. Sports fields at the rear of the site are being completed and plans call for a performing arts center, swimming pool and soccer stadium to be added when more state or local funding can be found.
The contemporary-style buildings are clad in complementary panels of grey, melon and white. The black metal fence has narrow vertical openings that make it nearly impossible to gain a foothold, but there is no barbed wire or overhead stakes that could hurt a student trying to get out, according to its lead architect, PBK’s Mark Graham. firm. The company has installed similar security measures at the new $200 million Chino High, which opened last year, and in retrofits at three Cucamonga school district campuses in San Bernardino County.