In March of this year, the Supreme Court of California held that there is a special relationship between colleges and universities and their students, and therefore colleges and universities have a duty to protect students from foreseeable violence during curricular activities. In the case, Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court, [1] a student sued UCLA for negligence when another student, who was experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, stabbed her during chemistry class. UCLA had knowledge of the attacker’s symptoms, and had expelled him from university housing after he threatened another student.

In addition to finding that there is a special relationship between post-secondary institutions and their students, the court found that violent, unprovoked attacks are foreseeable on college campuses. The court referenced the tragic mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, noting that since that incident colleges and universities have been aware of the risk of unpredictable on-campus violence, and have implemented procedures to address it. Thus, the court held “colleges and universities have a duty to use reasonable care to protect their students from foreseeable violence during curricular activities.” [2]

In addition to emergency planning and preparedness, colleges can incorporate security design principles when campus buildings are constructed and retrofitted. Several federal agencies have released guidance for educational institutions and the design and construction professionals they hire for campus construction projects.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), updated its Primer to Design Safe School Projects in Case of Terrorist Attacks and School Shootings [3] in January 2012. The Primer focuses on the following security design principles:

  1. Site characteristics, selection and risk assessment;
  2. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (“CPTED”);
  3. Standoff distance;
  4. Layers of defense; and
  5. Access control, including perimeter security and parking considerations.

The Primer also includes school and campus design recommendations to protect students, staff, and faculty in the event of a targeted shooting threat and an explosive blast threat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) also have identified CPTED principles as a valuable approach to campus safety. The CDC recommends that schools consider the following CPTED principles:

  1. Natural surveillance, meaning that the facility and surrounding grounds should be designed in a manner that maximizes visibility;
  2. Access management, including using signs and physical barriers to limit points of entry into the facility;
  3. Territoriality, which involves using expressions of pride and ownership to delineate campus property;
  4. Physical maintenance to keep the facilities and grounds in good condition; and
  5. Order maintenance, which the CDC explains “involves attending to minor unacceptable acts and providing measures that clearly state acceptable behavior.” [4]

The CDC recently published a study [5] on the relationship between CPTED implementation in schools and student perceptions of campus safety. The study focused on middle school students, and found a strong relationship between consistent implementation of CPTED principles and lower rates of student absences from school due to safety concerns.

The U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) and five other federal agencies jointly published a Guide for High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Institutions of Higher Education [6] in 2013. The guide highlights the role for the facilities department in emergency preparedness, including participation in security assessments, providing floor plans with room layout, electrical source, and point of entry information for all campus buildings, and developing procedures for pre-positioning resources and equipment. The Guide also notes the importance of ensuring disability-related accessibility in developing emergency and evacuation plans and identifying shelter sites.

Additional DOE guidance may be forthcoming. Following the shooting in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., President Trump announced the creation of a Federal Commission on School Safety chaired by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. [7] The commission has yet to publish any guidance or recommendations.

In the aftermath of the shooting this month at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, state leaders commented that part of the solution to school security concerns involves reviewing and improving the security of educational facilities. [8] As campus safety continues to be a high profile concern at education institutions at all levels, design and construction professionals can expect security design to be incorporated into educational facility projects. Doing so could both save lives and limit legal exposure for educational institutions and the parties they contract to design and construct campus facilities.