Home / The Elements of Prevention / Safe Physical and Virtual Environments / Physical and Procedural Elements

Physical Elements
From a physical perspective the general rule in protecting children is visibility. One of the greatest fears of those who would bully, assault, steal from, sexually abuse, or otherwise victimize children is being seen. Schools can employ best practices strategies to look at all safety factors and areas of risk, including the physical and virtual spaces children inhabit, and work to strengthen the safety and security of those environments. The key strategies to employ, either on-site or off-site, are visibility, access, supervision/training and communication.

A periodic review of the school’s buildings and surrounding property provides an opportunity to assess any risk it presents to its students. Physical spaces that offer opportunities for anyone to isolate a child and possibly cause harm without being observed or interrupted must be addressed as a priority. Options to modify the space might include considering the placement of lighting, windows, doors, mirrors, and cameras. Risk can also be reduced through establishing policies that guide behavioral expectations between staff and students, and between the students themselves (see Code of Conduct section below).

Schools are encouraged to take actions to design, build or adapt existing spaces to maximize visibility include the following 35 :

  • Allow for clear sightlines throughout the building and grounds – minimize “blind corners” and “blind spots.”
  • Landscape to ensure open, visible spaces without the possibility of concealment.
  • Secure all areas in the building not used for program purposes that would allow for entrapment, concealment, and isolation (boiler rooms, maintenance closets, storage rooms, unused classrooms, etc.).
  • Clearly define areas that are off limits to students, staff, volunteers and others.
  • Improve lighting in all areas that are poorly illuminated (basic lighting should allow the identification of a face from a distance of about 10 yards for a person with normal vision).
  • Ensure that access routes to toilet facilities and locker/shower rooms are well lit and visible.
  • Use signage to delineate areas that require staff supervision when in use, or to steer students away from using concealed or isolated walkways or corridors by showing alternate routes.
  • Install windows in all classroom doors, and prohibit them from being covered in a way that obstructs a clear view inside the classroom.
  • Utilize empty space and bulletin boards to post signs and information about safe environments, including how, and to whom to report maintenance issues.
  • Consider, if possible, the installation and use of security mirrors and closed-circuit surveillance systems in areas that are difficult to monitor.

Procedural Elements
A school’s safe environment policies should complement the safety measures established for the physical environment by establishing procedures that govern such things as:

  • Controlling access to the school campus and buildings;
  • Developing entry and exit procedures;
  • Developing policies regarding the use of the facilities;
  • Fostering effective internal and external communication;
  • Outlining the expected responsibilities and behaviors of staff, students and visitors; and
  • Establishing monitoring responsibilities for all spaces.

A clearly articulated, written set of safety policies and procedures allows school leadership to demonstrate a commitment to building and maintaining an environment in which every student is safe. It also affords the ability for leadership to set the example and build confidence in the commitment through action, and helps everyone to be on the same page. Copies of these policies should be distributed widely, posted in public spaces, taught as a focused lesson or integrated into the curriculum, added to student handbooks, reviewed in regular faculty training, and sent home to parents and caregivers in the primary language of the household. Some of these actions might include but are not limited to:

  • Control access to school buildings by keeping outside doors locked, establish which door visitors must use and monitor it during school hours, and establish policies about who will be allowed access and how that can occur (i.e., sign-in procedures that require photo ID, wearing visitor badges, being accompanied while in the building, etc.).
  • Establish schedules for school staff and faculty to monitor and supervise bus stops, playgrounds, lunchrooms and hallways – particularly between class periods and during high traffic activities.
  • Establish a school safety committee of administrators, staff, and students that periodically walk the premises and conduct safety surveys noting such things as potential problem areas and maintenance needs – thus fostering a sense of collaboration, ownership, and responsible school citizenship.
  • Create entry and release procedures for students – the whereabouts of every student should be known at all times.
  • Establish procedures for use of bathrooms, shower facilities, and changing rooms by students. Consider assigning school personnel to monitor these areas and ensure procedures are being followed.
  • Prohibit adults from using the same bathroom facilities as students, prohibit students from using faculty bathrooms, and avoid sending younger students to bathrooms when they are in use by older students.
  • Prohibit adults and students from bringing/using cell phones in the bathrooms or locker rooms.
  • Encourage staff and volunteers to avoid being alone with a single student behind closed doors. When necessary, however, ensure that another adult knows about the situation, that the door is left ajar, and/or that the interaction can be observed or interrupted.
  • Ensure that vendors and other service/maintenance providers are restricted to the area in which their service is being provided, and are escorted/monitored if they need to leave that area. Make sure that staff, faculty and students are aware of their presence in the building or on the property, and that students are prohibited from entering the areas in which the work is being performed unless escorted.
  • Publish a school Code of Conduct that addresses expected behaviors and interactions between faculty, staff and students, and between/among the students themselves (see Code of Conduct section below).
  • Ensure that leadership addresses periodically and publicly the issue of school safety to the student body, to parents, and to school staff during periods of professional development.

These are just some – but not all – of the physical and procedural steps that can be taken to create safe school environments. Additional guidance, strategies, and tools can be found on the Safe Kids Thrive website in the Safe Environments section. 36 These include expanded information (for both on and off-site activities) on topics of visibility, access, supervision, communication, safety considerations when transporting students, a set of minimum physical and procedural safety standards, and a 3-step decision-making and implementation process to help schools assess risk and determine what additional safety elements might be needed. The website also has a facilities design checklist on its Safe Environment Resources page 37 and a more detailed interactive and printable Safe Environment Checklist 38 that helps schools to take inventory of their safe environment framework.

Additional information on building safe environments pertinent to schools can also be found on the websites of the Centers for Disease Control 39 , and the National Center for Education Statistics. 40 The assumption is that most schools have already made provisions for the above but listing them allows you to check your policies against those that are recommended for child safety.

35 Adapted from the National Crime Prevention Council’s “School Safety and Security Toolkit”: (https://www.ncpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/NCPC_SchoolSafetyToolkit.pdf) and the Canadian Red Cross “Ten Steps to Creating Safe Environments for Children and Youth (2015): (https://www.redcross.ca/crc/documents/Where-We-Work/Canada/Yukon-%20NWT-%20Nunavut/Ten-Steps-Manual_English-PDF.pdf)

36 https://safekidsthrive.org/prevention-topics/safe-environments/

37 https://safekidsthrive.org/prevention-topics/safe-environments/checklist-for-safety-checks-in-your-facility/

38 https://safekidsthrive.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/HYPERTEXT_Appendix-10_Ensuring-Safe-Physical-Environments-and-Safe-Technology_Checklist-for-Safe-Environment-1.pdf

39 Saul J, Audage NC. Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2007. Note: currently under revision to be released in 2022 (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/preventingchildsexualabuse-a.pdf).

40 Wang, K., Chen, Y., Zhang, J., and Oudekerk, B.A. (2020). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2019, National Center for Education Statistics, Indicator 19: Safety and Security Practices at Public Schools (https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/iscs19.pdf)


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