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Youth Violence: Using Environmental Design to Prevent School Violence

For more than a century, public health practitioners have modified the environment to prevent disease and injury. For example, in the mid-1850s Dr. John Snow removed the pump handle from a contaminated well in London to stop a deadly cholera outbreak. Modern environmental modifications, such as seat belts and airbags in vehicles, have saved countless lives. Other environmental modifications, such as sidewalks and community parks, have increased physical activity while helping to reduce obesity.

In the early 1960s criminologists became particularly interested in identifying the environmental characteristics associated with crime. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, the physical design of a particular space, weapon availability, number of people in the space, and the purposes for being there.1 These characteristics are associated with the immediate environment rather than broader social factors, such as poverty, racism, gender inequality, exposure to violence through the media, and criminal laws.1

In 1971 C. Ray Jeffrey coined the phrase “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).” According to this approach, the “proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead to a reduction in the fear and incidence of crime and an improvement in the quality of life.”2 CPTED focuses on reducing crime opportunities and on promoting positive social behavior. It does not change the motivation of individual perpetrators.

School Violence

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is studying how CPTED can be applied to school violence prevention. While schools in the United States remain relatively safe, any amount of violence is unacceptable. Approximately 40% of public schools reported to police at least one incident of violence during the 2009-2010 school year.3 Of these public schools, approximately 10% reported at least one serious violent incident during the same time period.3 A nationwide survey of high school students in the United States found that 4.1% of students carried a weapon (such as a gun, knife, or club) on school property in the 30 days preceding the survey.4 The same survey found that 6% of students missed school in the 30 days preceding the survey because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.4 CPTED principles that schools can consider include:4

  1. Natural surveillance refers to the placement of physical features that maximize visibility. Example: The strategic use of windows that look out on the school entrance so that students can see into the school and know that others can see them.
  2. Access management involves guiding people by using signs, well-marked entrances and exits, and landscaping. It may also include limiting access to certain areas by using real or symbolic barriers. Example: Landscaping that reduces access to unsupervised locations on the school grounds.
  3. Territoriality is defined by a clear delineation of space, expressions of pride or ownership, and the creation of a welcoming environment. Example: Motivational signs, displays of student art, and the use of school colors to create warmth and express pride.
  4. Physical maintenance includes repair and general upkeep of space. Example: Removing graffiti in restrooms in a timely manner and making the necessary repairs to restrooms, light fixtures, and stairways to maintain safety and comfort.
  5. Order maintenance involves attending to minor unacceptable acts and providing measures that clearly state acceptable behavior. Example: Maintaining an obvious adult presence during all times that student’s transition from one location to another.

The principles of CPTED can potentially benefit schools by

  • Creating a warm and welcoming environment
  • Fostering a sense of physical and social order
  • Creating a sense of ownership by students
  • Sending positive messages to students
  • Maximizing the presence of authority figures
  • Minimizing opportunities for out-of-sight activities
  • Managing access to all school areas

CDC Activities

CDC contracted with Carter & Carter Associates, a partnership of urban planning and law enforcement professionals specializing in CPTED, to develop a tool to assess the consistency of physical characteristics of schools with CPTED principles. This tool, the CPTED School Assessment (CSA), assesses the application of CPTED principles in three geographic areas of schools: grounds, buildings, and interiors.

CDC is implementing a study that assesses the association between ratings of adherence to CPTED principles and measures of student fear and violent behaviors on school property. Ultimately, the data may be used to develop and evaluate school interventions that reduce violence through the (re) design of the physical environment and the creation of relevant policies and procedures.

Environmental design alone will not prevent all violent acts within schools. However, CPTED is a promising prevention strategy that, if shown to be effective, may lead to reducing fear among students and teachers, to more positive social interactions, and to safer schools.

  1. Mair JS, Mair M. Violence prevention and control through environmental design. Annu Rev Public Health 2003;24:209-225.
  2. Crowe TD. Crime prevention through environmental design: applications of architectural design and space management concepts. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2000.
  3. Zhang A, Musu-Gillette L, and Oudekerk BA. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015 (NCES 2016-079/NCJ 249758). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC; 2016.
  4. Kann L, McManus T, Harris WA, et al. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Surveil Summ. 2016;65(SS-06):1-174.
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