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Can strategic design help combat bullying in K-12 schools?

Bullying and harassment affect a staggering number of students each day. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 U.S. students report they have been bullied at school1The most vulnerable students are typically those in middle school, where verbal and social bullying is extremely common. But the truth is it impacts all school age groups.  According to results from the 2015 Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, 20 percent of high school students in America reported that they had been bullied on school property2.

As a direct result of current events, school districts place safety and security at the top of their priority list. While the national focus is on external influences, the local focus tends to be on the health of the school community itself. Students need to feel safe around their peers each day. The design community is responding. They’re taking steps to map out learning spaces in ways that help reduce the occurrences of bullying and harassment.

Where does bullying happen in schools? A report by the Office of the New York City Comptroller states that “bullying is an insidious practice that often thrives in out-of-sight spaces where adults may not be alert to the interpersonal conflicts between students.2” Bullies are more likely to confront their victims in tucked away areas, with less traffic. Hallways and stairwells are among the most common spaces for these interactions to occur, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)3.


Shining a light

Since most incidents of bullying and harassment tend to occur in these hidden spaces, K-12 districts are looking to architects and designers to create open, transparent layouts. The majority of schools are existing buildings that need to be renovated. Facilities and construction teams are looking to breathe new life into these spaces to move them into the future. Open spaces make these environments easier for teachers and staff to monitor student activity, improving safety. As a bonus, pulling back the curtain lets students see what their peers are working on, creating subtle and overt connections that foster a positive learning community. Transparency creates a sense of connection throughout the school. This is critical, as a lack of connection can lead to students feeling isolated, which can fuel bullying behaviors.

Using DIRTT to respond

Here are some clever ways that our clients and their architects are taking action on the matter: 

Transparent materials

More glass is being used throughout learning environments. Teachers and staff gain visibility and can monitor student activity. This also gives students a glimpse of what others are working on, creating a sense of community. Greater Atlanta Christian School recently transformed their learning space by integrating glass in collaboration with DIRTT.

Greater Atlanta Christian School Greater Atlanta Christian School

Open stairwells

To target bullying specifically, stairs are being located in prominent areas and are no longer closed off as you’d typically see. At CAST Tech High School in San Antonio, this staircase is in an open atrium and doubles as a gathering area.

CAST Tech High School CAST Tech High School

No more lockers

With fewer paper books to carry these days, schools are removing lockers from their corridors. Part of the reason is that students tend to spend time in these spaces unsupervised.  Instead, their hallways are open with lots of visibility. Students carry their belongings in a backpack from class-to-class.

River Trails Middle School River Trails Middle School

Secure restrooms

Restrooms are designed to be barrier-free, with no dark alcoves. Schools are adding windows that expose handwashing areas to the hall so that teachers and staff can observe if bullying is happening in these spaces4.  Secure toilet cubicles that have walls extending from the floor to the ceiling are becoming more common.

Floor-to-ceiling stalls Floor-to-ceiling stalls

Learning Corridors

Corridors are being re-energized and are serving as an extension of the classroom. This approach fosters the way students want to learn and collaborate. If students are collaborating they’re connecting, and that’s good for school culture.

CAST Tech High School CAST Tech High School

Combatting bullying will continue to be a work in progress. But with thoughtful design, chances of it occurring can be notably reduced. As the years go by, we get a more complete picture of what we can do to keep students safe in school. Prioritizing transparency and openness connects students and staff - a win-win for all.

Sources and further reading on the trend:

  1. Facts About Bullying  
  2. Office of the New York City Comptroller: Safe and Supportive Schools: A Plan to Improve School Climate and Safety in NYC
  3. Edutopia: Anatomy of School Bullying
  4. Building 4 Education: How to design school washrooms to prevent bullying



Betsy Maddox

Betsy leads education-focused initiatives at DIRTT. She brings 20+ years of experience in the industry as a design and construction pro. Betsy helps educators adapt to changing learning needs by building better.


DIRTT Environmental Solutions uses its 3D software to create prefabricated interiors. Each space is tailored to our clients' needs. Manufacturing facilities are located in Phoenix, Savannah and Calgary. DIRTT works with nearly 100 construction partners globally. DIRTT trades on Nasdaq under the symbol “DRTT” and on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol “DRT”.