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Locker Options — Thinking Outside the Box

Locker Options — Thinking Outside the Box

By Tod Schneider,

Nothing’s too good for those sweaty Nikes. The University of Oregon football team keeps theirs in custom-built wooden lockers, accessed by entering uniform numbers and thumb scans. Inside are ports for internet and gaming connections, along with ventilation — nice options if you can afford them. But lockers of this caliber are rarely seen outside such select venues. What options are available for the rest of us? Most public schools have bare bones models, if that. Locker-related crises, usually involving contraband, have led some frustrated districts to toss the lockers altogether. Although such actions may be justified for crisis management, we’re not convinced they serve students and schools all that well in the long run. If some students abuse their desks, will we eliminate those too?

Lockers are often begrudging investments, scraped from the bottom of the budget barrel. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, one of which is that they often serve as the internal face of the school: endless, grim sentries lining mile-long halls. Alternately, they may be entombed, a catacomb of visual obstacles stuffed into independent locker bays. School lockers are usually relatively rugged, built for abuse, and painfully loud —like prison cells; close your eyes and you can almost hear the clang of tin cups rattled defiantly against the bars. This fits nicely into a Cells-and-Bells, or School-to-Jail Pipeline model school, but how do we move beyond that?

Options can be found in at least two areas: 1. the lockers themselves and 2. how they are integrated into the overall school design.

The Lockers Themselves

Primary issues of concern include aesthetics, acoustics and contraband.


  1. Lockers on prominent display in the school should visually reinforce a positive image of the school, or help send positive messages. Wood lockers can be beautiful, but can also be prohibitively expensive. More economical materials can look good if well cared for. In all cases, adequate maintenance is essential.
  2. Consider using the lockers or the area overhead for constructive communication. Built-in frames and display cases can be used for student art projects, lofty quotes or other positive messages. Pro-social school rules, such as “be safe, be responsible, be respectful,” should be hard to miss.


  1. Solid plastic (high density polyethylene, or HDP) lockers don’t clang the way metal ones do, and are readily available from locker manufacturers.
  2. Rubber bumpers are often incorporated into higher-end metal models, or can be added as after-market retrofits.
  3. A single point latch eliminates the noise that accompanies moving latches, which crash up and down each time the door slams. The single point model has no moving parts — it simply slips through an opening in the door. These are commonly found with smaller lockers.

Contraband and Locker Removal

The biggest challenge involving school lockers is their use for storing contraband, especially weapons, intoxicants, and leftover tuna fish sandwiches. As custodians are acutely aware, food can rot, leak or spill. Anti-microbial coatings and even ventilation systems can help address the latter, but for weapons or drugs, nothing short of distance learning gets results as quickly or easily as locker removal. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for a school in the long run; students may not enjoy lugging overloaded backpacks around all day, and their enthusiasm for school is important. Some schools provide two sets of books — one to keep in class, and another for students to keep at home. But can the price received for scrapped lockers cover the cost of all those new texts?

There are some alternatives to removal, drawing on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) fundamentals: natural surveillance, natural access control, territoriality, and connectivity as follows:

  1. Surveillance can be improved by using lockers with transparent, polyethylene doors or metal grilles.
  2. In some cases, consider installing cameras covering lockers from above.
  3. Access control and territoriality can be improved if schools clearly retain ownership over the lockers, allowing staff to open lockers when they have probable cause. Staff would need to have master keys to open these lockers, which means the school should purchase the padlocks in bulk and lend them to students.

Students gather by their cubbies outside each personalized learning community at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis


The most significant locker-location dysfunctions involve density and placement. School hallways typically serve conflicting functions every 45 minutes — cattle stampedes, storage pit stops and speed dating all in the same time and place. Locker bays mitigate the high speed traffic, but exacerbate bullying or other violence by providing visual cover for offenders. Toss in adolescent hormones and it’s a wonder anybody survives unscathed.

Thinking Outside the Box — putting the locker in context.

To have a dramatic impact on locker issues, we literally need to start thinking outside the box, and integrate locker design into the surrounding environment. Conventional hallways and locker bays are often fairly bleak settings. But if we think of lockers as components of something more purposeful, we might reap some benefits. For example, if lockers are separated into small clusters — say, a dozen — and if those clusters are integrated into human-scale gathering places, with comfortable seating, the students using those areas might develop a sense of territoriality. If small counters were included — perhaps something like a breakfast bar — teachers could use nearby niches for informal conferencing or pull-out activities. Acoustical foam tiles and lower ceilings could take the edge off nearby noise. Distinct carpeting for each area could help define the area. Pull-down white boards or cork boards would further enhance the area’s usefulness for brainstorming or other joint efforts. Shallow niches along hallways could allow locker-users to escape the traffic flow without becoming so isolated as to pose a risk of bullying or other misbehavior, and when misbehavior does occur, administrators can focus on one cluster without punishing the entire student body.

Use of mirrors, chamfered corners or internal windows could strengthen natural surveillance over these areas. Clusters abutting specialized areas, such as adjacent to rehearsal halls, gymnasiums or science labs, could help students with shared interests establish their own sense of community. Students requiring more supervision might be assigned to lockers by the office, while responsible students could earn more select locations. If cafeteria noise and overcrowding is an issue, students could be permitted to eat in their clusters in acknowledgement of responsible behavior. Any opportunity for students to make choices in their lives is another step toward personal empowerment.

Ultimately, as 21st century developments revolutionize our concepts of school design, lockers might be integrated into shared work spaces — a dozen students might share one or two office spaces throughout the day, each with their own locker nearby. These students might spend much of their day out in the community, serving as interns or researchers. The locker / office space might be merely a home base they return to from time to time. Most written materials would be on-line, but each student might need storage space for backup hard drives, and ample power sources for recharging electronic gear.

Many of these concepts have already been integrated into successful schools throughout the U.S. One example would be the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. Planner and architect Randy Fielding observes, “Cristo Rey is a classic example of what can be done in an impoverished, gang-ridden neighborhood if we focus on inspiring students more than we do on controlling them. Design choices send powerful messages about confidence and support, or frustration and distrust. In this case, we went for the former, and it has served the community well.”

Ultimately, schools of the future are going to have to find ways to build connectivity if they are to succeed. Students need to feel connected to each other, to their teachers, to their schools and to their communities. Every aspect of school design should reflect this philosophy.

Visit a case study on Cristo Rey Jesuit High School recently co-published in CEFPI Planner and on

November 22nd, 2008

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