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Schools' security put to the test

October 08, 2006|by TERRY HEADLEE

I guess we could have just called up local school administrators and asked them how effective their security systems are and if they believed everything possible was being done to protect children and employees.

That seemed to be what most of the other media was doing following three school shootings in the past two weeks, including the tragic killings on Monday in Pennsylvania that left five students dead.

But rather than take their word for it, we decided on a different approach.

That's why nine of our reporters fanned out across the Tri-State area Thursday with instructions to enter nine public schools to test their security.

As you can tell from our front page story, most should receive a flunking grade.

In several instances, our reporters walked through the front door, and when they weren't challenged, they began wandering through various hallways, in some cases for more than 20 minutes.

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Some reporters entered through unlocked back or side doors.

They walked by numerous teachers, and traveled through cafeterias and gymnasiums. One walked by a sheriff's deputy - not once, but twice.

In some cases, the reporters had free rein of many of the school buildings, and could go anywhere they wanted without being stopped or questioned.

At Lincolnshire Elementary School in Halfway, there is a sign taped to a door that reads, "For school safety this door is locked daily at 8:30 a.m."

Which is fine, except that when our reporter visited at 11 a.m., the door was ajar.

Numerous teachers at schools that included Boonsboro High School, as well as Martinsburg and Jefferson high schools in West Virginia, noticed their unidentified guests, but most never so much as asked who they were or what they were doing.

One reporter visiting E. Russell Hicks Middle School was told after his visit that one of the security cameras trained on an entry door was broken.

Another reporter walked around the cafeteria at North Hagerstown High School four times - seriously.

There's a lot more examples, but you get the point.

There is some good news.

Security seems fairly tight at Chambersburg Area Senior High School. Our reporter was stopped as soon as he entered the front door. All of the side doors he tried were locked.

At Conococheague Elementary School, a secretary left her desk and questioned a reporter 15 seconds after he walked in the door.

We know that school officials care about the safety of their students and employees, and the sad reality is that no security measure will ever prevent a lunatic bent on carrying out a horrific act of violence.

But schools should at least make a better effort to beef up security.

I'll throw out three suggestions that quickly come to mind from our investigation, and none of these will cost taxpayers a dime or require much of an effort on the part of school officials:

· First, lock the doors - especially once school begins. There is no good reason why any of these doors should be accessible from the outside.

· Second, remove the signs telling visitors to "check in at the office," and instead move a desk out by one door with an employee who then will question and register any visitor. All visitors should be required to show identification and wear a badge. If they had been asked, our reporters were carrying their business cards, newspaper-photo IDs, their driver's licenses and the business card of the newspaper's city editor.

· Third, all school employees should be wearing photo name badges, and should be instructed to immediately question any unidentified visitor who isn't wearing one - escorting them to the main office, if necessary. That's what most large companies in the private sector do now.

Other security measures can get pricey, including the installation of security cameras and key card entry systems. But as we found out in Washington County, just because you have a security camera doesn't mean that it's turned on or is working.

Our intention was not to embarrass any individual or school, but to merely point out that even basic security measures, such as locking a door, aren't being followed.

Judging from the reactions of several school superintendents we interviewed, this issue might be given a higher priority.

And it might be better to deal with it now than to wait until it's too late.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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