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School security measures put to test

Reporters get run of some schools in the Tri-State area

Reporters get run of some schools in the Tri-State area

October 08, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

Editor's Note: After three school shootings in fewer than two weeks, The Herald-Mail could have called local school systems and asked if Tri-State area schools were secure. Instead, the newspaper on Thursday sent nine reporters to nine Tri-State area schools so we could check for ourselves the level of school security. The reporters were told not to enter classrooms. They were told they could walk into gymnasiums, cafeterias, auditoriums, bathrooms and media centers. This Herald-Mail special report outlines the results of those school visits with the intent of pointing out where security can be tightened to improve student safety.




Armed with nothing more dangerous than concealed notebooks and pens, they slipped through school doors that were not supposed to be open. They wandered hallways, exchanging smiles or pleasantries with teachers. They meandered around gymnasiums, cafeterias, libraries and bathrooms.

And in most cases, not a single word was said to these strangers roaming the hallways of schools in the Tri-State area.

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To see firsthand the safety measures in place at schools, nine Herald-Mail reporters went into nine schools in the region Thursday - five in Washington County, two in Franklin County, Pa., and one each in Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia.

In all but three cases, reporters spent at least 15 minutes in the schools, wandering freely throughout the buildings. Those schools were North Hagerstown High School, Lincolnshire Elementary School, Boonsboro Middle School, E. Russell Hicks Middle School, Martinsburg (W.Va.) High School and Jefferson High School in Jefferson County, W.Va.

At Conococheague Elementary School a reporter was stopped within seconds. At Chambersburg (Pa.) Area High School, all doors were locked and a reporter was not able to make it past an entryway area.

At Fairview Elementary School in Waynesboro, Pa., a reporter found a side door open, but the front doors were locked.

At the schools

Highlights from some of the reporters' visits included:

A door at Lincolnshire Elementary School had a note taped to it that read, in part, "For school safety this door is locked daily at 8:30 a.m." At 11:30 a.m., the door was ajar an inch or two.

At North Hagerstown High School, a reporter slipped in through a back door and walked across a gymnasium, where a class was in session. She wandered the halls for more than 20 minutes.

At E. Russell Hicks Middle School, a reporter was told that one of the security cameras trained on a school's front doors was broken.

At Jefferson High School, a reporter walked past a deputy and was, at one point, asked by a school official if she had a hall pass. After telling the employee she was not a student, the reporter was able to continue wandering the hallways.

Morgan: Safety and security is paramount

Superintendents reached after the reporters' visits had mixed reactions, ranging from appreciation to indignation.

Elizabeth Morgan, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, said on Thursday after learning of The Herald-Mail reporters' experiences at five county schools: "I understand your point and I understand why you were doing this. I offer no excuses except to say we are doing a lot of things to improve our schools."

She said it was "unacceptable" that unauthorized people were able to freely wander around schools and that the issue will be addressed. She said she would promptly put together a team of people to look at what needs to be done.

A day after learning of The Herald-Mail's investigation, Morgan issued a public letter stating that security will be increased to include key card entry/camera systems at the front doors of all schools. Emergency funding will be used to install such systems, she wrote in the letter, which was addressed to parents, guardians, staff and community members.

Washington County Assistant Superintendent of School Operations Boyd Michael said on Thursday that 20 schools currently have a key card swipe system on some doors, and another two schools soon would have such equipment installed. Emphasis on installing key card systems has been placed on schools that have portable classrooms or are made up of more than one building, he said.

Also, Michael said, at least 16 schools have camera systems monitoring different areas, including doors. The newest such systems have digital cameras and the footage can be pulled up on computer screens. There are more than 100 total cameras throughout schools and the cameras record 24 hours a day, Michael said.

He said that two schools have a camera that is not working, but that replacement parts have been ordered.

North Hagerstown High School and South Hagerstown High School have a school resource officer - a type of guard - in place.

In the last six years $458,972 has been budgeted for security equipment. Those expenditures do not include the salary of a safety and security manager, the salaries of the two school resource officers or items such as fences, Michael said.

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