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Building design, attitude can affect school security

October 10, 2006

By now, most people in the Tri-State area have either read The Herald-Mail's story on school security, or heard about it.

Here's the short version: Nine Herald-Mail reporters attempted to enter schools in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In most cases, they were able to freely wander through the schools for up to 20 minutes without being asked for identification or why they were there.

In some cases, policies that were in place weren't being followed and doors that should have been locked weren't, or had been propped open.

In a follow-up story, some of the superintendents talked about the need to balance the need for security with their desire not to create a prison-like atmosphere.

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That dilemma was addressed six years ago by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), in an article that attempted to answer this question:

"How do we ensure safety without turning schools into virtual prisons in the name of security?"

The AASA's answer? Build security into the design of a building, whether it is new construction or a renovation project.

It makes sense. In many older schools, the main office is not close to the front door. In other schools, the front door is visible from the main office only if there is a security camera in use.

Designing a school so that all visitors would have to go through the main office would make a great deal of sense.

The AASA report also suggested use of magnetic locks on some doors. These would keep doors closed during class time, but allow them to be opened automatically for dismissal.

In our view, students will adapt to most school security measures and accept them as routine, just as air travelers have accepted the delays involved in preventing terrorists from getting onto airplanes.

Yes, as some of the superintendents have said, school security requires balancing the need to keep students safe with the desire to have a warm, inviting learning environment.

But it must be done. It can be done more easily if administrators agree that a working security system is just as necessary to a functioning school as running water and a functioning fire alarm system.

Schools close when there is no water for children to wash hands or flush toilets. Why should those same institutions remain open when a security camera designed to prevent something far worse isn't working?

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