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The best result of our security checks would be safer schools

October 15, 2006|by TERRY HEADLEE

A week ago, we published a special report on school safety that hit a nerve with a lot of our readers - both pro and con.

Understandably, we received some criticism during the past week from a few parents and teachers who questioned our motives and tactics, and accused us of sensationalizing a story to sell newspapers.

Critics also said our detailed report that listed many of the security flaws, such as unlocked doors and a broken camera, provided a blueprint for any nutball to wreak havoc in a particular school.

The vast majority of the feedback, however, was positive.

While I won't deny that we do want to sell newspapers, it's also true that we take our role as the community "watchdog" seriously. We want to make sure that elected officials and school administrators are doing the job that they tell you they are doing.

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As we reported last week, that isn't what we found in many of the schools we visited.

In fact, unknown to us at the time, school officials in Washington County days earlier had sent out a memo to all of the schools reminding them to beef up security measures, to include locking doors.

It appears the memo largely was ignored - at least at most of the schools we randomly visited.

In case you missed it, we sent nine reporters to nine different schools in the Tri-State area on Thursday, Oct. 5, to test the schools' security systems.

As we reported, most of the schools failed miserably.

This wasn't rocket science. The reporters were told to check whether or not the side and back doors were unlocked, and whether anyone would stop them if they simply walked through the front door. We consulted with our attorney beforehand about issues that included trespassing.

Reporters carried all sorts of identification with them, were told not to misidentify themselves and not to enter any classrooms. If anyone approached them, they were to ask to see the principal. After 20 minutes, they were instructed to walk to the principal's office and explain what they found.

You should know that in most cases, our reporters spoke to the principal or other school officials that same day, and told them exactly how their security was breached in order to give them ample time to fix it prior to the publication of our story last Sunday.

I can confidently report to you that our staff members acted with a high degree of professionalism and ethics.

We did not do what a Louisville television station employee did. In that case, he slipped through a locked door that had been bumped open by a student after he knocked on it.

The television employee was approached by a school official, directed to the office to sign in, but then wandered off in a different direction after saying he wanted to see a counselor, according to published reports. This person, after being stopped a second time by school officials, was cited for being in an unauthorized part of the school.

Our intention was not to create news, but instead to accurately report what our investigation showed as a public service to parents with children.

Some school administrators, such as Berkeley County (W.Va.) Superintendent Manny Arvon, quickly got it.

"You take situations and you learn from them," Arvon said after being told a reporter entered through an unlocked side door and wandered for 16 minutes throughout Martinsburg High School without being stopped or questioned. "I take this information and welcome it."

In Washington County, school officials announced plans to install key-card entry and camera systems last Friday - a day after they were aware of our security test.

So the good news is that while this test might prove to be embarrassing to school officials in the short term, it should reap benefits in the long term.

And one benefit could be safer schools that do, among other things, lock their doors.

Who can argue with that?




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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