Parents want more security at Montgomery County elementary school

January 2, 2013

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, parents at one Montgomery County elementary school are asking for more security for their children, and they want it immediately.

At least 21 letters from parents and grandparents of students at Bradley Hills Elementary School were emailed to Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, the Board of Education and the County Council last week asking for “security improvements” at the Bethesda school’s temporary location.

“Our school has no security system in place and our front door remains unlocked throughout the school day with no mechanism for screening visitors,” they wrote.

MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig said the parents’ claims are not entirely true. Starr was not available for comment.

The school is now temporarily housed at the Radnor Center, while its facility is being modernized, which is scheduled to be complete by August.

Tofig said he could not comment on a specific school’s security plan, but said that steps are taken to protect students.

“Staff at the school are trained and drills are conducted,” he wrote in an e-mail. “All doors other than the main entrance are supposed to be kept locked during the school day. There is signage on the front door instructing all visitors to report to the main office.”

One parent, Robert Sitrick, wrote in his letter that it seems “incredible” that there is a school “full of children with no locks on the door or other screening procedures.”

“None of us would ever dream of leaving our kids in an unlocked home, even in the best of neighborhoods,” Sitrick wrote.

On Dec. 14, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown and killed 20 children and six staff members. He had previously shot his mother, and after the carnage, took his own life.

Before the tragedy, the Bradley Hills’ PTA surveyed parents and found they were concerned about safety, said Sitrick, a PTA safety committee member.

Having raised the issue before, Sitrick said the answer from the school system has consistently been that budgets are constrained and security upgrades are planned for the future.

Tofig said all elementary schools and “holding facilities,” like Radnor, are scheduled to receive security upgrades by the end of next school year. By the end of this school year, all but 21 of MCPS’s elementary schools will have new systems, he said.

Software and equipment to sign in and monitor all visitors during the school day will be added to the schools, allowing staff to scan a visitor’s driver’s license or identification card and cross reference the visitors’ names with state and local sex offender registries, according to school system capital documents provided by Tofig.

Surveillance cameras will be added at front entrances and will work with a remote entry system that provides office staff the ability to remotely grant access from the main office. Each elementary school will have the system installed at the main entrance and at a designated secondary entrance, according to the documents.

But as the Radnor Center waits its turn for upgraded security, most parents who wrote asked for an immediate change or something in place by the time students return to classrooms on Jan. 2.

Specifically, parents asked to have the location on Radnor Road included in any plans for a security upgrade, to front funds to install security at the school and to have it in place before students return on Wednesday.

The interim solution sought by parents does not have to be expensive or high tech, Sitrick said.

A simple lock and buzzer on the front door or even someone to watch the door all day would help, he said.

School Board member Patricia B. O’Neill (D-Dist. 3) of Bethesda said the board has requested the county amend its capital improvement plan to add visitor entry buzzers at 18 schools. Whether Radnor was included, she could not say.

Montgomery County School Board President Christopher S. Barclay said he could not address the concerns at Bradley Hills directly, but said the board strives to keep students and staff safe at all buildings.

“The school board always takes the security of our children very seriously,” said Barclay (D-Dist. 4) of Takoma Park.

Adding of the parents at Bradley Hills, “we will definitely look at any concerns they have.”

kalexander@gazette.net

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