Locks, Buzzers Await Loudoun School Visitors

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Like some others in the Washington area, Loudoun County schools soon will greet all visitors with something new: a locked front door, a video camera and a button-activated intercom to request entrance. Inside, office staff will screen the visitors and decide whom to buzz in.

The video intercom, common in apartment buildings around the world, is turning up increasingly in public schools. After the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and subsequent school tragedies, limiting access is a top concern for every school administrator.

Loudoun's $550,000 video intercom solution, to be installed beginning this summer, was proposed after the Amish schoolhouse shootings in Nickel Mines, Pa., in October, in which a gunman killed five students and himself. The proposal, included in the school budget, won overwhelming approval days after the Virginia Tech shooting rampage last month that left 33 dead, including the gunman.

"I realize that schools cannot provide fortification against the crazy events that occur in society," Loudoun School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said. But he said school officials can at least take steps to secure buildings.

"By using the intercom video system, we can control who actually comes in the front door," he said.

The technology has been adopted in elementary schools in Alexandria, Arlington County and the District. Two Montgomery County elementary schools are testing it, and after a three-year trial, Fairfax County schools are planning to install the cameras and intercoms at the front door of each elementary and middle school by the end of 2008 at a cost of $4 million.

Many school systems install intercoms only in elementary or middle schools, because high schools are bigger and more porous and tend to have more paid security staff on campus.

Almost every school in the country has a policy that requires guests to register at the front office, but officials say it's easy to slip past. Modern school designs often are more security-conscious, allowing a direct line of sight from the front office to the parking lot. But older schools have fewer windows, and officials must look for more creative ways to control who comes and goes.

Prince William County schools are testing another technology: a visitor monitoring system that would allow school staff to check the background of visitors by running their driver's licenses through government databases of sex offenders.

After the Washington area sniper shootings in 2002, Loudoun public schools briefly employed greeters to monitor every front door and sign in every visitor. But that system was expensive, costing about $1 million a year, and so was quickly disbanded. Many schools try to staff entrances with off-duty teachers or parent volunteers. But Loudoun officials believe intercoms will be a more cost-effective, long-term solution for all elementary and secondary schools.

The District has used intercoms and cameras for about five years in its public elementary schools, an official said, a step taken after someone ran inside a Northeast Washington elementary school during a drive-by shooting.

"They work great," said Franklin Chrisman, a D.C. school security officer who oversees buildings and safety equipment. He said the intercoms and cameras free up security officers to monitor other parts of school buildings and ensure that side and rear doors are closed and locked.

Montgomery school officials are still evaluating the technology. They have tried it in two elementary schools with mixed results, said Robert Hellmuth, director of the county's Department of School Safety and Security.

"We don't know where we are going with it. Schools traditionally have been open, nourishing, welcoming buildings in our communities," Hellmuth said. "We've gone to some PTA meetings where some people say we need to tighten things down and some where they say we are overreacting."

Kenneth Trump, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant who has clients across the country, said many schools hesitate "because they don't want to alienate parents, but once it's employed, most parents are very appreciative." He said the top concern he hears from parents is that "anybody can walk in or around their kids' schools."

Mary Ann Cannon, an Ashburn mother with three children in Loudoun schools, echoed that concern. "It's very easy; you can walk right in," she said. She said security seems to have loosened since the post-sniper crackdown. She welcomed the intercoms. "I think the safer we can keep our kids the better," she said.

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour, Maria Glod, Nelson Hernandez and Theola Labbé contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company