By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
In an effort to make the District's most crime-prone schools safer, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced yesterday a new security system for school doors and assured the public that the buildings would no longer have padlocks, chains or other measures considered a fire hazard.
To deal with both emergency access and security issues, the Fenty administration has decided to install surveillance cameras and magnetic locks on the doors of some D.C. schools.
For the better part of the past decade, Ballou and Anacostia senior high schools in Southeast Washington have had chains and padlocks on their exterior doors -- an extreme measure taken by staff to combat truancy and crime problems in the schools, officials said.
But last month, the city's fire marshal declared the locks a hazard and ordered them removed.
"It was an egregious violation," Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said at a news conference yesterday with the mayor and other officials at Ballou, where the new doors will be installed first. "We cannot tolerate that." He recalled a 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, where 92 students and three nuns who were trapped inside died.
Under the new system, the doors will remain locked from the outside; when someone tries to open a door from the inside, an alarm will go off for 15 seconds before it opens. The principal's office will be immediately notified, and a camera will record any activity at the door.
The doors will open automatically if the fire alarm goes off, and authorities will have the ability to open them at will.
"This plan makes sure our schools are secure so no one is coming into them who shouldn't," Fenty (D) said. "And we are complying with the fire code."
D.C. police are also increasing the number of officers working at the schools in the weeks before the magnetic doors are installed, said Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes. She said she will assign two more police officers to Ballou, for a total of seven. Two firefighters also will be assigned to the schools until the doors are installed, Rubin said.
Fenty said he could not explain why several D.C. schools had such obvious fire hazards. "It's like so many other things in this school system that were not taken care of," he said.
The new system will cost from $750,000 to $1 million at Ballou and $4 million for the other eight schools selected by the city: Anacostia, Cardozo, Coolidge, Dunbar, Roosevelt, Spingarn and Wilson senior high schools and Johnson Junior High.
The system will cost more at Ballou because the school has more exterior doors than the others do, Fenty said. Ballou's system should be in place within eight weeks, and the other schools' systems should be set up within three months, officials said.
Groomes said the city selected schools that had the most discipline problems and crime, including assaults, weapons possession and burglary, to receive the security systems.
In the most notorious episode of school violence in the District in the past few years, James Richardson, 17, a star football player, was fatally shot inside Ballou in February 2004. The shooting was an outgrowth of a violent rivalry between two sections of Southeast Washington and led to demands for tighter security throughout the city's public schools.
If the magnetic door system works in the first handful of schools, authorities said, they will consider implementing it citywide.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said he applauds the idea of more secure doors because it addresses a serious problem in the system.
"I talked to a number of students and parents who are fearful inside and outside the school," Barry said. "Students should be safe and learn in peace."