At Julius West Middle School in Rockville, Md., all doors are locked after the morning bells ring. Those who arrive once the schoolday begins must buzz to get in, and they are video-recorded as they speak into an intercom.
It’s but one of many examples of how schools have boosted security as the school year begins across the region and across the country.
In Prince George’s County, school leaders are spending $9.3 million for an array of improvements including buzzers, panic buttons, cameras, uniforms for security personnel and six-foot fencing around portable classrooms at elementary schools.
In Loudoun County, a strong focus is on awareness and training. School officials said the district will become one of the nation’s first to join the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign in September. “We want everyone involved in what we can do to make our schools more secure,” said Suzanne Devlin, supervisor of safety and security.
The security emphasis comes 20 months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 students and six staff dead following a rampage by a 20-year-old gunman. Sandy Hook touched off a new wave of concern about how schools protect children, and many districts reacted by adding new procedures, equipment or personnel.
This school year extends many of those efforts, some partly funded by state or federal grants. Experts point out that schools are one of the safest places for children and say security upgrades should be driven by factual assessments, not fear.
Many parents and educators say they appreciate the extra controls.
“On a personal level, I like it,” said Theresa Dudley, a sixth-grade teacher at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md. “We can all look at the horrific scenes at Sandy Hook, and I have to say this gives me as a teacher a better sense of security in the building.”
Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, which works with schools on security issues, said schools across the country and around the world, including in Africa and Asia, have been beefing up security in the past couple of years.
“There has definitely been a surge,” Dorn said.
In the Washington region, efforts vary according to what schools already have in place, what local leaders believe is needed and how much money is available.
In Arlington, three new police officers — called “school resource officers” — will be assigned to elementary schools, adding to the 10 officers posted in middle and high schools. Thirty new video cameras have been installed in secondary schools, and for the first time they will be linked to both the 911 call center and the desks of school-based officers.
“It’s a big change,” said Arlington schools spokesman Frank Bellavia. “We’ve had cameras before but not to the extent that these new ones are permitting us to see what’s going on throughout the building.”
In Montgomery, door access control systems are being installed at all middle and high schools and nearly 900 new surveillance cameras are being added, part of a $9 million project covered by a state grant and county matching funds. Officials say more than 70 schools are getting newly configured vestibules that will steer visitors directly to the main office, locking them out of the school until they sign in.
Montgomery will also have an increase in school resource officer positions this year, with an officer now assigned full-time to each of its 25 high schools.
With greater numbers, “they’ll be a more consistent presence,” said Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Darryl McSwain, adding that officers work in an array of roles on campus and often forge relationships with students that help to head off trouble before it happens.
Rex Barrett, director of security services for Prince George’s County schools, said the district did a security assessment after reviewing what other school systems in the Washington region provided. One area where county schools fell short was door access control, he said.
Now, all 205 schools are outfitted with buzzers, panic buttons and cameras.
“With buzzers, you are slowing down someone who doesn’t belong,” he said. “It gives staff an opportunity to see who is there, and the panic buttons are there when you can’t call 911 but need to send a silent alarm.”
Among Prince George’s other efforts are the creation of two data systems — one that checks the identifications of school visitors and another that alerts the county school security of police emergencies.
In Loudoun County, Devlin said, alert radios in school offices have been modified to connect to 911 in crises and upgrades to the bus radio system will improve communication.
Devlin said community awareness and training is a priority. The “human intelligence piece” is less costly than many upgrades and is critical, she said. “We’re not going to tie a rope around the schools, but we want to do everything we can,” she said.
Fred Ellis, director of safety and security in Fairfax County, said the district already had many security measures in place or underway.
This school year nearly all Fairfax County high schools have door access control systems. At Robinson Secondary School, for example, students will return to classes Tuesday with the new feature installed. Other Fairfax projects, such as surveillance cameras, are a continuing effort, with about 1,300 in use.
In Prince William County, school leaders have added about 25 access control systems since Sandy Hook and also have upgraded hand-held radio systems in eight middle schools. In Alexandria, officials said they have increased video surveillance and training, while adding security staff.
D.C. public schools did not report any security changes for this year.
In Montgomery, as the school year started last week with a redesigned entrance and a new door access system at Julius West Middle School, Victoria Van Dyke, the administrative secretary, heard positive reviews. Many families had used access control systems at elementary schools, she said. “The majority of parents like it,” she said.