In the anxious weeks after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the idea of bringing more police into the nation’s schools has picked up support. But for many parents and educators, there is a more immediate priority: protecting schoolhouse doors.
Some schools in the Washington area lack buzzer entrance systems. Some leave a main door open, with a sign asking visitors to report to the office. Some, according to parents, do not closely screen all visitors or use different rules for after-school activities and child-care programs.
What happened at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14 — when gunman Adam Lanza overcame a security system, shooting out glass near the school entrance, police said, before killing 20 children and six staff members — sent the nation reeling and brought new attention to school entry points.
Across the Washington region, officials in many school systems — including those of the District and Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — say they have strong practices already in place and are taking a close look for areas of improvement.
But the aftermath of the Connecticut tragedy has spotlighted inconsistencies at schools, funding concerns and a heightened interest in basic security measures, even if they would not prevent an attack like the one at Sandy Hook.
In Virginia, 2012 data show that controlled access systems are in place at 59 percent of elementary schools, 51 percent of middle schools and 37 percent of high schools.
Seventy-three percent of schools said they lock up during school hours, and 46 percent said they had someone posted at the front entrance to ensure that visitors check in. Just more than half of schools said all classroom doors could be locked from inside and outside. Maryland and D.C. officials said they could not provide similar figures last week.
“We just have to do everything possible . . . and just say a prayer,” said Montgomery County Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) moments before a January vote to speed up a $364,000 project to install buzz-in systems, with exterior cameras and intercoms, at a final group of elementary schools.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has proposed spending $25 million in construction money in the coming year to tighten physical security at public schools, with cameras at entrances, automatically locking doors, shatterproof glass and buzzer entrance systems.
“A lot of what we’re doing is strengthening what’s already in place,” said State Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery, who noted that Maryland is reviewing every district’s emergency plans while seeking best practices and looking to “put in as many safeguards as possible.”
In Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) created a school safety task force that is expected to issue a set of recommendations Thursday.
At a Jan. 16 public meeting about security in Rockville, the father of a kindergartner focused on beefing up security at elementary schools. The mother of a high-schooler asked about doors near portable classroom trailers.
Then there was parent Mike Richman’s pointed question: Shouldn’t all middle school doors be locked?
“Are they?” Richman asked.
Officials in local systems say schools lock exterior doors, but not all entrances are locked in all school systems. In some districts, schools with younger students often have tighter building controls, and schools with older students have more security staff or police on the premises.
“Security is always a balance,” said Robert Hellmuth, safety and security director for Montgomery schools. The goal, he said, is to control who gets inside schools while not turning them into fortresses.
Experts say schools are among the safest places for the young. Researcher Dewey Cornell, who studies school safety at the University of Virginia, says 99 percent of homicides of children ages 5 to 18 occur outside of school.
Nationally, schools became more vigilant about locking doors, and some installed buzzer systems, after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, said Kenneth Trump, a school security consultant.
“The momentum faded four to six years after Columbine,” Trump said. “The mind-set became more and more lax.”
Trump said secure entrances are critical in schools — and need to be paired with well-trained school staff so that visitors are noticed and screened.
At Sandy Hook, the security system might have prevented more deaths, Trump said, because it slowed the gunman’s entrance.
“Those were seconds that gave people on the inside time to lock down,” he said. “Seconds count.”
Police officers, although the focus of many proposals nationally, are primarily used locally in secondary schools, with the greatest number in the District, which has 100 “school resource officers” and 300 security guards in its 118 buildings.
Elsewhere, there are 53 armed school resource officers in Fairfax, 27 in Loudoun County, 22 in Prince George’s, 19 in Prince William County, and six each in Montgomery and Alexandria. Many systems rely on unarmed security staff in large numbers.
Elected leaders are now rethinking how much security is enough.
An effort to boost the law enforcement presence in Montgomery schools has gained momentum since Sandy Hook. “I think people are thinking about it now and connecting the dots,” County Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said.
The tragedy also has spurred new action in Prince George’s, where a push is underway for increasing the number of buzzer systems and closer monitoring of school visitors. Other recommendations expected to come before the school board include hiring 10 more resource officers and buying panic buttons to allow a surreptitious call for help in an emergency.
“Certainly, this has heightened everyone’s awareness,” said Michael Blow, director of security services in Prince George’s schools.
Prince George’s County Council member Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) raised concerns at a meeting last week about visitors appearing to enter schools unnoticed. “When I’m home, my door is locked,” she said later. “It’s a question that needs to be discussed and dialogued.”
In Fairfax, every elementary and middle school is equipped with buzz-in systems except three that will have the work completed in coming weeks. “We’ve asked our vendors to step up, and they’ve been great,” said Fred Ellis, director of safety and security.
Still, Ellis says access control systems are not “a panacea” and all security measures rely on good judgments inside a school, such as questioning someone who buzzes at the door or stopping a visitor without a pass.
Ellis and others also pointed out that security measures often reflect what people are “willing to give up in terms of convenience, access, the whole environment of the school, and what are they willing to pay to fund it.”
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said any security changes in Fairfax should be thoughtful and made with a focus on preserving a welcoming learning environment. “I would rather have all of our doors locked and secured than have armed officers in our schools,” she said. “To me, that’s a healthy trade-off.”
The project to install buzzer entrance systems in Montgomery’s 139 elementary schools was in the works before Sandy Hook. But a final group of 26 schools was not due for the improvements until next school year.
Parents wrote letters.
“I’ve never seen anything go through local government so quickly,” said Arielle Grill, a Bethesda parent who urged the project be accelerated. Grill said she does not want schools to become fortresses but thinks that “locking the front door of an elementary school is just so fundamental to keeping kids safe.”
The project is to be completed by June.
Some also wonder about the pressure that buzz-in systems place on front office staff to make what may be tough se curity calls. “There are so many angles that need to be studied,” said Montgomery School Board Member Michael A. Durso (District 5). A national nonprofit safety group, Safe Havens International, which has developed safety plans for thousands of schools, said that in recent years, it has defeated security systems in more than 90 percent of the 200 schools it has been asked to test with in-person visits.
In but one example, Michael Dorn, the group’s executive director, said he has made his way into schools a number of times after introducing himself as Ted Bundy — the name of an infamous serial killer — and explaining the purpose of his visit as “an ax to grind with the principal.”
Dorn says the problem is often lack of training or the culture of a school.
“Sometimes the culture is, ‘We don’t want to offend anybody,’ ” he said. “They have not been taught to politely screen people in an effective manner. They just hit the buzzer.”
The message of Sandy Hook, Dorn said, is not to rush to spend lavishly on security extras but to take a look at potential gaps.
“It should not be a knee-jerk, big purchase but a thoughtful assessment of what school systems need and can afford,” he said.
For Sharon Burns, a first-grade teacher in Reston, Sandy Hook brought classroom doors into more urgent focus. Her elementary school, built in the “open classroom” era, was designed without individual room doors.
Burns had long wanted doors, she said, and the week after the Connecticut tragedy she collected 300 signatures on a petition. “I started thinking, what would I do with my 20 kids? Having that door could make all the difference,” she said.
Just after winter break, she learned the project had been approved. Officials say the last seven schools with an open design are getting doors, a $467,000 project. “I was so excited,” she said.
In D.C. schools, security is heavy, with guards at entrances, a buzzer system at most schools, and scanners for visitors at entrances to most middle and high schools. School leaders are working with the D.C. police to determine what else might be needed, officials said.
In Loudoun, all schools have buzzer entrance systems. Officials said the school system is reviewing all security practices, with plans to increase safeguards.
In Prince William, some schools have buzz-in systems, and processes are in place to monitor access, officials said. “We are, like everyone else, taking a hard look at our security arrangements, ” spokesman Phil Kavits said, “and seeing where they can be enhanced.”