School Safety, More Words Than Substance

| December 15, 2012
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editorialThe tragedy unfolding in Connecticut has rocked this country to the core. Like 911, this horrific tragedy is, in the truest sense of the word, “unbelievable.”   All of the usual questions came to mind. How could this happen? Why would anyone do such a thing? Is this a dream?

After it began to sink in a little, the typical political grandstanding began in earnest. We need more guns. We need less guns. We need more mental health care.  And of course, where it strikes closest to our hearts, the Anne Arundel County Schools chimed in with their own assurances that an event such as happened in Newtown would likely not be able to happen here.

Part of their statement reads:

To be clear, there is no plan that guarantees 100 percent safety to all students and staff in our schools in every situation. We continue, however, to put in place proactive measures that are prudent and reasonable to protect students and employees. We have invested heavily in technology such as video intercom systems at main entrances to schools, and in electronic visitor tracking systems, which allow us to detect registered sex offenders who may try to gain access.

Front office staff must buzz in visitors to our school buildings. At our newest schools, there is a double-door system that prevents direct access  from the front door to hallways where classrooms are located.

But I  might suggest that this is more words than substance. Similar to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), it seems that the illusion of safety and security trumps the reality. The words seem to be nothing more than well rehearsed security theater coming from the Riva Road headquarters.

Come On In

To illustrate my point, on Friday, December 7th at 7am, I swung by the elementary school my 10th grade daughter attended to drop off a video camera to a teacher who had asked to borrow it. As a parent, I had not been in that school for nearly 5 years. There were no buzzers on the front door. They were there, but the door was unlocked and no one was manning the front office. The cafeteria/assembly room was filled with early start students enjoying their breakfast and some play time before school.   I peeked in to see if a front office staff member was there, but only saw some parent volunteers. I walked into the office and no one was there. I walked down the office hallway past the principal’s office. Past the vice-principal’s office. Past the guidance counselor’s office.  All vacant. And then I found the staff mailbox and left the camera and left the building.

I had no nefarious intentions here–just helping out a teacher who made an impact on my daughter’s life with a project she was working on with her newest students. But at 7am on Friday, December 7th, I had almost full and unfettered access to the school. I could have walked down the main hallway into the classrooms. I could have hidden in a closet. I could have kicked back in the principal’s office and put my feet up on her desk–all unchallenged.  How hard would it be for someone with bad intent to gain access?  Is it unreasonable to think it could happen here when our community is much larger and diverse than the little village in Connecticut?

As I was talking to my daughter last night about this massacre in Connecticut, I told her about my access to her school. She was surprised because (in her words) “we have some of the strictest schools in the county.”  The conversation continued and I recalled that at various times, I had gained access to all three of her schools (elementary, middle and high) for legitimate purposes at least once without being challenged. No buzzer (maybe on video..who knows), no ID check…just walk in and conduct my business.

Caught!

Security theater is typically implemented only after a crisis or an embarrassing discovery. In October 2006, The Capital wanted to test the security of the schools; and without notifying the schools, sent reporters to check. The Anne Arundel County Public Schools failed that test!  Not with the “Es” they like use to make students feel better about themselves, but with a giant red F. Their reporters were able to walk in front doors, back doors, and propped open doors. They were able to walk the hallways challenged and unchallenged. They hung out in the library. The cruised the administration offices.

School Security Theater

The school district was livid that they, like America on 911, were caught with their pants down. Initially, the schools were pissed, but in the end, they decided that security theater was the answer. They recruited parents to act as sign-in monitors. They connected to a database of sexual predators. They upped the police presence in the schools. They installed door bells on the front doors for when they were locked. On the surface, like the TSA, the measures look good. They may even stop a few incidents from occurring. But are they effective?  If the below organizational chart is any indication, safety does not seem to be the top priority–there are a few layers of bureaucracy to sift through before the Director of Safe and Orderly Schools get’s the attention of the Superintendent or the Board of Education. Shouldn’t this be a little higher on the food chain?

FlowChart

The news is still fresh from Connecticut, but I have not heard Adam Lanza was a sexual predator. Adam Lanza likely was known to some of the staff and may have been let in. But people did not know what Adam Lanza was capable of doing. Would Adam Lanza have been able to walk into most of our schools? Absolutely–and when challenged, he could have just started to shoot.

I am not suggesting that the security measures the schools have implemented are ineffective. They are a very good and solid step forward.  The answer to these troubling shootings lies way beyond the schools–it is a global issue. But if the Anne Arundel County Public Schools feels that a statement lauding all of their security measures, which may or may not be implemented reliably, will put parents at ease; they are grossly mistaken. This parent knows otherwise.  And in the end, we are all responsible for our own safety. A doorbell, a computer database, a visitor badge–none of them are going to prevent a tragedy like we saw in Connecticut yesterday.

A Challenge

And if the Director of Safe and Orderly Schools, Dr. Leon Washington, does not believe me, I challenge him to a field trip. We will go to several schools together, unannounced, and see exactly how secure the schools really are.  My email is open Dr. Washington–are you up for the challenge?

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Category: COLUMNS, Editorial, OPINION

About the Author ()

John is the publisher and editor of Eye On Annapolis. As a resident and business owner in Anne Arundel County for more than 15 years, he realized that there was something missing in terms of community news--and Eye On Annapolis was born in late spring 2009. John's background is in the travel industry as a business owner, industry speaker, and travel writer. In terms of blogging and social media, he cut his teeth with MSNBC.com.

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