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D.C.-area schools tighten up security after Newtown

Monday - 1/28/2013, 11:46am  ET

DONNA ST. GEORGE
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - 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.

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