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Schools throughout the country have been on edge since Friday’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., with districts re-evaluating security procedures to try to make schools safer.
But despite the heightened awareness, at some area schools visitors still enter the buildings with relative ease.
Blade reporters attempted on Tuesday to find out firsthand if schools in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan allowed strangers to enter elementary schools.
Reporters in each instance entered through main doors, identified themselves when asked, and stated why they were at the school. Some doors were locked, some weren’t. And in some cases, even the tightest security procedures had flaws.
No ‘pat answer’
The front doors at Blissfield Elementary School in Blissfield, Mich., were unlocked. Signs posted on the doors instructed visitors to sign in at the school office and advised visitors of a video surveillance camera on site. A reporter was able to walk through the door and enter the school.
Blissfield Superintendent Scott Moellenberndt said the elementary’s front doors are left unlocked, but someone in the office monitors surveillance video.
He said there’s no “pat answer” to protect schools, and students regularly practice safety drills. The district hasn’t changed any measures since the Connecticut shooting.
“We don’t know that locking down every access point would actually prohibit anyone … from getting [in],” he said.
The front entrance of Morenci Elementary School also was unlocked, but a reporter was stopped within several steps of entering the building by a woman stationed near the entrance and was shown to the nearby office.
In the small Hancock County town of McComb, Ohio, doors were locked at the elementary school, but school personnel buzzed in the reporter without asking who she was or why she was there.
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“Fortunately we know most of the people coming through, but still they should’ve asked,” McComb Elementary Principal Teresa Kozarec said.
The scenario was repeated at Elmwood Elementary School, which is part of a K-12 campus surrounded by farm fields in southern Wood County.
“That’s something that really bothers me,” Principal Michelle Tuite said after a substitute secretary buzzed in a reporter Tuesday without a word. “They’re supposed to ask, ‘How can I help you?’ ”
Mrs. Tuite knows well that officials at small, rural schools tend to let their guard down about security. A graduate of Woodward High School, she was previously a teacher and principal in Toledo Public Schools.
“In Toledo, they knew there were dangers,” she said. “Out here, there’s a false sense of security.”
Most school-security procedures are in place as much to handle the day-to-day dangers schools face, said Cynthia Beekley, a professor in UT’s department of educational foundations and leadership and a former Springfield Local Schools superintendent.
Mass school shootings, though horrific, are still rare; more frequent incidents involve disgruntled parents who go to a school building to accost school staff, a parent who may have a court order restricting access to his or her child, or someone just angry at the school, Ms. Beekley said.
There’s no way to be totally secure. The Sandy Hook shooter apparently entered the building by shooting out windows when he found the front doors of the school locked.
“There is no way to be totally protected,” Ms. Beekley said. “We can barricade ourselves in, but there are still no 100 percent, fool-proof methods to prevent these sorts of things from happening.”
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At the Montessori School of Bowling Green, for instance, the door was locked, but a parent leaving the school politely held the front door open for a reporter. And students at Sylvania’s Southview High School and Northview High School have let a reporter into doors that are normally locked. On both occasions, the students did not ask any questions.
Older buildings are more challenging to secure than are ones built with security in mind.
At Van Buren Elementary north of Findlay, the nine-year-old building has a secure entrance, where visitors push a button to be admitted directly to the office. But at the E.A. Powell Elementary in North Baltimore, built in 1956, the front doors were unlocked on Tuesday. Superintendent Marlene North said the district is waiting to get a part for the security system that was installed over the summer. The building, she said, should be “fully locked down” when children return from Christmas break.
School security also depends on the time of day.
In Bowling Green, the front door of Ridge Elementary was unlocked about 9 a.m. as students straggled in. Principal Joe Morgan said the doors aren’t locked until 9:15 a.m. or so. At McComb, the 14 entrances to the three-story, 1923 building that houses the elementary, middle, and high schools are locked except when students are coming and going.
At Maplewood Elementary School in Sylvania, the main school door is left unlocked throughout the day. Parents walked through the front door without any problems, although a second, inside door in the entryway must be unlocked by school staff before that part of the school can be entered. Visitors can go into the first door of the building without stating who they are or why they are there.
Office staff appeared diligent about asking people to sign in and state where they are going in the building. Sylvania schools spokesman Nancy Crandell said the district is reviewing its procedures but hasn’t made any changes to its building-entrance process.
At Oregon’s Coy Elementary, visitors were buzzed in normally Tuesday at the front entrance, which is easily visible from the head office. Principal Amy Molnar said the district has regular lockdown drills with police participation, and teachers keep their classrooms locked.
A visitor to Rossford’s Eagle Point Elementary can be seen on one of the school’s security cameras while that person is in the parking lot and must be buzzed in. Principal Jeff Taylor has nine camera views on the screen atop his desk.
Some schools have added extra steps to enter school buildings since the Connecticut shootings.
At Monroe Road Elementary in Lambertville, the front doors were locked. A greeter opened a door upon a reporter’s arrival to find out who the visitor was and kept the reporter inside a lobby area until Principal Thea Kirkwood escorted the reporter through a second set of lobby doors to her office.
Prior to the Connecticut shooting, the school’s main entrance was unlocked. Locking the front door and putting a greeter out front creates another security layer, the principal said. She described the steps as a “temporary sort of measure while we look for permanent solutions.”
The killings in Newtown were a wake-up call for officials in Springfield Local Schools, Superintendent Kathryn Hott said. School officials this week decided to purchase a “buzzer system,” which will include the installation of outdoor surveillance cameras and indoor TV monitors at all school buildings, Ms. Hott said. The equipment is expected to be installed in two weeks.
Previously, visitors could enter any of the district’s buildings through unlocked front doors, and signs directed them to report first to the main office, Ms. Hott said. The district this week began locking front doors and installing temporary doorbells at all school buildings.
And among other new rules, parents will not be able to walk to a child’s classroom to pick the child up, Ms. Hott said. Instead, a school employee will bring the student to the parent.
Friday’s shootings have left some schools on a heightened state of alert. A Blade reporter and photographer were briefly questioned on Tuesday by Maumee police after they visited a Maumee City Schools building unannounced.
The reporter and photographer in Maumee visited Wayne Trail Elementary, 1147 Seventh St., and were buzzed in by school staff. While they were interviewing the school’s principal, a district employee called police, apparently saying that the pair had tried to breach the school’s security.
“The intent was not to give anybody a hard time, but at this time we are just trying to make sure our schools are safe for kids,” Maumee superintendent Greg Smith said. “We are just trying to err on the side of caution.”
The apparent ease of entering some schools has caused angst among parents in the wake of the Newtown shootings. Parents with children enrolled in Perrysburg’s elementary schools expressed concern over building accessibility at a Monday board of education meeting.
Chad Adams, whose daughter is a kindergartner at Woodland Elementary School, said he had been able to walk into his daughter’s school on a scheduled Career Day without any vetting and that he had “free rein” of the school once inside.
Elizabeth Lloyd, whose son is a kindergartner at Fort Meigs Elementary, teared up when addressing board members.
“I was scared to send my son to school today,” she said.
Ms. Lloyd said she often volunteers at the school and that she thought the security procedures were inadequate. She said she was “buzzed in” at the locked entry door with no intercom communication and was asked to sign in without any question as to why she was in the building.
Thomas Hosler, superintendent of Perrysburg School District, said he, principals, and other school administrators had met with each other and with the city’s police chief over the weekend to discuss building access.
Perrysburg Schools instituted districtwide security measures about six years ago, said Scott Best, principal at Fort Meigs Elementary. Those measures include keeping all doors locked during school hours and installing outdoor security cameras that provide office staff a clear view of anybody before they are allowed to come into the building.
Blade staff members were required to ring a front door buzzer and show photo identification before they were allowed in the elementary school on Tuesday afternoon. Some visitors, including parent volunteers, are usually allowed inside with little fuss because office staff recognize the person and his or her reason for being at the school, Mr. Best said.
“You have to balance safety and reality,” Mr. Best said. “You don’t want to make students and parents feel like they’re in a prison.”
Staff writers Jennifer Feehan, Federico Martinez, Kelly McLendon, Vanessa McCray, Rebecca Conklin Kleiboemer, and Carl Ryan contributed to this report.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6086.